(May 27, 1923 – August 2, 2003)
Henry E. (Redd) Stewart was born the son of a tenant farmer at the beginning of the Great Depression, in the late 1920's, near Ashland City, Tennessee. Even though his father supplemented his meager farm income by working as a cobbler, a barber, and as a cook (in nearby Nashville), he was forced to leave the farm during the Depression to search for a regular job in Louisville, Kentucky.
His father and mother, both part Cherokee, played music, and this doubtless influenced young Redd and his six brothers and sisters to take up music. "When I was nine or ten years old," Redd recalled, "I learned to play an old banjo that my daddy had made. Then it wasn't long before I was playing the fiddle." At the age of 14, when he was in the seventh grade, Redd quit school, formed his own band, and was playing on radio station WGRC in Louisville. The group was called the Kentucky Wildcats.
His brother Bill, a great fiddler, was playing on the Grand Ole Opry when he was 16. He has a fine band today called the (Bill) Stewart Family Band. Their brother Gene also performed on the Grand Ole Opry, and another brother, Alvin, played on various radio stations before his death in the early 1970's. Brothers Eury (Slim) and Alvin started their musical career when they were ten and 13 years of age, respectively. They played guitar and banjo, instruments made by their father, and they were known as the Courier-Journal News Boys. Their two sisters, Juanita and Helen, were also musicians and were known as The Golden Girls.
In 1937 when he was 14, Redd Stewart joined the popular Pee Wee King and the Golden West Cowboys. He joined the Army in 1941 and served in the Pacific Theater. Influenced by the devastating scenes of war in the jungles, he wrote the song, "Soldier's Last Letter." Recorded first by Ernest Tubb, it became "an instant national hit." Redd rejoined Pee Wee King after the war and traveled throughout the world as a member of his popular band.
I once asked Redd how many songs he had written, and he answered: "I don't know exactly, but its over 400." He wrote "The Bonaparte's Retreat" and "Slowpoke," but "The Tennessee Waltz" was his best known and one of the most popular songs ever written. The following story of how "The Tennessee Waltz" came to be is based on a conversation I had with Redd during one of his visits with me here at the Museum in October of 1996.
On March 6, 1947, Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King were traveling by truck from a performance in Henderson, Texas. The radio was tuned to WSM's Grand Ole Opry. As they listened to Bill Monroe sing "The Kentucky Waltz," Pee Wee jokingly said to Redd, "Why haven't you written a song about your home state of Tennessee?" At that moment, with pencil in hand and nothing but the cover from one of those large boxes of wooden matches on which to write, Redd began scribbling the words to "The Tennessee Waltz." Upon returning to his home in Nashville, he transcribed what he had written onto paper and penciled in the notes.
During this time in his life, Redd wrote and sold songs to various performers on the Grand Ole Opry. He offered to sell "The Tennessee Waltz" to a rising young singer, Cowboy Copas, for $25.00. Copas refused the offer, saying there were "too many waltzes already." So Redd put the song back in his guitar case where it remained for the next six months. He later sang it on a Louisville radio station in 1948, and it was recorded by others. It gained a good bit of popularity as a country song, and then it sort of faded away.
Several years later, the very popular Patti Page needed an additional song to complete a recording session she had planned. She agreed to add "The Tennessee Waltz" as the "B" side of the record. When it was released in May, 1950, Patti Page's recording of the song soon sold some 5,000,000 copies, and "it became the most popular song in the nation within six months." According to Dr. Bill Malone, a respected scholar on the subject, it became the biggest hit in modern popular music, and the top song ever licensed by Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). What started out as a country song, written by a country writer, became "an international pop standard."
The popularity of "The Tennessee Waltz" has continued through the years, and it reputedly has been played on radio and television more times than any country music song every written. Several years ago the record sales were over 65,000,000, and I understand that it has now surpassed the 100,000,000 mark. It has been recorded by over 100 major artists, and it is a "Tennessee State Song." (Its popularity, of course, reached far beyond the boundary of country music, and it may be misleading to refer to it as a country song.)
Fall Homecoming - Museum of Appalachia
Redd attended our Tennessee Fall Homecoming until his health forced him from the stage. His brother Bill, who also plays here every year, informed me recently that the very last time Redd ever sang "The Tennessee Waltz" was here at the Homecoming. Although Redd was an entertainer, singer, and musician, his greatest gift to the development of country music was doubtless his songwriting. The fact that his early influence and inspiration was the old-time Carter-style music, and that his songs went beyond just "old time" and were enjoyed by those whose bent was for "progressive" country and even popular music, is an important part of the country music story.