Tommy Stinson On His Illustrious Music Career: ‘I Try and Challenge Myself at Every Turn’
Former Replacements Bassist Releases New Album, “Wronger”
Interview by DAN MACINTOSH
You’d never have predicted it, back when Tommy Stinson started playing in a Rock N Roll band as a teenager, that he’d eventually evolve into a credible Americana-Country songwriter. However, this fact is undeniable after listening to Wronger, his duo album with friend and guitarist Chip Roberts. Under the name, Cowboys in the Campfire, these two have given us 10 fun, funny and heartfelt country-ish songs.
Now in his 50s, did Stinson ever imagine he’d one day be a kind of elder statesman, mentoring and producing young bands as well writing such mature, memorable music? “Not really,” he said. “And that’s mostly because I don’t think me or anyone else thought we were gonna reach adulthood.”
After beginning his career with The Replacements, Stinson went on to play in Guns N’ Roses and another legendary Minnesota band, Soul Asylum. Prior to this latest venture, Stinson also made some great noise with his band Bash & Pop.
Although the music he made with The Replacements owed more to the rock and pop sounds he and his bandmates listened to on AM radio as kids, he also heard different styles at home. One of these sonic alternatives was Tanya Tucker. Titled TNT, Stinson has a vivid memory of Tucker pictured on it wearing tight “leather pants. “I remember liking that record. She (mom) would play that on a goofy little stereo once in a while when she had friends over,” recalls Stinson. “She forgot all that when I turned her onto Stray Cats. I was able to get us tickets to their first show in Minneapolis, which was at a strip club called Duffy’s.”
Wait a minute! Stinson took his mom to a strip club to see Stray Cats? Well, it wasn’t exactly like it sounds. “That club I’m referring to, had a music room, a separate music room from the strip part,” Stinson clarifies.” It’s a venue Stinson remembers later returning to with The Replacements when the band opened for Iggy Pop there.
Hearing these decidedly country sounds made a positive impression upon Stinson, but his bandmates would, in his word, “pummel” him with Hank Williams music. “They spun so much, it really took me years after The Replacements had disbanded that it kind of came around.”
When his new music is described as Americana, he responds, “I hate those terms. It’s so broad. Roberts (his partner) was a guitar slinger, playing in the rock and roll scene in Philly, where he came from. He would be the guitar ringer that all the country and blues acts that came through town would call up.”
Stinson’s collaborator had as much influence on this album’s sound as the music he listened to over the years. “I got more of an influence on this record, per se, because of that. But you can hear all my whole background in that from being wacky to, you know, the singer-songwriter kind of genre stuff. But, you know, I’m still trying to rock out with a fucking acoustic guitar on it.”
One of the album’s songs that shows Stinson’s wacky side is titled “Mr. Right.” It doesn’t refer to any specific relationship, though. “It’s experiences from my disastrous relationships,” Stinson only half-jokes. “I think a lot of fellas out there – a lot of females, too – tried that. But I’m not right for that one, or they’re not right for me. No. They’re wrong for me. They’re wrong or they’re more wrong, whatever way you want to go.”
Revisionist historians are quick to point out just how much George Harrison blossomed as a songwriter after the Beatles broke up. When you study the early band album credits, you notice all the Lennon-McCartney collaborations, with just the few Harrison writing credits on each release. All things must pass, they say, and Harrison is now recognized as a songwriting great. But could the same thing be said of Stinson? After all, The Replacements gained much positive attention because of Paul Westerberg’s fantastic songwriting. Now, out on his own, Stinson is receiving similar praise for his writing. Did he, one wonders, suffer from a kind of George Harrison syndrome?
“I never tried to compete with Paul,” Stinson asserts. “You know, I try and challenge myself at every turn, and I try and grow. Expand my horizons.”
When it comes to mapping out his career’s future, he tries to stay as spontaneous as possible. “It could be another Cowboys record,” he said. “It could be anything. And this is kind of how I roll. I really do like letting the songs and the material kind of tell me where I’m going. It kind of directs me, rather than me trying to direct it. If I start playing on a melody or something that gets me going, it could be anything. And I like that. I like pushing myself to make something out of nothing.”
One specific guideline from The Replacements days has stayed with Stinson. “We were good at knowing if it’s fun, we’re gonna do it,” he said. He’s not all that excited about being a kind of sideman again, the way he was with Guns N’ Roses. If he did so, that would have to be loads of fun. “If AC/DC called me up, I’d check it out,” he said. “But really, other than that, I got no need or want for any of that.”
Stinson sounds content with his life now. “I’m in a place now at 56 years old where I can do whatever I want for my music,” he said. “I can go on tour, or I can play anywhere, like backyard parties, and make a living at it. I’m fine with that. It works for me. I know it’s much easier than traveling in a rock band and all that stuff. You know, planes, trains and automobiles. I can do the automobiles in short distances, and even trains, too, but I hate flying.”
With Cowboys in the Campfire, Stinson is clearly having fun, while writing some of the best songs of his life. Where will his music take him next? Nobody knows. Probably not even Stinson. Right now, though, he says, “I have some stuff, you know, sitting in the backwoods of my brain. It’ll tell me where it wants to go, and I’ll probably be doing it.”