- Photo by Alex Boerner
How the West Was Worn sits among the books on the coffee table of Steph Stewart's small, mid-century Chapel Hill apartment. The place has aged to a state of well-worn comfort, and Stewart's additions, such as the vintage guitars that hang on one wall, add to its character.
Inside the book, the relationship of age to glitz is inverted. How the West Was Worn demonstrates how western wear has gone from practical and hand-hewn trail garb to the flashy cowboy chic of the Nudie suits popularized by country singer Porter Wagoner. If they had their way, Stewart and her partner, Mario Arnez, would own half the outfits in this book.
"There's not enough money on Earth, I think," Arnez laments.
With their duo, Blue Cactus, Arnez and Stewart have found a place of comfort in the pomp and fashion of mid-century country music. The band name derives from an unlikely colored saguaro on one of Arnez's western shirts, and the duo's blissful embracing Nashville kitsch has become a hallmark.
"It's so aware of its flamboyancy, and it just doesn't have a problem with that," Stewart says.
Previously, Arnez and Stewart were half of Steph Stewart and the Boyfriends. After releasing its second LP, 2015's Nobody's Darlin, the string band began to wind down, yet the two continued writing songs together. Stewart's marriage deteriorated and she moved out on her own. She and Arnez are now more than just songwriting partners, and they'll release their debut as Blue Cactus Saturday night in Carrboro.
After two string-band records with the Boyfriends, the switch to classic country and exploration of new sonic frontiers felt natural. Arnez and Stewart have became a nimble creative unit, adept at exploring heartbreak and hope with time-tested honky-tonk humor.
"With this record, there was no preconception necessarily or limitation we felt we had to deal with," Arnez says. "We didn't have to put a ceiling on any of these arrangements."
He and Stewart love acoustic music, but as they moved past the string-band format they realized Blue Cactus could sound like anything: there could be electric instruments, such as Arnez's electric guitar intro on "Opening," which briefly invokes Neil Young's Dead Man soundtrack; there could be protracted sprawls, such as the orchestrated, seven-minute "Years Are the Minutes" which closes the record. Stately horn sections, as on "Pearl," and Opry-esque choral backing, as on "I Never Knew Heartache (Then I Knew You)," also had a place.
Arnez and Stewart remain good friends with the other two members of the Boyfriends, both of whom contributed to the record. Omar Ruiz-Lopez played violin, while Nick Vandenberg coproduced, played a half-dozen instruments, and wrote the down-and-out barroom ballad "From the Bottle to the Floor." Stewart makes certain to point out that her former band isn't necessarily finished, even if it isn't gigging or recording.
"That might happen again," she says. "Nick moved to Boston recently and that was part of the reason we started to create a new project."
The sessions for Blue Cactus, recorded in Vandenberg's Chapel Hill house before he moved, were organic and personal. Mandolin Orange fiddler Emily Frantz, who lives down the street, would just walk over to make her contributions. The players packed into a 12-by-12-foot bedroom that had been converted to a sound room. It was the heart of summer, and the air conditioner was turned off to aid the vocalists. That bothered Stewart less than one might expect.
"I think it's nice to have a little bit of discomfort," she says.
Considering the heavy emotion in these songs, it made sense to record them live so the music could ebb and flow naturally. And Stewart knows that country music purveyors translating physical pain into powerful music amount to a historical precedent.
"With Patsy Cline, she had just broken her ribs, which is forcing her to kind of be present," Stewart says, referring to the storied recording session where Cline sang Willie Nelson's "Crazy" with fractured bones. "She's feeling literally every painful thing she sings."
For Stewart, the pain is just as real. "My marriage fell apart in the past two years," she says. "I don't think I could write anything else."
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Mario Arnez and Steph Stewart are Blue Cactus.
For all that upheaval, Stewart says her songwriting dynamic with Arnez hasn't changed, now that they're a couple. They've tried new approaches—writing songs title-first, say, which led to cuts like "So Right (You Got Left)"—but the way these two talk about songwriting has remained consistent. In a 2015 interview ahead of the second Boyfriends release, they were reading books by songwriting coaches and trying to start a meet-up group for songwriters. Two years later, they're still reading songwriting books, and their sights are set on a few retreats this summer, where they'll hone their craft and get started on the second batch of Blue Cactus tunes. If these cuts are anything like the ones they've just completed, they'll be lonesome and sad overall, a little hopeful, and laced with silly wordplay and gallows humor. Even in the toughest times, Stewart points out, it's important to remember how to laugh somehow. Spangled garb certainly helps.
"It's like moths to the flame, I guess," Arnez says. "It's just so bright and beautiful."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Prickly Pair"