Redd Stewart Biography
(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.