By Richie Unterberger
By the early 1970s, John Stewart had become one of the very few musicians to make an effective transition from a highly commercial early-'60s folk revival group to a respected, album-oriented singer-songwriter. Stewart had first risen to fame in the Kingston Trio, replacing founding member Dave Guard in 1961 and remaining with the group until they disbanded in 1967. Though their record sales remained at superstar levels through 1963, the British Invasion helped bring the folk revival to a close, and the folk-rock movement further buried the Kingston Trio saleswise. To his credit, Stewart emerged from the trio's ashes as a reborn serious solo singer-songwriter. Three Capitol albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- Signals Through the Glass (co-billed to Stewart's wife, singer Buffy Ford), California Bloodlines, and Willard -- established him as a critical favorite, if not quite a solo star.
Stewart had been a Capitol recording artist since joining the Kingston Trio in the early '60s, but after about a decade on the label, he moved over to Warner Brothers at the suggestion of management. It was a time when Warners and its sister label Reprise were snapping up almost every top singer-songwriter they could, newcomer and veteran alike, with James Taylor, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Eric Andersen, Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie, John Sebastian, Randy Newman, and Tom Paxton all appearing on their rosters by the early '70s. Stewart's Warners stint would be brief, lasting only two albums. But it would further cement his stature as a writer and singer with a knack for combining folk, rock, and country with evocative imagery of the American landscape.
The first of these albums, The Lonesome Picker Rides Again, would be produced by John's younger brother, Michael Stewart. The ties between the Stewarts ran even deeper than bloodlines. In the mid-1960s, Michael had been part of the We Five, who had one of the first huge folk-rock hits in 1965 with their cover of Ian & Sylvia's "You Were on My Mind." The We Five were produced by Kingston Trio manager Frank Werber, and though Michael was long gone from the We Five by the early 1970s, he was well on his way to establishing himself as a successful record producer; a few years later, he would produce Billy Joel's first best-selling album, Piano Man.
The Stewarts assembled a stellar backing cast for the sessions, the crew including some of the finer musicians with a grounding in the sort of folk-rock-country blend the material needed. Among them was multi-instrumentalist Chris Darrow (on violin and dobro here), who had been in the most eclectic 1960s folk-rock band, Kaleidoscope, and had played on sessions for James Taylor and Leonard Cohen, as well as in Linda Ronstadt's backing band. Buddy Emmons was one of the greatest virtuosos of the steel guitar in country music, and was not a stranger to folk-rock recordings, having guested in the late 1960s on Judy Collins's Who Knows Where the Time Goes and the Dillards' Wheatstraw Suite. Russ Kunkel was on his way to becoming the singer-songwriter's session drummer of choice, playing in the 1970s on records by Carole King, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, and Carly Simon. Among the backing vocalists were John's wife Buffy; Rick Cunha, who had been in the sorely overlooked pioneering 1960s country-folk-rock band Hearts & Flowers; and Peter Asher, half of British Invasion duo Peter & Gordon in the 1960s, and in the 1970s manager-producer for both Taylor and Ronstadt. In Stewart's words, "These were all musicians that I had currently worked with whom I have great regard for."
The album they recorded would, like much of Stewart's work, bear many of the features associated with the style that's become known as Americana. It's heard in the lyrical references to highways, the road, and rural and small town life. It's also heard in the music, which adds touches of blues and gospel to the folk, rock, and country that listeners expected from the singer-songwriter. Particularly affecting, and among the moodier and more narrative tracks, was "Bolinas," inspired by the small town of the same name not far north of San Francisco. "Buffy and I would spend many afternoons in Bolinas, it is so peaceful," Stewart reflects. "After Lonesome Picker they tore the highway signs down so people couldn't find the little town."
Other standouts included "Wild Horse Road" and "All the Brave Horses," the two-song suite that brought the album to a close, and the enigmatic "Wolves in the Kitchen." The latter track was recorded live at Chuck's Cellar in Los Altos, California, its wordplay mixing flashes of threatening wolves in the kitchen with a pretty hitchhiking girl and warlords selling blue sky on television ("unfortunately the warnings remain the same" is Stewart's only comment). John's favorite is "Freeway Pleasure," which seems to reflect the conflicts and choices the traveling musician needs to navigate when balancing a romance with a woman with the romance of life on the road. "'Freeway Pleasure' has with[stood] the test of time," he says. "It is still requested today and remains one of my favorite songs to perform."
The most famous song on the album, however, had already been a #1 hit single, albeit for someone else. With Davy Jones on lead vocals, Stewart's "Daydream Believer" had topped the charts for the Monkees for four straight weeks in December 1967. John's own version was, unsurprisingly, far folkier and more lighthearted. Even though it had been a few years since the Monkees' hit version, many listeners familiar with Stewart’s other work remained unaware he was the author. "I was opening for him in 1972, and he sang 'Daydream Believer,'" remembers a bemused Mary McCaslin, herself a renowned folk singer. "Because I rearranged rock songs [into folk arrangements], I thought that was pretty cool. He gets offstage, and I said, 'Oh, what a nice thing for you to do, "Daydream Believer." I’ve always liked that song. What a good idea.' And he said, 'Well, I’m glad you like it, Mary, I wrote it.' At the time, I did not know that. It’s a good thing I didn’t say, 'Why are you singing that?'"
Lonesome Picker, unfortunately, would not do nearly as well on the charts as the Monkees' "Daydream Believer" single, peaking at a mere #195. Stewart, however, would get a chance to ride again just one more time on Warner Brothers, with his second album for the label, Sunstorm, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger
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