Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Uncle Tom Got Vinyl

If you have visited this blog before, you know that the main source for my music collection when I was very young was my Uncle Tom. When he came over to visit, I would look to see if he had brought a stack of 45s. Whenever he did bring a gift, he presented them to me with a grand gesture, and I responded appropriately. Despite this ritual exchange between us, I can remember only one specific reaction from his sister, my mom, and it occurred after he had left for the evening.

I’ll tell you more about Uncle Tom on Saturday, when I have less to say about this week’s artist. I’ll tell you now that, when I spun today’s song for the first time, my mom smirked and said to my dad, “I wonder if Tom saw the title of this one before he bought it.” I’m sure he would have commented if he’d known he had bought “Uncle Tom Got Caught” by Wynn Stewart.

This song became one of my favorites, not only because it mentioned my music source, but because it’s a darn good song. Bouncy, clever lyrics, a subtext I did not understand when I was three, or even five, a vivid story I appreciate as a songwriter. Three-year-old caithiseach responded to the guitar solo, the superb voice, and the refrain: “Uncle Tom Got Caught,” which was supremely amusing in context.

Almost forty years later, I was so used to learning that my artists on 45 were irredeemable no-names that I was surprised, as well as very pleased, to learn that Wynn Stewart was a near-giant of country music. His story begins at the beginning of country music’s huge years, so let’s go back there.

A Missouri native, Winford Stewart was born on June 7, 1934 and was performing on the radio by age 13. His talent was such that, when the family moved to California in 1948, he soon earned a recording contract. He was signed to Capitol by 1956, when his first Top 40 country hit, “The Waltz of the Angels,” climbed to #14. He didn’t have a hit again until he moved to the Challenge label, where he made the Top 40 four times, including the #5 tune “Wishful Thinking” (Challenge 9061; my 45 says 59061). “Uncle Tom Got Caught” is the B side of “Wishful Thinking.” The single came to me as a leftover from a store rather than a label cutout or DJ copy, the usual sources for my collection.

Wynn’s biggest hit was the #1 smash “It’s Such a Pretty World Today,” which received a nomination for the Country Music Association Song of the Year for 1967. All told, he hit #1 once, the Top Ten six times, and charted 19 Top 40 country hits. His chart life extended from 1956 to 1979. I could have heard him on the radio; twice in my teen years I made myself listen to country-formatted WMAQ (Chicago) for a few weeks at a time. I got familiar with the hits, and even liked a few, but those listening periods were in 1972 and 1974, and Wynn charted both before and after those periods but not while I was a listener. I would have recognized his name and been stunned to know he had made the big time.

But despite his respectable chart success, people don’t consider him a huge star. Why? As a chief engineer of the Bakersfield Sound, he encouraged and influenced the careers of the likes of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. He wrote Haggard’s first hit, “Sing a Sad Song.” With these two amazing careers overshadowing his, Wynn Stewart could not be considered the most successful proponent of the Bakersfield Sound. In fact, Ralph Mooney, who played steel guitar for Buck, Merle and Wynn, called Wynn “the best singer who ever lived.” Wynn’s website says that Wynn lacked the “whatever it takes” attitude that got Merle and Buck to the top. Sources say that Wynn persisted in pushing Buck’s demo tape at Capitol until the label signed him.

Wynn Stewart wrote some of his own hits, including “Wishful Thinking.” He didn’t write “Uncle Tom Got Caught”; this song was the work of Clifton Crofford, also known as Cliff Crawford. Crawford wrote “Old Rivers,” a hit for Walter Brennan. (“Old Rivers” will become an inadvertent topic of conversation around Halloween. I can’t wait.) He wrote “Bar Room Buddies” for Wynn’s protégé, Merle Haggard, and “A Texas State of Mind” for David Frizzell and Shelly West. Frizzell is the younger brother of Lefty Frizzell, some of whose band members wound up working with Wynn Stewart in Bakersfield. It’s all one big circle out there, folks.

I should point out that "Uncle Tom Got Caught" is closer to rockabilly than to true country. There's not much of a twang to it, and the guitar solo would sound at home on any Top 40 hit of the era.

During his career, Wynn Stewart owned a Las Vegas night club he called Nashville Nevada; he had a Vegas television program of his own then; he owned two record labels, WIN and Pretty World. He was cranking up the latter label in a bid for a mid-1980s comeback when he died suddenly of a heart attack on July 17, 1985, just as he was to resume touring. It’s sad that he didn’t get this last shot at iconic status, and also that he would be only 74 in 2008. We lost Wynn Stewart far too early, and I hope that his voice, described as one of the purest country voices, encourages you to look him up.

You can find his work on Bear Family Records, most notably via a 10-disc box set that includes all 279 of his recorded tracks:

Buy the Wynn Stewart box set

That set costs 173 euros, and if I’m not mistaken, there are 173 euros to a dollar, so the 10-disc set costs just $1. God bless Germany and Bear Family Records.

But I could be mistaken about the exchange rate, too.

The best source for Wynn Stewart info is a site run by his daughter, Wren Stewart Tidwell:

Official Wynn Stewart website

Wynn was inducted into the Missouri Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006. The Nashville version of this honor hasn’t caught up with him yet. It’s time.

A note on the recording: I have two unsatisfactory sources for this great song: my original 45, which is scratchy, and an mp3 I made from a low-resolution RealAudio version. If you grew up with scratchy vinyl, the 45 won’t bother you. If you can’t take the surface noise, you can listen to the RealAudio file, which has a compromised high end but no scratches.

Saturday will see me turn the single over, as it were, but the file is CD quality. See you on the flip side!

Wynn Stewart, Uncle Tom Got Caught 45

Wynn Stewart, Uncle Tom Got Caught low-res recording

Uncle Tom Got Caught label

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