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Walking Away

Honky-tonk exile: Mike Stinson.

Mike Stinson, the Virginia-born, Los Angeles–bruised honky-tonk singer-songwriter, is too genuine, too original, too artful and too damn country for his own good. This multiplicity of curses allowed him to produce a tall stack of superb songs and gather a local cult following in L.A., but left him with a soul so burdened by discontent that he just up and left us, settling in Houston, Texas, almost a year ago. Stinson's just-released Jukebox in Your Heart, a drastically expert set of original meditations on drunkenness, loss, passion, frustration and country music itself, serves as a stunning reminder of how profound Los Angeles' loss is.

When Stinson first arrived here in the early '90s, he was a working drummer with rock star aspirations who quickly built an impressive résumé, keeping time for the likes of Christina Aguilera and Lucinda Williams. Soon enough, though, he found himself compelled to do what he does best, which is "writing sad country songs." Stinson, slight of stature, warm of personality and blessed with a poet's instinct, is unapologetic about this unlikely switcheroo. "I knew when I started writing these types of songs that it was not the most popular thing in today's world — I knew that goin' in," he says. "But writing honky-tonk songs, I always felt like I was the most alternative guy around, like, 'Hey, I got your alternative right here.' It's the music I love most, and I'm gonna do it. The ramifications are endless, but I'm not sorry about it."

He excelled at it but never managed to commercially exploit his talent or expand his circle of influence. Stinson's noble and genuinely suicidal promo policy — cut an album, sit on it, start working on another and then not even bother to tell anyone when the first one came out — didn't help. Finding copies of his Last Fool at the Bar and Jack of All Heartaches was often a Grail-like pursuit. Increasingly disheartened with low-paying gigs, Jukebox in Your Heart was recorded in Texas in 2009, and as months passed without an apparent hope for its release, Stinson grew more and more restless. That tension, bafflement and his decision to leave California are at the album's heart, and serve as an intensely fertile elemental combination. Produced by Texas stalwart Jesse Dayton, anchored by Stinson's squirrely, earnest, unstudied vocals and shifting from hardcore traditional country to thoroughly contemporary arrangements, Jukebox in Your Heart is nothing short of a masterpiece.

At once gleamingly idiosyncratic and indebted to country sacrament, the album progresses with off-kilter grace from the rueful tavern glee of "Stop the Bar" and "I'll Live to Drink Again" to the somber, scab-picking laments "Ashes of a Dream" and "Walk Away." The former brilliantly combine daft whimsy with brooding psychology ("I struggle to control/this empty feeling in my soul") while the latter are some of the most penetrating exercises in metaphor he's ever achieved. "Walk Away" is a riveting account of Stinson's self-imposed honky-tonk exile and its frustrations ("The more I know/the less I have to say"), where "Ashes" turns up as recurring vignette, à la Willie Nelson's Phases & Stages, with single verses peppered between tracks until the full number, a testimonial on the torment of life in country music, serves as the set's knockout climax.

But the album's centerpiece is a remake of Stinson's classic, Dwight Yoakam–covered "Late Great Golden State," an elegiac, catchy-as-hell midtempo revelation that perfectly captures our land of curdled milk and toxic honey (where we're all "one slip from a grim fate"). " 'Golden State' was on my first album, but it was recorded with so primitive a sound," Stinson says. "Now, it's the song I'm most known for, and I didn't want people to forever be referencing the living room–sofa acoustic version. When we were putting this one together, it was clear that it fit on the album." Like "Ashes," it's a song about country music, but metaphorically it seeps across the full spectrum of experience, and could just as well be about the foreclosure and economic crisis; songs that increase in relevance are rare, but Stinson knocks 'em off with shocking ease.

And in Houston, where he's got a kicking band and plenty of club and dance-hall jobs, Stinson's just getting started. "Moving here by my fuckin' self is a chance to do it by myself. I'm not under anyone's influence, I just hit the restart button. Clean slate entirely. I've got this little apartment, and no one ever knocks on my door — ever. I've got time to focus like never before, and the songs that are coming out of here are knocking me out. And if I can't stir something up here, I ought to just fuckin' hang it up anyway."

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