Country singer-songwriter Mike Stinson, the consummate indie underdog, spent the better part of two decades in Los Angeles quietly churning out a slew of uniformly first-rate original honky-tonk ballads. While beloved by local fans (and music journalists), Stinson enjoyed few other rewards and finally abandoned us for Houston, Texas almost a year ago. His superb new album, Jukebox in Your Heart (Stag Records), serves as reminder of how much we lost when he split and, more importantly, what an increasingly critical force in country music Stinson is.
With a genuinely original vocal style and an impressive gift for piercing lyrical phraseology, the Virginia-born singer's move to Texas may finally enable him to transcend his Voice in the Wilderness status and enjoy recognition commensurate with his talent–something we were never able to provide. The album, a stunning series of meditative self-examinations of his life in Los Angeles and country music itself, ranks as a major artistic up-shift for Stinson, and here he discusses it with the characteristic mixture of self-deprecating humor and hard-earned pragmatism that lends his music such undeniable gravity.
[For Jonny Whiteside's feature on Mike Stinson's new album for the print edition of the LA Weekly, click here.]
LAW: You've got a bunch of great new drinking songs on the album–as usual–but these mix whimsy with a deeper psychology, particularly “I'll Live to Drink Again.”
MS: Well, that one comes from being at the bar when they call last call and you know that you don't have anything in the fridge and your buzz goes from 80 to Zero in point-five seconds, yeah, there's that line “I spent all of my dough / just to feel this fuckin' low,” but it's triumphant in the end.
I started writing drinking songs because its just a running theme in so many of my favorite country songs, and so I pick up the pen and try to contribute my verse to that universal song. I don't want to overemphasize or glorify drunkenness, but those songs resonate with me, in general, and I do spend a considerable portion of my life out in bars, it's a central theme of what I do and where I go.
LAW: Several of the songs deal with California and your decision to leave, and they link together quite powerfully. Talk about “Walk Away,” and your decision to re-make “The Late, Great Golden State.”
“Walk Away,” I cant remember when I wrote that, but am sure I was thinking about leaving town a bit. It was an exercise in linear songwriting, that's what it was. Some people think that's the wrong way to go, that it's 'cheating' to start with a title and then write the song to match it. But I had “Walk Away” in my mind and I just sat down in the swing on my porch and wrote it. Its a sequel to “Late Great Golden State,” which was on my first album but it was recorded with so primitive a sound, and just to get that done was . . . a lot of favors were granted, and whoever would show up and play was on it. But now it's become the song I'm most known for, and I just figured I oughta have a fully fleshed out version, I didn't want people to forever be referencing the first album – it was a baby step, out of the crib. The only reason we cut it again is [film maker] Jim Hollander wanted to film a video on me, wanted to work together, and he's a good guy, he said “let's do a video” I said, “great,” and I was trying to sell him on a new song, but he had a vision about “Golden State,” so we did it, and I re-cut the song, because I didn't want the sofa-living room acoustic version, When it came time to put this together, it was clear that it fit on the album. When Dwight Yoakam cut it, he sped it right up, with a banjo and the words fly by so fast you cant catch 'em–but I've got a gold record of it hangin' on my wall, which I'm very proud of. He was nice enough to include on a greatest hits album and it sold 500,000 copies.
LAW: The recurring verses of “Ashes of a Dream” peppered throughout the album is a marvelous conceit.
MS: “Ashes,” yeah, that's an old songwriter trick that I earned from Willie Nelson's Phases & Stages record, a vignette that keeps appearing throughout, using that little theme to link it together, Phases is one of may all time favorites and I started thinking we could do that with “Ashes,” and I was intending to call the album “Ashes of a Dream,” it seemed logical. A lot of people ask why didn't you use it as title cut, but I got talked out of that, for whatever reason, in the end..
LAW: How did you settle on Houston as your new headquarters?
MS: I just love Texas in general. Every time I've come through I've really enjoyed it and this is the last place where country music is still really part of the culture. I thought it'd be a kick to come down here and play country–where there's still quite a scene. Houston, I've always enjoyed it when I've come through. Austin is a great town and we gig there regularly but it's packed solid with killer musicians, to the point of a whole lot of mice fightin' for the same piece of cheese. That's not to knock Austin: it's Disneyland for a country fan, but the players are workin for the same peanuts that the players in LA are: 40, 50 dollars. You could make it on that in the 70s but those days are long gone and the gigs still don't pay anymore, it's the same rate as they did in 1970 for a bar gig. Nice idea but, man, try to live on it that.
LAW: Did you know many people in Houston from before?
MS: I have a bunch of friends here in Texas, but most of 'em are in Austin, I only knew a few people in Houston, but all I've ever wanted was a chance to stand on my own two feet, and Austin would be so entirely predictable. And there's been such a massive exodus of musicians from Los Angeles to Austin and I wasn't going to jump in that line. Anyway, Houston is gonna take over–just in terms of size! It's set to replace Chicago as the third largest American city. Coming from Los Angeles, it doesn't feel that huge, it's really way more manageable, all the bars are within a few miles of my house, Armadillo Palace, Mucky Duck, Blanco's, tons of 'em, and they're all like three freeway exits from here. How many nights have I had to drive from Culver City all the way back to North Hollywood? Houston is infinitely more manageable. And there's just a myriad of towns with gigs, you shoot up to Dallas, out to Corpus or New Braunfels.
The dancehalls and country gigs, there's no end to 'em–if you can tap into 'em. My band isn't perfect for the dancehalls, they want to be able to request any song and have to you play it so they can two step to it. My music is 85 percent original, we're not a perfect dancehall band by any means but we're getting some of these gigs and there's a lot of two stepping going on. We're just starting to get call[s] from the outlying areas, and if you can keep 'em hopping on the dance floor, there's peanuts to be made.
LAW: Obviously your happier in Houston than you were here.
MS: In Los Angeles, people just think they know you too well. When I stepped out from behind the drums, and started singing people asked “What're you doing singing? You belong behind the drums.” Movin' here by my fuckin self is a chance to do it by myself, I'm not under anyone's influence, I just hit the re-start button, clean slate entirely, And if I can't stir somethin' up here I ought to just fuckin' hang it up anyway. I knew when I started writing these type of songs that it was not the most popular thing in today's world, stylistically. I knew that goin' in and writing honky tonk songs, I always felt like the most alternative guy around, like “hey, I got your alternative right here, check it out.” It's the music I love most and I'm gonna do it. The ramifications are endless, but I'm not sorry about it.
LAW: Country is a tough gig, now more than ever.
MS: Country music is still the most popular style in the country, but it takes one tweak to change minds about what the essential ingredients are, to what makes this stuff great, It's become a formulaic thing with Nashville. They listen to a George Jones song, and an exec with a suit and tie says 'lets break it down, see what these elements are that make it great,” and they hire writers to do that for 'em, something with a train and the dog in the back of the pick up truck, that's country, right?
They get the cutest tiniest little person they can, put him in the cutest tiniest pair of jeans and a cowboy hat, and they try to manufacture what's great about George Jones. You can't do it–because it takes soul. And since the dawn of music, there's been bubblegum and there's been the good stuff, and there's still plenty of the good stuff out there. I've just decided to follow my own muse and always thought that artists were supposed to show people what good art is, and not follow the trend of what other people enjoy about it. If I have to pay for that by being inconvenienced by poverty for life, then so be it.
LAW: I assume you're already writing for the next record
MS: My next album is gonna be unbelievable, I cant believe it myself. You know, I lived in North Hollywood for eleven years with two roommates, and a studio in the living room. Endless musicians dropping bv at all hours, it was a party house and try trying to work in there was almost impossible. I'd end up writing at four in the morning, and the next day I'm woken up by a snare drum in the next room cause they['re] setting up for a session. So, I pared my life down to the bare essentials, sold two drum sets, got rid of everything, furniture, just left it all behind. Now, I've got this little apartment in Houston and no one ever knocks on my door–ever. It's genius, I've got time to focus like never before and the songs that are coming out of here are knocking me out. It's gonna be a hip album but no matter what you're intentions are it still takes a year and a half to put out a record.
LAW: As usual, you don't seem to hyping Jukebox aggressively
MS: I still haven't had a CD release party for this album, it's really not intentional and I kick myself about it, I know I should be doing more in that department, but the release party, the hype, it does seem unseemly to me. It's always some selling point–but I don't want to be sold a bill of goods. Somebody get one decent write-up and then it's “come celebrate the great press, it's a celebration!” Well, for me, it's not a “celebration”–it's what I do. I do it and we're finished. Otherwise it's just sales, and I'm not into sales. My dad was a salesman and he'd always tell me to get into sales, that it was the essence of the American Way, and it is just unseemly. I feel gross when I hype myself. I'm participating in an art form that I hold near and dear to my heart, and if you like it, check it out. I'm not the best and I'm not going to ram it down your throat, because that's just gross. All the things I've loved in life, I sought out and discovered myself–and you can't fake it.