By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Pulling on his third or fourth Coors Silver Bullet of the afternoon, Mike Stinson muses about his move to L.A. 11 years ago, after a long stint “playin‘ hippie music” up and down the Eastern seaboard.
Stinson remembers, “I just thought, ’All the songs I‘m playin’ are 20-some years old, and I need to get with it. I need to move to L.A. and play some contemporary music.‘” He pauses, then adds with the self-deprecating chuckle that dots much of his conversation, “Course, then I ended up playin’ songs that are 40 years old.”
They sound more like 50 years old, actually, but who‘s counting? Armed with a rock-bred sensibility and an autodidact’s instinctive understanding of ‘50s and ’60s hardwood-floor country, Stinson has developed an affecting and authentic-sounding bag of original tunes that at once reflect and update the barroom ethos of such titans as George Jones, Ray Price, Buck Owens and Willie Nelson.
In the year and a half since he stepped out from behind his drum kit, strapped on a Telecaster and started fronting his own band, Stinson has become, for a growing legion of local fans, the uncrowned King of the L.A. Neo-Honky-Tonkers -- or, as the title song on his self-released album would have it, the “Jack of All Heartache.” Humble to a fault, Stinson would reject any claim to nobility, but those who have observed his progress over a run of local shows this year would agree that among a growing throng of L.A. country-rock performers, he is the uncontested ruler.
“They say it‘s like the Replacements playin’ country music,” says Stinson. “It‘s not really on purpose. I’m tryin‘ to do justice to an old style of music. We’re just playin‘ the best we know how, which is kinda rock & roll.”
Stinson’s seemingly sudden arrival comes after a lengthy apprenticeship as a drummer. Raised on Virginia‘s Delmarva Peninsula, he started hitting the tubs in his early teens, fired up by a short list of hard-punching rock skinsmen: Charlie Watts, Dallas Taylor of Manassas and Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jim Keltner, and The Band’s Levon Helm.
Though he cites Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty, J.J. Cale and Little Feat as early inspirations, Stinson -- who had moved to Washington, D.C., to study audio engineering and “to learn how to drink and chase skirts” at American University -- spent three years drumming with a Grateful Dead tribute act that worked 200 nights a year at East Coast frat parties. Finally fed up with that gig‘s low financial ceiling, Stinson moved to L.A. in 1991. He says he played “Hollywood-style” with ex--Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen, current Sweethearts of the Rodeo front man Bryson Jones’ Lost Highway, and the Stones-oriented Magic Christian Band.
In 1995, Stinson, a lifelong Stones freak, read Victor Bockris‘ biography of Keith Richards and encountered the influential shade of Gram Parsons, the Stones guitarist’s great friend and country-music tutor. He bought a CD containing the country-rock architect‘s two early-’70s solo albums, and his musical life was altered forever.
Stinson, whose Parsonsesque shag hairdo frames his unglamorous mug, says, “I started learnin‘ those songs and how to play ’em. I started to realize that‘s where my heart is. I think it’s the lyrical content -- the songs are so much better-written than most of the rock songs I was playin‘ at the time. Gram’s voice is wonderful, just conveys the whole sadness of those lyrics in a way I really related to.”
Learning of Parsons‘ affection for George Jones, Stinson began an archaeological dig through classic country. “Lucky thing,” he recalls, “at the time I worked at PolyGram Publishing, in the tape room, and I was the guy who went to Tower Records when they needed somethin’. My boss told me it was okay to grab somethin‘ for myself, and I picked up three or four new CDs a week for almost two years. I just cleaned the country-music section out. I had every Johnny Cash record, every Willie Nelson, every George Jones compilation, every fuckin’ thing, and listened to it all, man.”
Burning to re-create the honky-tonk music with which he had become obsessed, Stinson began to write. “When I heard that template for a country song that Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard can do so well, Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, those people -- I just really wanted to write songs like that. That‘s a framework I can understand, that makes sense to me. You can’t fuck with it too much. It‘s like a beautiful, simple art form.”
From the late ’90s through 2000, Stinson, still pounding the skins, honed his writing chops in the countrified bands the Second Fiddles and the High Horses, both of which included songwriter Andy Jones among their members. Jones custom-tooled the bluesy lament “L.A. Cowboy” for Stinson, and his compositions “The Bottle and Me” and “I‘m a Stranger Here Myself” remain cornerstones of Stinson’s set today. Jones exited the music scene in 2000, felled by a serious illness. Stinson had by then penned “When My Angel Gets High” and “Late Great Golden State,” naked Parsons-inflected songs that would reappear on Jack of All Heartache.