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 Im 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 whos counting? Armed with a rock-bred sensibility and an autodidacts 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 its like the Replacements playin country music, says Stinson. Its not really on purpose. Im tryin to do justice to an old style of music. Were just playin the best we know how, which is kinda rock & roll.
Stinsons seemingly sudden arrival comes after a lengthy apprenticeship as a drummer. Raised on Virginias 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 Bands 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 gigs 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 guitarists great friend and country-music tutor. He bought a CD containing the country-rock architects 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 thats where my heart is. I think its the lyrical content -- the songs are so much better-written than most of the rock songs I was playin at the time. Grams 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. Thats a framework I can understand, that makes sense to me. You cant fuck with it too much. Its 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 Im a Stranger Here Myself remain cornerstones of Stinsons 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.
As he tells it, Stinson hit an emotional wall around the time Jones was sidelined. Id just broken up with the girl who all those songs [on Jack of All Heartache] are about, and had surgery on my ankle, he says. I was laid up with a cast on my foot, the girl gone off with somebody else, and I just wanted to fuckin die, you know? Couldnt play drums, nothin. Was just hatin life.
Salvation appeared in the form of singer-songwriter Ramsay Midwood, who offered him a gig with his rootsy band Waynesboro, a fixture at Culver Citys cozy Cinema Bar. His foot healed, Stinson began tub-thumping with Midwood; after Midwood moved to Austin, Texas, in early 2001, Stinson moved to Waynesboro bandmate Randy Weeks group. (He still performs with Weeks every other Saturday at the Cinema -- his lone extracurricular commitment.) That band also included former Lone Justice and X guitarist Tony Gilkyson and bassist Kip Boardman.
Filled with pain and armed with a portfolio of stomping, tear-stained country-rock songs, Stinson finally began fronting his own group in the summer of 2001. Late that year, producer Charlie McGovern recorded the no-budget yet crisp-sounding Jack of All Heartache with Stinson, Gilkyson, Boardman and ex--Lone Justice and --Emmylou Harris drummer Don Heffington in a succession of L.A. living rooms.
The album (still locally available only at Amoeba and Rhino) and the live shows that succeeded its release showcased everything Stinson does best. They introduced a catalog of tunes -- I Cant Call Virginia, Last Fool at the Bar, Six Pack of Lonely, The Desert of My Heart -- steeped in Coors-drenched misery, sometimes leavened with low-key mirth, by turns fiercely rocking and tenderly subdued. Onstage, the material was animated by Stinsons aw-shucks demeanor and his oddly moving voice -- an adenoidal, wobbly drawl, frayed paper-thin in the upper register, that occasionally called to mind the uncertain pitch and heart-piercing impact of Ernest Tubb. The tunes were rammed home by a solid, unmannered rhythm section (today comprising bassist Lucas Cheadle and drummer Jason Moore) and unpredictably ornamented by Gilkysons what-the-hell-was-that? solo work.
This summer, as the pressure reading on the L.A. country-rock barometer soared, Stinson could be found playing almost weekly all over town -- the Cinema, the Silverlake Lounge, the Derby in Los Feliz, Taix in Echo Park, Toppers in Eagle Rock. In these gin mills and beer joints, he has introduced a new clutch of saloon-friendly songs -- Take Out the Trash, I Cant Go Out Anymore, I Dont Even Cross Your Mind -- steeped in alcohol and anguish.
Killing another Silver Bullet, Stinson says, People ask me, Why do you have to be so sad? My mom in particular: Gosh, Im glad youre writin songs now, but do they all have to be so sad? It just breaks my heart. The type of song that moves me the most is that type of song. Ive got through my moody, depressed times, and then I realized that you cant put that on everybody around you. Everybodys got their own shit to worry about, and they dont have to deal with the black cloud that youre carryin around. So I try not to do that with people . . . but I do it in my songs.