29 June 2022

Just Out of Reach: The Stewart Family on KLCN Blytheville

"Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)" by The Stewart Family was the original version of the song. Written by V.F. 'Pappy' Stewart, it was released in 1951 on Bill McCall’s Los Angeles label Gilt-Edge. The group also had records issued on affiliated label 4 Star.

Dozens of other versions of the song, many by major artists, have been released since early cover versions by Faron Young (1952, B-side on Capitol) and by Bonnie Lou (1953, B-side on King). The Originals website lists a selection of 15 versions, and Cover.info lists 55.

Bunny Walters charted #21 in New Zealand with his version in 1970, hence my interest in it.

Pappy Stewart in 1976 (local news story).

The Stewart Family
was a real family, a country and gospel group led by Virgil F. “Pappy” Stewart (1907-1988), a Blytheville, Arkansas soybean grower and the composer of Just Out Of Reach, .

The Stewarts were one of several family musical groups in the area at this time. They were part of a thriving country, hillbilly and gospel music scene nurtured in the 1930s and 40s by local radio stations like KLCN in Blytheville and KOSE in nearby Osceola. 

In 1970, Blytheville journalist Jim Branum noted that KLCN has done as much for country artists than any other station its size in the nation, and acknowledged the prevalence of family groups amongst hillbilly artists.

The Stewart family worked a farm, but they were also musicians, and they married musicians, and they had neighbours who were musicians. The names of Stewart family and friends appear in the line-ups of multiple groups on local radio, and at local events like the National Cotton Picking Contest. 

Some of these artists cut some records on minor labels, but Pappy Stewart’s extraordinary success with Just Out Of Reach, and his connection with the music stars who recorded it, is an outlier in a mainly localised industry.

Pappy, his two daughters, and his sister appeared regularly on KLCN Blytheville from 1934 after they convinced the station to give them a regular 15-minute segment. They toured extensively around the region until 1953. The band broke up as the daughters began raising families of their own.

The family was billed at local events as Pappy Stewart’s Family or Pappy Stewart And His Famous Family. For a gig in Charleston, Missouri in October 1945 they were advertised as “Pap Stewart And His Arkansas Cowgirls of Radio Station KLCN, Blytheville.

In 1951 the line-up was Pappy Stewart (guitar), his daughters Bethyl (fiddle and vocals) and Janet (bass violin), his multi-instrumental sister Baba Howard (mainly accordion) and Bethyl’s husband Buddy Brown.

Baba had also been heard on KLCN in Don & Baba Howard & Their Smiling Hillbillies (clearly along similar lines to Don Howard and His Smiling Hillbilly Gang and Donald Howard and His Smiling Hillbillies, also spotted in the archives).

Also touring with the Stewarts during this period were Wilma Scott and Don Whitney.

Wilma Scott was from Blytheville too, and had been in the Burdette Girls Quartet with Bethyl, Janet and Baba Stewart in the early 1940s. Don Whitney (1926-1985), from nearby Osceola, also worked solo, on stage as Arkansas’ Biggest Hillbilly and on several discs on the 4 Star label. He was a disc jockey at KLCN Blythedale and at KOSE Osceola where he became general manager.

Apart from Just Out Of Reach, Pappy Stewart was a prolific songwriter who had a number of other songs recorded by other artists including Patsy Cline. Many of the songs in the family’s repertoire were written by Pappy or his sister Baba.

When interviewed in 1976 for a profile in Blytheville’s Courier-News, Pappy Stewart was 68 years old and had been married to Gladys for 50 years. He was long retired from professional music and happily living and working on his farm. His sister Baba, who was much younger than Pappy, died in Blythedale in 2013, aged 87.

I’m just a country boy. I’d rather farm as do anything. I’m doing what I want to do.

Pappy Stewart to Jack Weatherly, The Courier-News, 1976

National Cotton Picking Contest 1949

This content was first published at my website in my history of Just Out Of Reach. See there for selected sources.