This is the first post of a recurring series, looking at albums that remain on my iTunes playlist in original running order after a lot of years. For this first one, a look back at John Stewart, not the comedian and Daily Show host, but rather the less-well-known songwriter of one of the most played songs in American radio history.
I recently saw the film First Man, about Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, which stars Ryan Gosling. The film reminded me of John Stewart’s composition about this event, entitled “Armstrong,” and the 1973 album on which it first appeared (after a failed single release in 1969), one of my all-time favorite records, entitled Cannons in the Rain.
After starting his professional music career in a “Kingston Trio clone” group called the Cumberland Three, Stewart was invited to replace the Kingston Trio’s original banjo player Dave Guard in 1961, and he added his bass voice to the mix with the Trio’s remaining Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane. His best-known solo performance was on their top-ten 1963 hit “The Reverend Mr. Black,” and he went on to write several songs for their albums.
The “clean folk” sound of the Kingston Trio ran out of gas during the British Invasion era, so Stewart brought an unrecorded Trio song called “Daydream Believer” to music producer Chip Douglas, who turned the song into a #1 hit and radio staple for The Monkees. “Daydream Believer” saw the top of the charts again in 1980, recorded by Canadian artist Anne Murray. After several disappointing attempts at recording his own material, Stewart recorded an album called Cannons in the Rain in Nashville in 1973 that garnered a rave review from Rolling Stone magazine, but even then it was not a great commercial success.
The opening track, “Durango,” is a catchy riff on Stewart’s failed attempt to become a movie star, auditioning for the part of Billy the Kid in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a part that went to fellow musician Kris Kristofferson, with Bob Dylan writing the music and appearing in the film. The second cut on the album is a remake of a Kingston Trio tune, “Chilly Winds,” that Stewart and John Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas) had adapted from an old folk song.
The title track, “Cannons in the Rain,” is an evocative song about our often-irrational beliefs in the things we wish were true:
Don Quixote’s windmills were giants in his eyes;
To see things as they really are, it can only make you wise;
And all his Holy Roads, they were sidetracks just the same;
Still you believe the thunder are cannons in the rain,
Are cannons in the rain.
John Stewart – Cannons in the Rain
Fleetwood Mac’s guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, who learned his earliest guitar licks from Stewart’s Kingston Trio “clawhammer” banjo style, took him in a very “Fleetwood Mac-y” direction in producing Stewart’s 1980 album, Bombs Away Dream Babies (including using Stevie Nicks on background vocals), which delivered his only solo Top 10 hit, “Gold” (“People out there turning music into gold!”). Watch Buckingham sometime on video to see this unique playing style. Roseanne Cash also had a top country hit in 1987 with his song “Runaway Train.”
John Stewart continued writing songs and touring as an acoustic artist, usually solo or with an accompanying bass player, and sometimes with his wife, singer Buffy Ford Stewart (the “All Time Woman” written about on this album) right up until his death at age 68 in 2008. He was an early user of the Internet to connect with his dispersed fans, with whom he would freely chat online and distribute numerous home studio re-works of his older songs, as well as new material, eventually recording over 600 songs.
And right now, “Daydream Believer” is probably playing on the radio somewhere.