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A Cowboy's stage work is never done

By Brian Baker, July 2000

The Kinman brothers have come a long way from Rank and File to their latest project together, Cowboy Nation.

As the old needlepoint sampler on the wall clearly observes, the only constant in life is change, and no two people exemplify that homily any more plainly than brothers Chip and Tony Kinman.

From their early punk leanings in The Dils in the late '70's to the initial cowpunk brilliance and the later near metal cacophony of Rank and File (which included Alejandro Escovedo) to the electronic industrial complex of Blackbird, the Kinmans have always been incredibly restless creatively, and always willing to explore the boundaries.

During one such period of exploration, the Kinmans began to focus on classic cowboy songs of the American West and ultimately began writing songs in that style.

When the dust had settled, the brothers had perfected their newest and simplest style,and rechristened themselves Cowboy Nation, which just released their second album, "Journey Out of Time."

"When Chip and I broke up Blackbird five or six years ago, we just played around town with Dennis Duck - back in the old days, he was the drummer for Dream Syndicate - for a year or so, regular band-like stuff," recalls Tony Kinman from his Burbank, Cal. home. "We were getting ready to do some recording, and Chip and I were sitting around playing together, and we were playing some of the old songs that we've known for a long time. And we started thinking of, like, Willie Nelson's 'Red Headed Stranger' or Johnny Cash's 'Mean as Hell,' and we thought we should come up with some kind of theme, which got narrowed down to the Western cowboy idea."

Once the Kinmans decided to pursue the Western music concept, their sessions began to take an interesting turn. As they rehearsed the old cowboy standards, the influence began to leak into their own songwriting, and the idea began to expand.

"As we were working up some of the old songs, which Chip and I have played for years on our own, we just started writing material that would be suitable for the theme of the record," says Kinman. "As we got deeper into it, it became more of an artistic concept or thematic concept that the whole Western format was within the context of American popular culture. It just sort of opened up in front of us, in the sense that everybody knows this stuff. It's so deeply ingrained in our whole national consciousness. You hardly have to explain anything. People know what a lariat is, and what a saddle is and what a stirrup is. They know a horse and cattle and a cowboy and a trail drive because of movies and music and everything else."

The more the Kinmans examined the cowboy phenomenon, the more they realized that the American Western way of life had been faithfully presented in the movies or on television almost continuously, while music had virtually ignored the West since Marty Robbins had a hit with "El Paso." That sealed the brothers' decision to base their new sound in an old but important chapter in American history.

"We did this as opposed to the idea of preserving the music," Kinman says emphatically. "There's always people interested in preserving these things, like you preserve something that's dead. We wanted to perpetuate something by making it live again. We thought this is a great opportunity to do some of this stuff and narrow it down, not in the sense of Rank and File with the country-type thing. This was an even more narrow focus. This was like a musical discipline for ourselves, especially as we were designing the sound that we wanted to make on this record. Minimal instrumentation and minimal arrangement, concentrating on the rhythm."

Before Cowboy Nation entered the studio, Duck bowed out due to a number of other commitments. The Kinmans tapped another old friend, John Norman, to handle the drumming chores on their eponymous debut in 1997, with the knowledge that his services were also temporary.

Norman suggested Jamie Spindle, whom the Kinmans had met during their stint in Austin with Rank and File. She met with the brothers, and their styles and ideas clicked. Spindle has been the Cowboy Nation timekeeper ever since, handling all of the recent live engagements, as well as the recording of the new album.

Although the album came out on the Western Jubilee label, the premiere Western music label in America with distribution through Shanachie Records, Kinman harbors no illusions with respect to the potential of the project.

"When we started this, we weren't thinking, 'Oh, we can sell a lot of records,' or 'Wow, people are really going to dig this,' or 'I can't wait to make the video,'" Kinman says with a laugh. "It was strictly working this thing out, like we were building a house. You know, here's the lumber, here's the nails, if there's anything we don't know how to do, we'd better learn."

Learning, as it turned out, was no problem for Cowboy Nation. And they avoided the biggest pitfall in attempting to resuscitate the Western music movement by refusing to play the role of slavish archivists.

"It's imagination and a little artistic courage," says Kinman. "We deliberately didn't try to make it sound like an old record. There are several bands around L.A. that do go for an authentic recreation of sounds and looks and approaches to music. That's not what we did. We wanted to create a mood and a feeling and an atmosphere, but we didn't want to make it sound like a Marty Robbins record or a Bob Wills record. We really wanted to bring a lot of ourselves into it, and come up with a sound that was different, a sound that had a hardness to it, even though it's mostly played on acoustic instruments. People that grow up playing electric instruments, the first thing they do when they pick up acoustic instruments is that they tend to relax. But a lot of times, to get the sound out of the instrument that you want, you have to up the intensity of your approach. Playing an acoustic instrument is actually much more physical than playing an electric."

Ultimately, the success of Cowboy Nation isn't in unit sales figures or chart positions. The Kinmans have already succeeded by rescuing a faltering art form without sticking a pin through it and looking at it under a magnifying glass. And Tony Kinman certainly understands his place in the grand scheme of cowboy mythology.

"I think one of the reasons that the cowboy legend has lasted for such a long time is that it does have its archetypal, mythic elements in it which you can fill up with the normal drama of human existence," Kinman notes. "Here's a mode to present it. There are other cowboy bands that, when you go to see them, you basically get a laundry list of jargon and vernacular, a few covers of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and it's 'thank you, good night.' It doesn't work for me. We wanted to do something a lot different."