Tommy Stinson is a revered American musician who has enjoyed a significant four decade-plus career. A founding member of The Replacements, he was also a key second-generation ingredient in Guns N’ Roses and served a lengthy tenure with Soul Asylum. In addition, he has led Bash & Pop and Perfect, appeared on recordings by the Old 97’s, Moth and BT, plus played bass on Puff Daddy’s ‘It’s All About the Benjamins (Rock Remix)’.
Stinson’s latest venture is Cowboys in the Campfire. A duo with Chip Roberts, their debut album ‘Wronger’ is perhaps the most ‘American’ album he has ever made, its ten songs riding 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 ardours of creativity, while horns swell and the only hint of percussion is from the tapping of feet by the musicians in the room. Stark and immediate, it is like sitting smack in the middle of a maelstrom.
A broad and passionate range of feels follow, from the rough ‘n’ tumble rockabilly of ‘That’s It’ to ‘We Ain’t’, a shuffle straight out of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, with the duo taking us on a literally country-wide trip on songs such as ‘Mr. Wrong’ and ‘Fall Apart Together’. Other songs such as ‘Schemes’, ‘Souls’ and ‘Dreams’ also prove what an ace pop songwriter Stinson still is. “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,” he states with a smile. “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 ten and take what we’ve got and make them the best they can be.’”TOMMY
TOMMY STINSON | 2023 photo by Vivian Wang
The genesis of Cowboys in the Campfire actually dates back over a decade. Roberts is the uncle of one of Stinson’s exes and was previously a gun-for-hire guitar slinger. “We’ve been really good friends and writing partners pretty much since we met, writing rock tunes to ballads or country or Americana,” explains Stinson. Neither expected their association to become a going musical concern, but the mid-2010s saw a Guns N’ Roses hiatus prior to Stinson venturing into Replacements and Bash & Pop reunions, so things got a little more serious as he recalls: “We thought, ‘Let’s go play some shows and fuck around.’ I took some songs he and I had written together, some of my solo stuff, some covers, some other stuff of mine he plays.”
One of their songs subsequently became the title track of Bash & Pop’s 2017 album ‘Anything Could Happen’, which Roberts also played on, while they continued to feel that Cowboys in the Campfire – which takes its name from a couple of Roberts’ paintings – might have legs. “The running joke was that this is what our band would be called if we had one. 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’ came about when the duo were on tour. They went into a Texas with their friend Christine Smith and recorded five songs, while John Doe of X was also around to play bass and sing harmonies. The remainder of the album was made at Stinson’s home studio, with contributions from other musicians added as necessary, including a string quartet on ‘Hey Man’, a song that touches on socio-political topics “just enough to be provocative and open to interpretation.” Others have different inspirations, with ‘Karma’s Bitch’ resulting from when a friend of Stinson’s pointed out a man who had divorced his alcoholic wife only to start dating her equally addled daughter, both of whom had then died. “As grim as it was, it became the basis of that song.” Stinson cheerfully ‘fesses up to “somewhat channeling” an assortment of influences like Conway Twitty and Tanya Tucker, who were adored by his mother.
“I don’t think that Chip has ever made a record as experimental as this one,” Stinson muses. “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 goes together in kind of a blur.” The goal now is for the duo to keep Cowboys in the Campfire on the road, even allowing for Stinson’s other musical endeavours. “We’re going to make a real run for it with this record,” he affirms, “although I’m also feeling like I’m probably about to head back into the studio. I’ve got some ideas, while I’m in a position now where I can make music on my own terms. It’s a nice place to be.”
1 Here We Go Again
2 That’s It
3 Mr. Wrong
5 Fall Apart Together
6 Hey Man
7 We Ain’t
8 Karma’s Bitch
COWBOYS IN THE CAMPFIRE | Chip Roberts & Tommy Stinson : 2023 photo by Vivian Wang