In plain words, Tommy Stinson is a great American musician.
You can needle-drop at any juncture of the Minneapolis native’s four-decade-plus career and find a moment of great significance. Stinson was a founding and lifetime member of the Replacements. He was a key second-generation ingredient in Guns N’ Roses and served a seven-year tenure with Soul Asylum. He also led two essential bands of his own – the aptly named Bash & Pop and Perfect – appeared on recordings by the Old 97’s, MOTH and BT and played bass on the Rock Remix of Puff Daddy’s “It’s All About the Benjamins.”
Stinson’s latest venture is called Cowboys in the Campfire – a duo with good pal Chip Roberts – and its debut album, WRONGER, is perhaps the most American album the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer has ever made.
WRONGER’s 10 tracks ride a giddy trail of twang and grit, melody and (mostly lyrical) mayhem. The very first song, “Here We Go Again,” sets the tone; Stinson on ukulele, singing about the ardors of creativity, while horns swell and there’s not a hint of percussion other than the perceptible tapping of feet by the musicians in the room. It’s stark and immediate, like sitting right in the middle of the maelstrom.
From there we encounter a broad and passionate range of feels, from the rough ‘n’ tumble rockabilly of “That’s It” to “We Ain’t,” a shuffle straight out of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. Stinson and Roberts take us from Nashville to Bakersfield on songs such as “Mr. Wrong” and “Fall Apart Together,” while the “Schemes,” “Souls” and “Dreams” are showcases of ace pop songwriter.
“I’m not one to be pigeonholed – but I’m not putting a lot of thought into it that I DON’T want to be pigeonholed,” Stinson, who now resides the out-of-the-way environs of Hudson, N.Y., says with a laugh. “For me it’s always been that the songs pretty much tell you what they’re going to do. I can sit there and work a song into the ground, forcing my will on it, or you can listen to the song and go, ‘What does this want?’ and do that. I’ve always done it that way.
“Ultimately it’s more about, ‘Let’s try and get the best 10 and take what we’ve got and make them the best they can be.’”
Cowboys in the Campfire was “a joke at first,” according to Stinson, dating back more than a decade. Roberts is the uncle of Stinson’s second ex-wife; he hails from the Philadelphia rock scene, where he was a gun-for-hire guitar slinger for visiting musicians who needed accompaniment. “We’ve been really good friends and writing partners pretty much since we met each other,” Stinson says. “We were writing rock
tunes to ballads or country or Americana, but we’re both come from that sort of singer-songwriter thing.” Neither man expected their association to become a going musical concern, especially as Stinson had plenty on his plate.
But the collaboration had legs, and about seven years ago, during a Guns N’ Roses hiatus and before Stinson ventured into Replacements and Bash & Pop reunions, he and Roberts got a little more serious. “It was spring, and neither one of us had something to do that summer,” Stinson recalls. “So we said, ‘Let’s go play some shows. Let’s fuck around.’ That’s what we did. I took some songs he and I had written together, some of my solo stuff, some covers, some other stuff of mine he plays. We’d ad lib on stuff. We started playing shows in the South and stuff.” One of the duo’s songs, “Anything Could Happen,” became the title track of Bash & Pop’s 2017 release, which Roberts also played on. But they still felt that Cowboys in the Campfire – which takes its name from a couple of Roberts’ paintings – might have its own trail.
“The running joke was, ‘That’s what our band would be called if we had one,” Stinson recalls. “Finally we were like, ‘We’ve got 10 songs here. Let’s make a record.’ It was almost as off the cuff as that. Almost.”
WRONGER began life five or six years ago, when Stinson and Roberts were on tour in Texas. They went into a studio there with a friend, Christine Smith, producing and recorded five songs; X’s John Doe was around, too, and played bass and sang backup on four of the tracks. The rest of the album was made at Stinson’s home studio in Hudson, adding occasional contributions from friends where needed – including a string quartet on the track “Hey Man.” Drums, meanwhile, were considered optional and are only used on a few of WRONGER’s tracks, hearkening back to Stinson’s philosophy to give the tunes what they called for.
The songs themselves came from a variety of inspirations. “Karma’s Bitch,” for instance, is a real-life story from a Maryland beach community where a friend pointed out a man who divorced his alcoholic wife to start dating her equally addled daughter – both of whom ultimately died. “It became the basis of that song, as grim as it is,” Stinson acknowledges. A couple of WRONGER’s songs, particularly “Hey Man,” touch lightly on socio-political topics “without getting too far into it,” Stinson says – just enough to be provocative and open to interpretation. And he cheerfully fesses up to “somewhat channelling” an assortment of influences, including Conway Twitty and Tanya Tucker, whose music was favored by Stinson’s mother.
“It’s an experimental record in a lot of ways,” says Stinson, who turned to Twin/Tone Records co-founder Peter Jesperon and his son Autry to help with the sequencing. “I don’t know what Chip’s ever made a record as experimental as this one. There’s always been a country/folky element to what I’ve done, even early on, but this takes it into a whole other direction. In the grand scheme of things it all kind of goes together in kind of a blur.”
The goal now for Stinson and Roberts is to keep Cowboys in the Campfire on the road and playing as much as possible. Stinson still has other endeavors in mind, but the duo is undeniably an active concern and one he’s confident we’ll be hearing from on a regular basis.
“Chip and I are going to make a real run for it with this record,” Stinson says. “And I’m feeling like I’m probably about to head back in the studio. I’ve got some ideas; they’re just in my head at the moment and in my fingers. I don’t know what they’ll be yet, but I’m in a place now where I can do that and make music on my own terms. It’s a nice place to be.”