Stew Stewart: ‘My way of saying goodbye to Merle Haggard’

Stew Stewart is the entertainment manager at the Carson Valley Inn.
Stew Stewart is the entertainment manager at the Carson Valley Inn.

Merle Haggard may have been the greatest at many things, but he was baffled when he saw what fellow entertainer Stew Stewart could do.

“How the hell did you catch that fish?” Haggard asked Stewart, who had landed a big one at Lake Shasta, where Haggard had rented a houseboat. That true fish story occurred decades ago and it started a long friendship.

Stewart remembered his friend during a night of music at the Carson Valley Inn shortly after Haggard passed away on his 79th birthday, April 6, 2016, at his home in Palo Cedro, near Lake Shasta in Northern California.

“I’m just a hillbilly singer and I try to be an entertainment director,” Stewart said, relaxing after his show had finished last week.

Stewart oversees the shows at the CVI, the nightly ones in the Cabaret Lounge and the big concerts in the summer at the outside venue, TJ’s Corral, where Haggard performed last summer. An entertainer for 50 years, he only gets on the stage every three months or so to front the Cabaret Lounge house band he put together.

He was adamant about not calling his singing that night a Merle Haggard tribute, and he didn’t call attention to the show by changing anything on the marquee. Nevertheless, he sang Haggard songs and told stories about him through the night.

“This was just my way of saying, ‘Goodbye, Hag,’ ” he said afterward.

Comfortable and quick-witted, Stewart is a real pro on stage. He bantered with the audience, revealing a cantankerous charm.

He invited up his friend Steve Coburn, who sang three Haggard songs. Before residing in the Carson Valley, Coburn lived in California’s Central Valley during the time when Haggard created the “Bakersfield Sound.” After he finished high school, Coburn said he turned down a recording offer to pursue a rodeo career.

“(Haggard’s) band would play with us in Bakersfield when it was not on the road,” Coburn said. “Norm Hamlet played steel guitar (for Haggard). It was a special time in my life.”

Coburn said his appearance at the Cabaret Lounge was the first time he had sang in public in years. “Hollering at a racehorse hurt my vocal chords,” he said.

The racehorse is California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion. His new horse is California Chrome’s 2-year-old sister, R Sunday Surprise. Coburn said Haggard motivated him to strive to achieve.

“Merle was a big influence on my life,” he said. “He was an artist who put love into his fellow man, his country and into his music. In my opinion, he’s the greatest singer-songwriter in history. He taught me, if it didn’t work today, it will work tomorrow if you work a little harder. You’ve got to take a chance in life.”

There were about 20 Haggard songs performed during the evening’s set. After one of them, Stewart paused and reflected, “Backstage, he was the most introverted person you’d meet in your life,” he said. “How he got a name being an outlaw I’ll never know.”

Poignancy came during the final Haggard song of the night – actually a tune written by Townes Van Zandt and recorded by Haggard and Willie Nelson, “Pancho and Lefty.” Guitarist Curt Lee sang Willie’s parts.

“If not for Merle, country music wouldn’t be what it is,” Lee said. “He was an original and there are not many left.”

Indeed, Willie Nelson is one of the last ones left on earth.

“Saint Peter must be putting together a band,” Stewart said, perhaps thinking out loud the title of another Haggard song, “Are the Good Times Really Over.”

Folks in the Cabaret seemed unanimous in their depression over what popular country music has become in recent years. Between Haggard tunes, requests came for traditional artists such as George Jones, George Strait, Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, Waylon Jennings, Garth Brooks, Elvis.

Someone shouted, “Conway Twitty!”

“I don’t know any God-damned Conway Twitty songs,” Stewart teased before telling the story about how Conway Twitty came up with his name and then singing one of his songs.

After the show, Stewart sat at the bar and recalled Haggard’s performance at Sharkey’s Casino during a memorial for Stew Carnall, the former manager for Johnny Cash.

“(Carnall’s) family invited me to come and sing and when I walked through the door Merle had just finished playing,” Stewart said. “He introduced me and it broke up the sadness. He handed me the mic. I said, ‘I’ve opened a bunch of shows for you but I sure as hell won’t close one.’ And then I told a bunch of stories. Afterward, Merle put his arm around me and said, ‘You did a good job.’

“People are always saying he’s a legend, but that’s putting it pretty mild. He’s the greatest songwriter I ever thought of. He was a great singer and a great, great guitar player, and to me he was just a great guy.

“When he would go onstage, the crowd would go wild. Then he’d pick up his guitar and they’d go quiet. They were just mesmerized. Then he’d do the song and they’d go nuts again.”

After a couple of beers, Stewart said he found some solace when it was suggested Haggard the man might be gone but his music will always be around.

But there was something else for Stewart to lament. It occurred when he came out for his first song.

“I must be the only singer in the world who cried singing (‘Okie From) Muskogee,’ ” he said.

Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage
Stew Stewart and Steve Coburn relax after the show.
  • Free music in the Carson Valley Inn’s Cabaret Lounge
    6-10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday
    7-11 p.m. Thursday
    8 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday and Saturday
    Schedules are subject to change and are altered slightly during special entertainment, major sporting events, NFL season, special promotions and holidays.
  • April 27-30: RYE Brothers
    The Rye Brothers are a “power-pop” country act, mixing contemporary country music and rock n’ roll guitar driven songs. Led by Paul Justin & Justin Foutz, who trade off on the lead vocals and guitar licks. Paul and Justin formed Rye Brothers in the Summer of 2015 and quickly added a solid rhythm section consisting of Jacob Delott (bass, backing vocals) and Jeff Sorenson (drums, backing vocals) to round out this Southern California based “power-pop” quartet.
  • May 1-5: Dale Poune
    Dale plays guitar, dobro, mandolin and bass. An accomplished vocalist with a variety of musical styles, he has performed with the Fortunes, Buddy Miles, The Coasters and The Drifters – and is currently working with Lacy J. Dalton.
  • May 6-7: Monique and the Moon Lighters
    Formerly known as Mo’z Motley Blues band,  Moni (Monique’s nick name) & The Moonlighters have their musical foundation in blues, but also incorporate many other sounds and styles to produce a rockin’ rhythm and blues funky dance band experience.
  • May 8-11: George Pickard
    George is an accomplished performer, believable impressionist, captivating entertainer and successful song writer. He co-wrote What Did You Do with Your Old Forty Fives for Bobby Vinton and backed up many acts from the fifties and sixties including The Shirelles, The Diamonds and The Platters. He was also one of the Kingsmen (Louie, Louie). George has played the Fillmore in San Francisco with acts such as Santana, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Jefferson Airplane.
  • May 12-14: After Dark
    Playing your favorites from the ’60s through today with lots of ’70s hits, this high-energy rock ‘n’ roll band will get you out of your seat and on your feet! After Dark’s band members have a collective 125 years of performance experience and the group has a continually growing song catalog and a fun-loving following.
  • May 15-18: Bill Wharton
    Bill Wharton has been entertaining people across the western United States, Alaska and Hawaii for, as he says, “eons.” His smooth, melodic tone comes out in his vast repertoire from old classic country thru modern country, pop to classic rock, blues and jazz. Songs to fall in love to, drown your sorrows, take you to your happy place or just to shake your groove thang.
  • May 19-21: Just Us
    Just Us is a unique group of musicians who decided to blend together the sounds of the Motor City and Oakland, California to develop “Sweet, Grown & Sexy” sounds – music from the 60’s to the present.  Aladdin handles lead vocal and percussions. He is joined by Les Carter on vocals and drums, Phil Weaver on vocals and guitar and Fred Williams on bass.
  • May 22-25: TBA
  • May 26-28: Voodoo Cowboys
    Playing together since 2009, the Voodoo Cowboys have appeared at most major casino venues in Nevada.  Not the cryin’ in your beer type country band; they are the life of the party with their dance-inducing, hard drivin’ country music and rock ‘n’ roll. The group has energized crowds on numerous stages around the world, as well as sharing stages with such rock and country stars as David Nail, Little Texas, Ron Keel and Toby Keith.
    Stew Stewart

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.


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