Good Times, Bad Times
Born in Ashland City, TN, to musician parents, Eury Pershing Stewart (whom everyone around here knows as E.P. or Slim) and his four brothers and two sisters grew to love music at an early age. At age 10, Stewart and his 13-year-old brother, Al, performed on radio in Depressionera Louisville as the Newsboys Duo, combining their guitar and banjo playing (Slim played banjo then) with delivering The Louisville Courier-Journal. “We performed each Saturday morning for 15 minutes,” he says, “and received $7.00 apiece.”
During the next decade or so Slim Stewart toured with various groups, singing and playing “devil’s box” (fiddle) and “starvation box” (guitar). Those early touring days had a certain impoverished richness-”the good ol’ days when times were bad,” Stewart calls them.
He tells the story from the late 1930s about when he and Redd were working together in Pennsylvania: “We always had to check around with one guy to see how much money we could spend in the restaurant in the morning. So, chili being rather cheap, we ate a great deal of it. After checking with the treasurer and heading for the restaurant across the street, I said to Redd, “Dad gum, Redd, it’s chilly this morning.” Redd said, “Hunh. If I know anything, it’s chili every morning.” The telling, and the memory of that time, brings Stewart a good laugh!
After moving to Georgia, he began a 39-year career as a machinist in the copper and petroleum industries in nearby Copperhill, TN, “playing my music on the side, appearances at schools, dance halls, picnics.” He still plays as often as possible at “old-time gatherings. I’ll play at the drop of a hat, and I’ll bring the hat.” For many it has always been that way. Says Larry Stewart: “The music is not pretentious. In good times and bad times, people played. It was a form of release.” His father adds: “When I’m having a bad day, I can go pick up my guitar and feel better.”
‘Music In His Blood’
Indeed, for many mountain people, the music always was the medicine. Ask Dr. Bill Lee. Thirty years ago, he began organizing country music concerts, featuring mostly local players. Held for years at various locations in the area, including a barn, a school and on Main Street in nearby Ducktown, TN, the extraordinarily popular monthly events were called “First Tuesday, Ducktown, U.S.A.”
On a recent wet Saturday on Main Street, Lee, 72 and retired for medicine, pointed out a little gray frame building, half of which used to house his general practice office. The other half, outfitted with a potbellied stove and church pews, was home to First Tuesday at one point, with lemonade, coffee and brownies provided by Lee’s wife, Hattie Lorraine. Lee called it Circle L. Ranch. “We’d sit around and pick and grin,” he recalls, adding that the shows, which drew hundreds of people, grew too large for the building and spilled out onto Main Street– a problem that in 1980 forced the relocation of the concerts to the school, as the street also is Tenn. 68,and authorities didn’t want it blocked for five or six hours every month.
The concerts lasted about a year after that move (music fan Luneta Hamby likened the change to “when they moved the Grand Ole Opry from Ryman Auditorium to that new thing”), but what great good they did while they lived, says Lee, noting that they offered needed diversion to workers and their families during a bitter strike at the copper company. “We had a blowout for them,” he says, “and it helped a lot.” Moreover, throughout the lifetime of the concerts, “We realized that by encouraging the musicians, we’d uncover hidden talents and have a good time, too.” Speaking of talent, Lee, who admires E.P.’s, says that during his appearances he “would very seldom say anything, but he had music in his blood.” Still does.
Music You Don’t Leave
“Tennessee Waltz” will always be there, of course, like a family member. Says Stewart: “It gives me a measure of satisfaction to stand up and sing Redd’s song. He did a great job on it, and he was proud of it, and I am of him. We were all happy for him.”
At the same time, he’s still making his own music: “You don’t leave the music, and it won’t leave you.” During the restaurant session, Stewart, his voice ranging from baritone to tenor, sings and plays several songs with his son. The haunting “Amarillo by Morning,” as well as “Oh Susanna!” and “Georgia on My Mind,” recorded most notably by that soulful country singer, Ray Charles.
The Stewarts perform with we-know-each-other’s every move assurance and show pleasure without straining, vices and music simple and evocative.
Near the end of our visit, the father and son team up for an especially moving interpretation of “For the Good Times,” with Slim starting, “Don’t look so sad; I know it’s over. But life goes on; this old world keeps on turning.” And ending on “Make believe you love me one more time-for the good times.” And the old times. Times remembered happy and sad, conjured up by music unafraid to make you cry.