John Stewart was a quintessential and prolific Americana singer/songwriter. Throughout his career, he told romantic stories of an already vanished and still disappearing America, its people, landscapes, and history that was rich in metaphor, myth, and allegory. During a nearly five-decade career, he was a member of folk group the Cumberland Three and the Kingston Trio (he led the latter until they split in 1967 when his "Daydream Believer" became an international hit for the Monkees.) His debut solo album, California Bloodlines, was chosen by Rolling Stone as one of its best 200 albums of all time. After a slew of fine recordings for different labels, Stewart's 1979 Top Ten offering, Bombs Away Dream Babies, was co-produced with Lindsey Buckingham. Its smash single "Gold" included Stewart and Stevie Nicks on backing vocals. Stewart wrote over 600 songs (many covered by artists such as Rosanne Cash, Nanci Griffith, and Joan Baez), and recorded dozens of albums including independently released late masterpieces such as 1992's Bullets in the Hour Glass, 1994's Bandera, and 2003's Havana. His influential meld of narrative storytelling, American folk, country, roots rock, and pop inspired both his peers and subsequent generations of songwriters.
Stewart was born in in San Diego in 1939, the son of a horse trainer. He spent his childhood and adolescence in southern California, living mostly in Pasadena and Claremont. He displayed an early musical talent and learned both guitar and banjo. Drawn to the recordings of Tex Ritter and Sons of the Pioneers, he composed his first song, "Shrunken Head Boogie," at age 10.
After graduation, he briefly attended Mt. San Antonio Junior College in Pomona. After the Furies split, Stewart teamed with Gil Robbins (Tim Robbins' father) and John Montgomery to form the Cumberland Three, a group patterned after, and heavily influenced by, the Kingston Trio. The Cumberland Three issued a two-LP set entitled Songs from the Civil War, containing songs from the Confederacy and the Union. Stewart left the band to replace Kingston Trio founder Dave Guard on banjo in 1961. (They had recorded several of his songs by then.) He recorded a dozen albums with the Kingston Trio and shepherded them through changes that included more original material and covers by then-newcomers Tom Paxton, Mason Williams, and Gordon Lightfoot before disbanding in 1967. Stewart began making a living writing for other artists. "Daydream Believer" became an international smash for the Monkees and has been subsequently recorded by the Four Tops, Boyzone, and U2. During his time with the Kingston Trio, Stewart became friendly with President John F. Kennedy and attorney general Robert Kennedy. They kept in touch and just after Stewart and Buffy Ford cut the county-psych outing Signals Through the Glass, they joined Senator Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1968 and traveled with him singing on the backs of trains, flat-bed trucks, and in town squares and high school auditoriums. The experience and the subsequent tragedy of Kennedy's assassination affected him deeply until the end of his life. In 1985, Stewart independently issued a concept recording called The Last Campaign about the experience.
In 1969, the songwriter released his first Capitol solo outing, California Bloodlines. It was cut in Nashville in the same studio where Bob Dylan was making Nashville Skyline, and used many of the same studio aces Dylan did. Produced by Nick Venet, mentor to the Beach Boys, it was the first of Stewart's solo albums to reach the charts. One of its songs, "Mother Country," was played as the Apollo 11 space flight made its way back to earth. That same year, Stewart recorded the single "Armstrong" for Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. It peaked inside the Hot 100 and remained on the charts for weeks.
Stewart followed with Willard in 1970, his final outing for Capitol. Produced by Peter Asher in Los Angeles, its credits include appearances by some of the same Nashville session players plus Doug Kershaw, Russ Kunkel, Carole King, James Taylor, and Danny Kortchmar. While the set drew consistently positive reviews, it failed commercially. Stewart signed with Warner Bros. His label debut, The Lonesome Picker Rides Again, appeared at the dawn of 1971. While some of the same session players were in house, other studio aces such as bassist Leland Sklar, guitarist Fred Carter, Jr., and pedal steel master Buddy Emmons also worked on the sessions. Brother Michael Stewart (We Five) produced the set. It landed on the Top 200 album chart. Although his last album for Warner, 1972's Sunstorm, wasn't as successful commercially it offered an arresting portrait of Stewart's maturing sound. Produced again by brother Michael and arranged by Glenn D. Hardin, the album offered not only top-flight studio aces who included James Burton, Jerry Scheff, Larry Carlton, Mike Deasy, but a horn section and more. Stewart moved to RCA for 1973's Cannons in the Rain, which rivals California Bloodlines as Stewart's finest studio outing. Its kaleidoscopic production gave him the courage to experiment with ragtime and Dixieland jazz, Western swing, West Coast pop, and gorgeous ballads such as "Chilly Winds" and "Anna on a Memory," "All Time Woman," and the first re-recorded version of "Armstrong."
1974's The Phoenix Concerts was Stewart's first live offering. Working again with Nick Venet as producer, the album was engineered by veteran Ken Caillat. The core band included drummer Jim Gordon, and Buffy Ford; Ford and Stewart married the following year. With impeccable sound, the double album sold respectably and is regarded as one of the finest live outings ever. 1975's Wingless Angels was a move toward the L.A. country-rock Stewart had unintentionally helped pioneer. Continuing his work with producer Venet, he delivered some of his best songs inside a polished studio atmosphere that even included a string section. Guitarist Waddy Wachtel played on the date, and the song "Ride Stone Blind" was arranged by Dave Guard, who Stewart replaced in the Kingston Trio more than a decade before. Despite its high artistic merit, it failed to chart and was his final outing for RCA.
Stewart signed to Robert Stigwood's RSO label in early 1977 and released Fire in the Wind. He co-produced the set with Mentor Williams; its sound was directly in line with his fellow West Coast singer/songwriter cadre and performed by a stellar cast that included Herb Pederson, Reggie Young, and David Briggs. Despite a mainstream sound that owed more than a little to Fleetwood Mac (then the reigning masters of the pop charts), Stewart's album didn't get there. Instead he found his biggest commercial success with the Top Ten Bombs Away Dream Babies and its Top Five single "Gold" in 1979. Co-produced with Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham — who also sang backup with Stevie Nicks on the single — the album's other backing singers included Ford, Guard, and singer/actress Mary Kay Place. Stewart hoped lightning would strike twice when he issued Dream Babies Go Hollywood the following year. Despite vocal appearances by Linda Ronstadt, Nicolette Larson, and Phil Everly, and tightly written radio-friendly pop songs, it didn't chart. It was Stewart's last recording for RSO and major labels.
Stewart began releasing recordings — sometimes two a year — on a variety of independent labels. He and Chuck McDermott issued Blondes in 1981, and then collaborated with former Kingston Trio bandmate Nick Reynolds for Revenge of the Budgie for Takoma in 1983. Stewart began touring in an Airstream trailer and would for the remainder of his life. He released several of his albums and albums by others on his own Homecoming label during the '80s, including the powerful The Last Campaign in 1985, the widely acclaimed Bullets in the Hour Glass, and Teresa & Lost Songs in 1992. Airdream Believer appeared on Shanachie in 1995 and garnered his best sales in a decade.
When he wasn't on the road, Stewart painted. Several of his works appeared on his album covers. He released The American Folk Song Anthology on Delta in 1996. Rough Sketches and the live Bandera were released in 1997 and 1998, respectively, by Folk Era.
Stewart signed with Appleseed Records in 2000 and released Wires from the Bunker. By this time, the quality of his once-strong, reedy baritone was in sharp decline but still expressive. He was undaunted and accepted this evolution, with characteristic wit and charm, as a new opportunity to get his songs across. In 2001, Stewart was honored by the World Folk Music Association with a Lifetime Achievement Award and continued to perform and record. His next two albums, the stellar Havana (2003) and The Day the River Sang (2006), were more humorous, full of biting and sometimes existential observations about technology, politics, consumerism, and relationships but still delivered with his requisite charm and wry humor.
In 2007, Stewart was diagnosed with the early onset Alzheimer's Disease. He resolved to continue performing as long as he could, but on January 19, 2008, he suffered a fatal stroke while at San Diego Hospital (he was also born there). He was 68. In 2009, Folk Era Recordings issued Bite My Foot, an unreleased concert recorded at Celebrity Theater in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 30, 1973. Much of Stewart's catalog has been remastered and reissued on various labels including Germany's Bear Family. In 2019, Omnivore Recordings released Old Forgotten Altars: The 1960s Demos, a compilation of rarities. The demos of four tunes wound up on the Kingston Trio's Children of the Morning in 1966, including "The Spinnin’ of the World" (it received another airing on Bombs Away Dream Babies). There are three duets with Ford that foreshadow Signals Through the Glass; five of its tracks had finished versions that would form nearly half of California Bloodlines. The demos for "July, You’re a Woman," "Mother Country," and "The Pirates of Stone County Road" make their first appearances there. ~ Thom Jurek