May 032018
gary stewart motown covers

There are few things that pique the interest of audiophiles more than the promise of unreleased music. Just remember the Beach Boys’ Smile or Guns n’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy. Before either album saw the light of day, there were years of speculation and countless articles imagining how they were lost masterpieces. They each came out with tremendous fanfare, but the luster quickly wore off.

For decades, outlaw country singer Gary Stewart, best known for his booze-themed country hits in the ‘70s and ‘80s, had his own unreleased-music legend. Only his were a batch of Motown covers recorded before he became famous. According to Rolling Stone, Motown Records publisher Jobete Music set up shop in Nashville in the mid-70s to hawk the label’s catalogue to country artists. A then-unknown Stewart was hired to record demo versions of three Motown songs. Though never released, the recordings supposedly made their way into the hands of producer Rory Dea who helped Stewart get signed to RCA. The story of the fabled lost tracks even earned a mention in Stewart’s Los Angeles Times obituary after he took his own life in 2003.

For Record Store Day 2018, archival recording company the Delmore Recording Society issued a special-edition single dubbed Mowtown. It included Stewart’s version of the Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Loving” and Stevie Wonder’s “Yester-Me, Yester You, Yesterday.” For those of us who follow the world of cross genre-covers the timing was ideal. After all, it was released just days after Taylor Swift’s countrified version of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September,” which sparked an Internet debate about the virtues of country covers of soul tracks.

Stewart’s rendition of “Baby I Need Your Loving” is an impressive one. He packs a multitude of styles into the two-minute, thirty-five-second cut. With a hard-driving drum beat and feisty pedal steel guitar, it feels on the surface like an extension of the country-rock Bakersfield sound of the late ‘60s. Underneath the country gloss, though, there’s a surprising amount of soul, with funky guitar and bass lines that could have been recorded at Studio A in Detroit as opposed to Nashville. One can definitely hear why the track helped him land a record deal.

But was it worth waiting forty years to hear? Probably not. While it’s a great cover, unheard music is always more compelling in our minds than in our ears.

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