Talk about mixed blessings. John Stewart may appreciate the rewards of eBay’s current ad campaign, which is embedding “Daydream Believer,” his 1968 #1 hit for The Monkees, in a new generation’s consciousness, but it’s a misleading calling card for the singer-songwriter described as “a master wordsmith who captures the soul of America in his songs” by Billboard.
Almost as atypical as “Daydream Believer” was the gloss of Stewart’s 1979 Top 5 single, “Gold,” and its Top 10 parent album, “Bombs Away Dream Babies,” both co-produced by Fleetwood Mac leader and longtime Stewart fan Lindsey Buckingham. Since leaving the Kingston Trio and writing that Monkees evergreen, preceding the careers of John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, and the rise of the Americana movement, John Stewart has written and recorded more than 50 albums of mostly stripped down songs of everyday saints and sinners, their moments of elation and desperation, and of our country’s natural beauties and toxic political undercurrents. He’s recorded with Johnny Cash, had his own songs recorded by Johnny’s daughter Rosanne and numerous others, but he’s still misidentified as “the guy on â€˜The Daily Show’” by far too many.
“The Day the River Sang,” the latest collection of new Stewart originals, again affirms John’s credentials as one of our most overlooked painters of indelible musical pictures. Using the warm, minimal brushstrokes of his own acoustic and electric guitars, his longtime Dave Batti/John Hoke rhythm section, and occasional wisps of keyboards, harmonica and backing voices, Stewart applies a similarly effective less-is-more approach to his lyrics and vocals. Now in his mid-sixties, Stewart invests the opening love song, “Baby, It’s You,” with a sense of relief and gratitude a younger man might lack. But the youthful gleam in his eye is unmistakable on the frisky “Amanda Won’t Dance,” the album’s other lightly rocking ballad. The pull between heart and highway is frequently felt, particularly in the lovely “Jasmine,” on which John’s weathered tenor unexpectedly swoops into a sweet falsetto, the tongue-in-cheek “East of Denver” and the deeply road-weary “Broken Roses.” And one would be hard-pressed to find a more poignant elegy for the pre-Hurricane Katrina Crescent City than “New Orleans,” with its heartbroken piano accompaniment a la Tom Waits and Randy Newman, whispered vocals, and lyrics that were largely written by John’s longtime wife, soulmate and sometime singing partner, Buffy Ford Stewart.
With their musical foundations in folk, country, rock and bluegrass, John’s songs have always encompassed subjects stretching from the sky above to the mud below. “The Day the River Sang” includes a terse character study of the “junkies and jockeys at post-time and coast time” at “Golden Gate Fields,” harking back to John’s boyhood spent working in California racetracks alongside his father, and the lightly jazzy “Slider,” which watches a good girl go wrong. On the metaphysical end of the spectrum, the title track is a vision of paradise and peace, while “Sister Mercy” is a naked plea for guidance in troubling times (“It seems I’ve lost directions/And I’ve always had them down.”). In between are John’s tribute to his muse, “Naked Angel on a Star-Crossed Train,” the propulsive tragicomic nightmare of “Midnight Train,” with a dig at “El Presidente,” and a new version of “Run the Ridges,” from John’s Kingston Trio days.
There’s more to John Stewart than “Daydream Believer.” Here’s his new CD. Listen and believe.
ABOUT JOHN STEWART:
To the baby-boomers of the Fifties, John Stewart’s name is synonymous with the Kingston Trio, whose early Sixties hits like “Tom Dooley” and “Greenback Dollar” brought folk music from the coffeehouses to the concert halls, campuses and radio playlists. To the mid-Sixties teenyboppers, John was the pen behind the Monkees’ #1 hit, “Daydream Believer.” To rock fans in the Seventies, John was that friend of Fleetwood Mac’s who had a Top 5 single, “Gold,” co-produced by Lindsey Buckingham, and a Top 10 album, “Bombs Away Dream Babies,” that featured Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. In the Eighties, John was an inspiration to the “do-it-yourself” movement, recording and releasing albums for his own label as well as for the major companies. Today’s kids are chanting, “Cheer up, sleepy Jean,” thanks to the new eBay ads. And throughout his solo career, now nearing four decades, John Stewart has been revered by fellow musicians and serious music listeners as a pioneer and ongoing force in what’s become known as the Americana genre, a tougher, more rootsy tributary of the singer-songwriter movement.
Born in San Diego in 1939, John wrote his first song, “Shrunken Head Boogie,” at the age of ten. In high school, John formed a band called Johnny Stewart and the Furies that played Elvis, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly covers and recorded a now-rare single (“Rockin’ Anna”). John’s musical approach shifted to folk while he was in college, and two songs he wrote were recorded by the original lineup of the Kingston Trio. On the advice of the Trio’s manager, John moved north to San Francisco and formed the Cumberland Three, a Trio-like band that recorded three albums for Roulette.
When founding member Dave Guard left the Kingston Trio in 1961, John was the obvious choice as his replacement, providing banjo, guitar, on-stage jokes and, most importantly, his songs. During his seven-year, 16-album tenure with the group, the Trio recorded more than two dozen Stewart originals, including “One More Town,” later credited by Paul Simon as the inspiration for “Feelin’ Groovy.” John also performed on many of the Trio’s best remembered songs, including “Greenback Dollar,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “The Reverend Mr. Black.”
While the Trio was still riding high, John took part in the March for Freedom in Selma, Alabama in 1965 and also campaigned for his friend Robert Kennedy during the latter’s mid-Sixties Senatorial campaign. In 1968, John would again join Kennedy’s campaign, this time in his tragically curtailed bid for the US Presidency.
During his final days with the Trio, Stewart wrote “Daydream Believer,” which soon became a mammoth hit for the Monkees (as it would for Anne Murray in the late Seventies, and as it has again arisen in an eBay TV ad campaign). In 1968, John recorded his first post-Trio album, “Signals Through the Glass,” with singer Buffy Ford, his wife to be. His actual solo debut album, 1969’s classic “California Bloodlines,” recorded in Nashville at the same time, and with some of the same musicians, that Dylan was cutting his back-to-the-roots “Nashville Skyline,” was subsequently named one of the best albums of all time by a Rolling Stone critics’ poll.
Many more Stewart records were to follow, as were innumerable cover versions of Stewart compositions by other artists. A startling assortment of singers have endorsed John’s artistry by recording his songs, including Nanci Griffith, Joan Baez, Kate Wolf, Eddy Arnold, Harry Belafonte, Robert Goulet, Pat Boone, the Beat Farmers, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and Rosanne Cash (who scored a late-Eighties #1 country hit with his “Runaway Train”).
In 1979, John returned to the charts himself with “Gold,” a Top 5 single and the first of three Top 20 hits from his “Bombs Away Dream Babies” album. After a follow-up album failed to duplicate those successes, Stewart and his recording company parted ways. In 1984, John founded his own label, Homecoming, and has since released numerous albums of his own and several other artists. Signed by Appleseed Recordings in 1999, John has recorded three albums for the label prior to “The Day the River Sang.”
John has had some literal ups and downs since Appleseed issued his “Havana” CD in 2003. A longtime advocate of the US space program, providing music for a 1964 NASA public service film and writing “Armstrong” about the 1970 lunar landing, John was delighted by an invitation to entertain members of the Astronaut Hall of Fame at the Kennedy Space Center during last spring’s induction ceremonies of three new members. And, of course, eBay’s use of John’s “Daydream Believer” has provided a nice infusion of income and interest. On the downside, John is not yet free of the effects of a concussion he sustained while shooting photos at a racetrack two years ago, an accident that has left him with residual vertigo and some difficulty in remembering song lyrics. But he’s still touring, still writing, still singing and recording to his own high standards and our own high hopes. He’s John Stewart, “a man who hasn’t lost his enormous faith in people and who earnestly but eloquently compresses more than four decades of dreams and regrets into his songs” (Rolling Stone).