When “Things Ain't Fine”
Illness and grief lend special meaning to this spirited folk-country debut album.
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Despite being a local music fixture since joining the Pawtuckets in the late ’90s, Stuart had never written his own songs. He says he never even thought about it until his cancer diagnosis. Sitting at home, trying to get better, he started playing around with a guitar.
“I was so not the sensitive singer-songwriter. I made fun of those dudes,” Stuart says. “Now they get to make fun of me.”
The first song he wrote is “Arkansas Is Nice,” a deceptively simple tribute to his home state: “Late at night or if the morning’s early/We hear songs on my radio/None say Arkansas is nice/But they don’t know.” His home-recorded demo of the song ended up on Blues for Lou.
But after Stuart’s father died, his writing sharpened and intensified.
“When my dad died, I wanted to make this tribute to him. I was just going to do it myself. Print up 50 CDs, do all the artwork, and give them to family and friends,” Stuart says. He let a few trusted friends hear his home demos, and they started getting the word out. Local singer Jimmy Davis asked Stuart to open one of his shows — Stuart had never performed as a solo performer — and producer Jeff Powell told Stuart he needed to make a real record.
“I had 20 songs about my dad, but I didn’t want the whole record to be doom and gloom. I really struggled with that,” Stuart says. “I wanted some upbeat stuff.”
What Stuart ended up with is special — a 12-song beaut of a debut whose conversational, folk-country style lands somewhere between John Prine and Roger Miller. It’s funny. It’s touching. It’s spirited. It’s personal without ever being cloying. And it gives a rich, full portrait of a complicated period in one person’s life.
“Things Ain’t Fine” is the only song that references Stuart’s cancer scare, and then only glancingly. His father’s death — as the title suggests — is more central, driving five of the album’s 12 titles.
Most prominent of these are the opening “Remote Control,” which relays a very specific childhood memory, and the unnervingly intimate farewell “Tears in Bubba’s Eyes,” which was also included, at Powell’s insistence, in its home demo form.
“That was recorded the week after I buried my pop,” Stuart says. “My mom had him buried in Pine Bluff, but my brother wanted to get half his ashes and bury them in his family cemetery, where he always wanted to be buried. We didn’t even know if this place still existed. It was called Wood’s Chapel, in Goobertown, up past Jonesboro.”
It was a little cemetery “way back in the woods,” Stuart says. “It was all grown up, and sure enough every tombstone in there was a Stuart. We looked for his mother and there she was. And we just did it. Started digging a hole. It started raining on us. Not to be morbid, but there was something neat about it. It was closure.”
Stuart commemorates this by naming his album-closing instrumental “Goobertown.” It’s jaunty and kazoo-driven. He didn’t want to end the album on a down note.
But Blues for Lou also has great marriage songs (“Wrapped Up in Nothing New”), including a tribute to his mother (“Jacquelyn”) that doubles as a great marriage song. It gets lusty (“Quarterin’ Time”), and rowdy (“Third D.U.I.,” the only non-autobiographical song on the album, though Stuart says it was inspired by someone he knows). He gets particularly sharp help from longtime rhythm section partner John Argroves (credit: “drums, percussion & friend”) and Powell, with Al Gamble adding keys and Kait Lawson background vocals on a few tracks.
It sounds like the album of a lifetime, but Stuart is eager to follow it up.
“I’m not much of a performer,” he says. “I can barely remember the damn lyrics, thanks to radiation, I guess. I’m not much to look at. I don’t dance around. I like doing it, I’m just still not very comfortable. But I want to do it.”