When most people hear the name John (sic) Stewart, they think of the comedian. He's great, of course. But when I hear the name John Stewart, I think of the one time member of the Kingston Trio who went on to an amazing -- but largely overlooked -- solo career. Johnny Stew is probably best known for writing "Daydream Believer" (which earned him, in his own words, plenty of "couch money" i.e. you just sit on the couch and let the royalties roll in) and "Gold" off his "Bombs Away Dream Babies" lp from 1977 which was produced by John Stewart super-fan Lindsey Buckingham or "Liddy Buck" as John called him.
The above selection "Spirit of the Road" is from John's "Sketches from Route 66" album which came out in the mid-nineties. Stew just hit the Mother Road (as 66 is known), took some notes, and then put 'em to song. "Spirit of the Road" is Sketches' opening salvo to get lost to get found.
A few years after hearing Sketches, I found myself on a road trip with Jodi, Faith, and Kwyn. We hired this guy Tad out of Memphis to drive us down into the Delta in his 55 Cadillac. No air-conditioning in August in the deep South! Tad would pull over at filling stations, buy ice, wrap it in a rag, and tell you to press it on your forehead. Didn't do much good but at one of the rest stops, I saw a guy with dreadlocks carrying a painting and asked him to show it me. It was, he said, an illustration of the "Sugar Ditch" in his town of Tunica where we had happened to stop on our way to Clarksdale. "Sugar Ditch" is a euphemism in the Delta for a septic run-off area. I asked the guy if I could buy the painting and he said, "Not this one ... but I've got some prints at home." His name was Ronald Rainey and he got in the Caddy and directed us to his family's funeral home where I purchased the print that would become the cover of John Train's Sugar Ditch lp and somehow inspire that record's stories.
Looking for the Sprit of the Road, indeed. Thank you Johnny Stew!
- Jon Houlon
RIP Steve Young
I could write about how under-recognized Steve was. It's true. But, honestly, I'm not sure he gave a damn. I heard Steve once jokingly refer to his friend and fellow songwriter Richard Dobson as "more obscure than I am!"
Steve Young was after something much bigger than fame: Truth, Beauty, Spirit, the Great Mystery ... or "It" as Dean Moriarty and even Rabbit Angstrom might say. I cannot think of another performer in the popular music idiom who captured "it" like Steve did.
Or as Townes Van Zandt said of Steve: "For that voice, that guitar, and those songs to come together in one person is a wonder."
In 1997 or so, I contacted Steve and made arrangements for him to play a gig at Dobbs (then called the Pontiac Grille, I believe) with John Train and the Rolling Hayseeds (who at the time contained Mark Tucker and Mike Frank both of whom would later join John Train) opening up.
Before the gig Steve, Kevin Karg (of the Hayseeds) and Steve Demarest and I had dinner at Lee How Fook in Chinatown. Steve ordered up the "Buddha's Delight". Of course he did!
We talked about how the Hayseeds had a number of Steve Young songs in their repertoire (including most of Steve's legendary "Renegade Picker" lp) and that maybe they could back up Steve for part of his show. Steve kept his cards to his chest. I couldn't really tell whether he was enthused with the idea.
In any case, we got back to the club for sound check and Steve climbed on stage. The Hayseeds were already there, instruments at the ready. I'll never forget the look on Steve's face when they kicked into "Renegade Picker" (not an easy number!). It was one of relief (Steve could tell that the Hayseeds were for real) and, more importantly, appreciation. Steve really dug that musicians half his age were so obviously enthralled by not just his legend but his actual music (sometimes the former seems to obscure the latter).
For the actual show, John Train and the Hayseeds opened up. Then Steve played a solo set which contained a nearly 10 minute unreleased (to this day!) ballad. An insane thing to do in a rock club but Steve stilled the room. Next followed Steve's set with the Hayseeds. As I wrote in a recent tribute to Richard Drueding: you had to be there. Kevin Karg told me that there may be a tape of this gig floating around. I'd love to hear it. Rich Kauffman, you out there? I think they were even considering releasing it at some point. At evening's end, Tom Heyman from Go To Blazes hopped up on stage and played "Rock, Salt and Nails" with Steve and Karg. What a night!
I urge you to check out Steve Young's music. And to that end, I give you my Steve Young Top Ten.
1. Renegade Picker: The phenomenal title track to Steve's 1976 release on RCA. Steve was more than a country and folk guy. He could rock like no one's business and this is a prime example. I picked up a copy of "Renegade Picker" on cassette in an LA record store. It was still in the shrink wrap from 1976. I popped it into my cab's cassette deck and a whole new world opened up to me. Steve sings: "I"m partly hippie, partly kicker too // I get around I get around // I won't ever settle down." Some critics have said that Steve invented the Outlaw movement. I won't argue the point.
2. Home Sweet Home Revisited: This is the final track on "Renegade Picker" but I could have included every track in between for my Top Ten. The record is that good. In any case, this is a "cover" of a Rodney Crowell song. I put "cover" in quotes because Steve Young didn't cover songs -- he inhabited them. This song is the musical and philosophical flip side to the Renegade Picker persona. Steve was a complex dude.
3. Seven Bridges Road: Steve's most popular composition covered by many including the Eagles who had a hit with it. You can't really call someone "obscure" with that fact in their history, right? Steve himself recorded "Seven Bridges Road" many times. I think my favorite version is on his "No Place to Fall" lp also on RCA in the mid-70s.
4. No Place to Fall: Title track of aforementioned lp. Probably my favorite Townes "cover" of all time. Enough said.
5. Lonesome On'ry and Mean: Waylon Jennings took this one up the charts. Steve and Waylon shared a unique ability to sustain notes. Almost operatic sounding but gruff as hell. I'd give Steve the edge as a singer and I know Waylon would too. Waylon considered Steve the second best country singer in history with only George Jones (who I wrote a dedication to several years ago upon his passing which can be found at trainarmy.com) in front of him. Steve recorded "Lonesome On'ry and Mean" a number of times as well. I'd start with the version on "Renegade Picker" tho. Good luck finding this stuff by the way. For me, that's half the fun.
6. Long Time Rider: Steve kicked drugs and booze in 1980 and holed up in the Silverlake neighborhood of LA. He started working with synthesizers which alienated much of whatever fan base he had left at that point. Again, Steve wasn't after making fans. I didn't hear this album until many years after its initial release (in 1990 in France only!). But when I finally tracked it down, it dealt a knock out blow. This one's for fans of Neil Young's Tonight's The Night or Big Star's Third. The word "harrowing" is overused but it applies here. The title track of "Long Time Rider" may be the best thing Steve ever did. "In that bottle I was a long time rider" Indeed.
7. War of Ancient Days: Another one from "Long Time Rider". Unflinching stuff about divorce over a bed of synths and peerless singing. "I see our son as he goes walking // And I know he hurts inside." Raw and real.
8. Useful Girl: Steve sings this Richard Dobson composition on his "Stories Round the Horseshoe Bend" live release. I thought so much of Steve's arrangement, I copped it for the Donut's Pow lp a couple years back.
9. That's How Strong My Love Is: It's usually a very bad idea for a white person (or any person for that matter) to take on a song associated with Otis Redding. But Steve did on his debut "solo" album "Rock Salt and Nails" (produced by none other than Tommy Lipuma and including Gram Parson and Gene Clark as backing musicians!). And, at the risk of blasphemy, I'll say that Steve outdid Otis. That's how good a singer Steve was!
10. Love Song: This one can be found on Steve's 1993 release, "Switchblades of Love." This is my favorite Steve Young song (other than "Long Time Rider, hah!). I love the stillness of it. I asked Steve to play it once and he said: "You have good taste." I'll conclude by quoting a lyric:
"In these modern times of money and bottom lines // they say romance of the heart is dead // But they didn't look in mine // So would you lift with me // where the moonlight still meets the sea // Leave our shackles and chains behind // and go running free" -- Steve Young, "Love Song", 1942-2016, RIP.
Jon Houlon, 3/19/2016
"No 2 Unalike" Preview by Dan Deluca from the Philadelphia Inquirer... "Among the lesser known dependable pleasures of the Philadelphia music scene are the free Friday night happy hour shows with John Train, the rootsy sextet fronted by superb story telling singer-songwriter Jon Houlon, a prolific sort who is also the lead singer from the more garage-rock oriented band The Donuts." Read more here!
The wayback machine... Many thanks to Tommy T for sending us a DVD of something that he and Jeff DiBlasi shot back in 2004 while John Train was playing regularly at Jack's Firehouse. While the whole band wasn't there on this night, it still captures a time that was important to us. It's dedicated to Steve Demarest.
Isn't That So? A Jesse Winchester cover live from Fergie's Pub on 1/23/15... Thanks to the Phantom Engineer for capturing the moment.
A Wig and a Wonder available on Chapter 7 Records
After releasing two concept albums, The Sugar Ditch (centered around a murder in a septic run-off ditch in Mississippi) and Mesopotamia Blues (centered around an unpopular war), John Train returns to action without a unifying theme. Jon Houlon, singer-songwriter for the band, claims that he came to the realization that songs about murder and war – arguably, the same topic, he winces – may not be commercially viable. “I’m back to gazing at my own navel!,” Houlon quips.
Still, John Train’s new Chapter 7 release, A Wig and a Wonder, contains more than your usual singer-songwriter fare. Song topics range from a visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston (the title track), adultery informed by Houlon’s fascination with John Updike (“Lord Baltimore”), a divorcing couple who buries a religious idol in their front yard to help sell their house (“Praying to St. Joe”), and the craft of songwriting itself (“Who Needs the Muse?”). Houlon, who works in the field of child welfare, for the first time in John Train’s 18 year history, offers up a song about the death of a child (“Las Galares”). “I’ve tried to keep work and music separate,” he says, “but there was just something about this particular story that I had to tell.”
Devoted followers of John Train (known as the “Train Army”) have been asking for a new Train album for several years. Why the recording hiatus? Houlon says there are two reasons: “One, I figure that considering that between John Train and my other band, the Donuts, I’ve got 10 cds already floating around out there, if someone wanted to hear what I had to say, there was plenty to dig into. Two, in a world where many people seem satisfied listening to music recorded on a phone and posted on You-Tube, the idea of putting out another disc seemed quaint and maybe even irrelevant.”
What changed? Legendary Philadelphia engineer, John Anthony (formerly of Sigma and Maja, now of Philly Post) began recording some of John Train’s weekly gigs at Fergie’s Pub. Anthony, a great supporter of John Train, felt that “what the band is doing over there was too good not to be documented.” A couple of the songs recorded at Fergie’s are actually included on A Wig and a Wonder (“Lord Baltimore” and the title track).
Anthony was so enthused by the Fergie’s recordings that he invited the band into Philly Post to do some more work. Houlon indicates: “We basically set up the same way we do at Ferg’s and spent a couple weekends laying down my new songs that we’ve been playing for the past few years. I looked up and realized we had another album on our hands.”
As usual, Houlon’s songwriting is strongly supported by his bandmates Mike “Slo-Mo Brenner (dobro), Bill Fergusson (mandolin), Mark Tucker (steel and electric guitar), Steve Demarest (bass), and Mark Schreiber (drums). Houlon says, “I feel blessed to have worked with these guys for this long. They are all fantastic musicians who know how to listen to a song and support it. And after 18 years, we still get along and still have a great time playing together.”