From a fan's perspective, Mike and the Moonpies' surprise May 28 release Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart came out of nowhere. The band announced it just five days prior during a livestream, with the new album hitting streaming services at midnight on the late "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)" singer's birthday.
For Stewart's daughter Shannon Stewart and longtime family friend Tommy Schwartz, the album ends a search that intensified when Gary Stewart died on Dec. 16, 2003 at age 59.
Per her dad's request, Shannon saw to it that Schwartz got boxes of demos, documents and other artifacts from Gary Stewart's career, spanning from his successful run in the '60's as a Nashville songwriter alongside Billy Eldridge to his final years in Florida.
Schwartz would soon start pitching what he estimates to be around 100 demos of unreleased songs to the likes of Cody Jinks and Weldon Henson. Shannon was equally invested in finding homes for her dad's unheard material, and she was just one connection away from making an old dream a fresh reality.
"Me and Jess (Carson), who is one of the guitar players in Midland, we talk back and forth all of the time and try to keep up with each other, and they are so down to Earth," Shannon says. "I was hoping they were going to do some of Dad's stuff for us. They and John Burris introduced me to Mike and the Moonpies, and it just took off from there. I felt like I've known them forever, and they pretty much took the project on."
Mike and The Moonpies singer Mike Harmeier remembers Burris approaching him about a year and a half ago with an opportunity to cover hidden Gary Stewart gems.
"He had mentioned that Gary's daughter Shannon had this collection of songs and had kind of been pitching them to some other people who hadn't really taken hold of it yet," Harmeier says. "He asked me if I was interested in it, and I said of course. If nothing else, I wanted to hear these demos."
Schwartz began sending Harmeier material, including a few personal favorites.
"The ones that they picked out, I feel like I almost hand-fed them," Schwartz says. "I told them, 'I like this one, I like that one.' It seems like they just about did all of the ones that I liked. Actually, a couple of them I sent them for amusement purposes. As a matter of fact, things like 'The Finished Product,' I thought they'd get a kick out of hearing it."
These selections included a full band demo of "Smooth Shot of Whiskey," a song left on the cutting room floor when Stewart and Dean Dillon's second collaborative album for RCA (1983's Those Were the Days) got bumped down to a mini LP.
"'Smooth Shot of Whiskey,' I knew they had to do that song," Schwartz says. "That song would have been a hit had Gary and Dean gone ahead and put it out or if RCA had gone ahead and put it out instead of keeping it off the last album they made together. I'm sure it would've charted."
On the Mike and the Moonpies recording of "Smooth Shot of Whiskey," Harmeier sings Stewart's parts while one of Shannon's friends from Midland, Mark Wystrach, fills the boots of Dillon. Truly, their vocal interplay plus Zachary Moulton's pedal steel accompaniment might've made Shannon and Schwartz's lengthy search for performers worthwhile, even without nine other songs.
Shannon's favorites include the title track, a song misidentified as being either her dad's last co-write with her mom Mary Lou, who'd preceded Stewart in death by just a few weeks, or a statement of sorrow penned after Mary Lou's death.
Its unreal true story paints the song as more of a prophecy than a parting statement.
"'Touch of You' is a very special song to me because my mom and dad wrote that song together back in '87 or '88," Shannon says. "It's the way their life ended up panning out. That whole song: 'I lost my best friend the day that I lost you.' It's like they wrote that song, and then at the end of their life, that song explained everything."
The song and its story connected with Harmeier and his bandmates as they narrowed down a long list of possible Stewart homages to the 10 songs on the album.
"If nothing else, we were going to cut that song and release it," he says. "Before I talked to Shannon and Tommy about a full record, 'Touch of You' I was going to do. Even if we couldn't record it, we were going to play it at shows."
Schwartz, a friend of Stewart's as far back as 1966 and one of his Florida bandmates in the Easy People Band, dates "The Gold Barstool," "Bottom of the Pile" and "The Finished Product" to the late '60's and early '70's, with such demos as "I'm Guilty" and "Heart a Home" cut later on in Schwartz's home studio.
As Harmeier soon learned, many of these unheard recordings weren't exactly clear roadmaps to a finished product.
"I'd say about 70 percent of the songs they sent me were just rough demos," Harmeier says. "In half of them you can hear Gary calling out chord changes to the band, which was interesting because some of them I didn't have the lyrics to because Gary would be talking to them."
To reach the finish line in time for Stewart's birthday, Mike and the Moonpies made the best of an unexpected situation by remotely recording honky-tonk, a style they all know like the back of their hands.
"Up until the quarantine thing, we were touring so much that we had no idea of when we'd be able to finish it," Harmeier says. "We were even talking about pushing it another year and maybe doing it next year on his birthday. Basically, when we got on lockdown, we saw a golden opportunity to wrap it up from home and get it out just in time. We finished the record two days before the release, pretty much."
Harmeier and his band's grasp of Stewart's sound reflects a legend's influence on groups in Texas, where Stewart found a home away from home at Billy Bob's in Fort Worth. Through a broader scope, it represents how country music gradually caught up with a true outlaw's musical vision.
"Dad always felt like he didn't fit in anywhere," Shannon says. "He didn't fit into the country scene. He fit in more with the Southern rock, like the Allman Brothers Band. He had his own sound."
"We kind of parallel him in a lot of ways because we're traditional country but we push that rock show edge," Harmeier says of Stewart. "It really made sense for us to be doing this project, especially because our timelines seem very similar."
Shannon and Schwartz were both over moon to hear Mike and the Moonpies' completion of everyone involved's fantasy come true.
"When I listened to the album for the first time in my car, I literally closed my eyes and I could hear my dad in the songs," Shannon says. "I could hear his style. Mike killed it. He nailed it. It's above and beyond what I'd ever expect."
"It's totally beyond my dreams," Schwartz adds. "When they called me and told me they did a whole album, I just couldn't believe it. We were hoping for a song or two. We were hoping for 'Smooth Shot of Whiskey' and maybe another one with somebody. It was just overwhelming."
Expect more Stewart-related news down the pike, including a book that's currently being written by Jim McDonough, author of Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen. Shannon won't name names, but apparently McDonough's already interviewed a couple of A-list talents.
"People have approached us for documentaries on Dad, and we've turned a couple of them down," Shannon adds. "But now with all that's going on, it might be time."
Hopefully, any projects about Stewart paint a beyond-the-stage picture of a father, husband, friend and lifelong fixture of Charley Pride's Christmas card list.
"Dad was a gentle soul," Shannon says. "Everybody hears his music and thinks he was a hardcore drinker and all of that, but believe it or not, my dad drank wine on occasion. He wasn't a heavy, heavy drinker. He wrote those songs because those songs sold."
Don't let the greatness of Mike and the Moonpies' album or the promise of a Stewart biography overshadow a absurd statistic: Schwartz still has about 90 unheard examples of Stewart's songwriting brilliance.
"If there's somebody out there, I've got more," Schwartz says. "I've got enough that Sony ought to be paying me for pitching their songs with as much work as I've put into it for 15 years."
Shannon seconds that emotion, in case anyone wants to cut their own Stewart tribute.
"I'd love for more of dad's music to get out," she says. "Honestly, I feel that his songs need to be heard because he was so ahead of his time. We kind of got robbed when my dad left, in a sense, because he was an amazing musician and there's just so much more out there."
Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart became the second surprise Mike and the Moonpies album in less than a year. Last August, the band shared Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold, a secret project recorded at Abbey Road Studios and featuring accompaniment from the London Symphony Orchestra.
Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart Track Listing
"Bottom of the Pile"
"Smooth Shot of Whiskey" (feat. Midland's Mark Wystrach)
"Touch of You"
"Life's a Game"
"Dance With Barbara" (feat. Courtney Patton)
"The Gold Barstool" (feat. Zac Wilkerson)
"The Finished Product"
"Heart a Home" (feat. Courtney Patton and Jamie Lin Wilson)