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Music / John Stewart

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"There's California bloodlines in my heart, and a California heartbeat in my soul"

John Coburn Stewart (September 5, 1939—January 19, 2008) was a California-based Folk Music Singer-Songwriter from San Diego. Mainly remembered by the general public as a One-Hit Wonder (1979's "Gold"), he had a long, prolific career that included several albums that are considered Cult Classics.

After playing in a few early Southern California Garage Bands in The '50s, Stewart formed the folk trio The Cumberland Three (one of the other members was Gil Robbins, father of Tim Robbins), hoping to match the success of The Kingston Trio. Instead, he ended up joining The Kingston Trio itself in 1961, replacing Dave Guard.

With a rich, gravelly baritone that often drew comparisons to Johnny Cash, Stewart quickly carved a niche in the band as a multi-instrumentalist, singer (mainly handling the group's more serious songs) and especially as a songwriter.

The trio played their last show in 1967. Stewart, who'd been polishing his songwriting skills, took the opportunity to establish himself as a solo artist. He got a big break when The Monkees recorded his song "Daydream Believer" and took it to #1. This gave Stewart notice as a songwriter and a huge windfall in royalty money that allowed to him to focus on Doing It for the Art with his music.

His first post-Kingston album was 1968's Signals Through the Glass, done as a duet with female singer Buffy Ford (who became his partner and eventually his wife). The next year saw his formal debut album, California Bloodlines, which established the style that formed the basis for the rest of his career: acoustic-based songs that examined themes of Americana, love, childhood, the road and the lives of common people, with a unique lyrical style that was poetic but also spare and uncluttered.

For most of The '70s, Stewart released one acclaimed album after another, but couldn't get any of his critical accolades or his enthusiastic cult to translate into strong sales. After signing with RSO Records (home of The Bee Gees and Eric Clapton), Stewart got assistance from an unlikely source: Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham, who'd been a Kingston Trio fan growing up and wanted to help his old idol. The Stewart/Buckingham collaboration yielded Bombs Away Dream Babies, which soared to #10 on the Billboard album chart, on the strength of the Top 5 single "Gold", which very conspicuously featured a Mac-style sound and Stevie Nicks on backing vocals. The album produced a couple other hits ("Midnight Wind", "Lost Her in the Sun"), but his future efforts in a similar vein weren't successful. He pressed on, however, starting his own record label (Homecoming) and releasing numerous albums up until his death.

Not only was his voice often compared to Johnny Cash, he sang lead on the original 1963 Kingston Trio version of "Jackson", and his song "Runaway Train" became a #1 hit on the Country Music charts for Johnny's daughter Rosanne in 1988.

His younger brother Michael Stewart also had a music career, as a member of the band We Five, and later as a producer (most famously Billy Joel's Piano Man album).

Not to be confused with Jon Stewart or the Green Lantern character.

"There's people out there turnin' Tropes into gold"

  • Ancient Astronauts: Wistfully alluded to at the end of "Armstrong", a song about the Apollo 11 moon landing.
    And I wonder if a long time ago
    Somewhere in the universe
    They watched a man named Adam
    Walk upon the earth
  • Auto Erotica: Implied in "July, You're a Woman"
    And I have not been known as the saint of San Joaquin
    And I'd just as soon right now
    Pull on over to the side of the road
    And show you what I mean
  • Awful Wedded Life: Word of God is that "Daydream Believer" is about a married couple waking up on the first day after the honeymoon and realizing that things won't be so easy from now on.
  • Free-Range Children: "The Pirates of Stone County Road", about kids engrossed in play while their mother calls them in for supper.
  • Hollywood California: He was born in San Diego, grew up outside Los Angeles, and eventually moved to the Bay Area. His songs are filled with local California references. "Gold" is about struggling musicians in LA.
  • Imaginary Friend: "She Believes in Me" seems to be written from the POV of one.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: "Friend of Jesus".
  • Looped Lyrics: "All the Brave Horses" is just one verse repeated over and over.
    Shoot all the brave horses, and how will we ride? (repeat three times)
    And ford the cold waters
    Oh, how will we ride?
  • Meal Ticket: The last verse of "Easy Money" is about a woman who has a sugar daddy.
  • New Sound Album: Bombs Away Dream Babies was a major change for Stewart, moving from acoustic folk to slick pop-rock.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: His first version of "Armstrong" was recorded and released within a couple weeks of the Apollo 11 moon landing (he would re-record it in later years).note 
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Marshall Wind"—"'Get back, JoJo', that's what Paul said." He also dropped the names of his children into the song.
    • "A Little Road and a Stone to Roll"—"Everybody needs a Carole King tune." King had played piano on his previous album Willard.
    • E.A. Stuart, the subject of the second half of "Mother Country", was a real person: he was the founder of the Carnation condensed milk brand. Stewart's father knew him and Stewart borrowed the story about Stuart and his horse from him.
    • "Gold"—"California girls are the greatest in the world."
  • Slice of Life: Many of his songs examine everyday people living their lives.
  • Soprano and Gravel: His duets with Buffy Ford.
  • Spoken Word in Music:
    • "An Account of Haley's [sic] Comet'', in which the "verse" is actually a recording of Stewart's father recounting his memories of seeing Halley's Comet in 1910 as a child in Kentucky.
    • The earlier "Mother Country", also based on his father's memories, had Stewart speak the verses then sing the chorus.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: He was sometimes accused of favoring this trope, but his songs usually had straightforward meanings. He just liked using indirect and evocative lyrics.