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From Replacements To 'Cowboys,' Tommy Stinson Rocks On

Vivian Wang
Tommy Stinson (R) and Chip Roberts are Cowboys In The Campfire.

When I was trying to find my feet in my early days of college in Chicago, The Replacements released the album Let It Be. It clicked with everything my misfit band friends and I had built our world around in high school, a spanking and snarky mishmash of The Clash, R.E.M., and Rockpile. (“I Will Dare” remains one of the greatest jangle-rock tunes of all time.) Then a sequence of remarkable albums followed - Tim and Pleased To Meet Me in 1985 and ‘87 respectively, securing Paul Westerberg and Co. as a North Star and a midwestern steak dinner of quality rock and roll.

I played bass pretty seriously then, so I connected powerfully to the Replacements’ punchy, articulate low parts, though I couldn’t have told you then who it was laying those lines down. Now I know it was Tommy Stinson, younger half-brother of band founder Bob Stinson. I also now know that as I rocked out to “Alex Chilton” and “Kiss Me On The Bus” I was listening to a bass player almost exactly the same age as I was. I think that would have struck me as impossible or inspiring at the time. I’m glad I know now. And I’m glad I got to speak with Tommy Stinson on the eve of his appearance at Roots on the Rivers and the concurrent release of his latest project, the album Wronger by Cowboys In The Campfire.

It may seem mildly surprising that a guy who made famous punk/pop out of Minneapolis would, years later, be releasing a twangy album with a run of appearances in Music City (Grimey’s and a house concert on Friday before Saturday’s sundown 7:25 set for WMOT). But Stinson’s resume is aggressively diverse and adventuresome. To quote his concise bio, besides a decade with The Replacements (plus a brief reunion in the 2010s), “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.’”

“What keeps me moving is interest,” Stinson said on a Zoom session from his home in the Hudson River Valley when I ask what ties those disparate threads together. “I only do things that, one, are interesting, and also that, you know, pay. And they don't go completely hand in hand all the time. I’ve got a bit of a short attention span.”

Apparently that was the case from the outset.

“My brother started showing me how to play bass at all of 13,” he says. “I was getting in a lot of trouble. And so in one way, my mom kind of gave him the keys and just said ‘you drive, because I don't know what to do with him.’ And so (Bob) showed me how to play bass, and that turned into The Replacements. And, you know, it gave me some direction.”

And this explains the age mystery. “They were all seven years my senior,” he says. So when you see Tommy Stinson on stage this weekend, ponder that he’s been making rock and roll on stage since he was about 14.

The most surprising chapter of Stinson’s career, including to him, is his stint, between 1998 and 2014 with the massive hard rock band Guns N’ Roses. The band’s drummer, a Stinson friend, recommended him for the slot during a stretch of crisis and regrouping, and he had to think about it. “The clincher for me with that was that I thought what Axl (Rose) was trying to do and wanted to do was really ballsy. All these guys left for whatever their reasons were, and (he) still wanted to continue on. It was kind of like joining the underdog football team.” He was even there during the making of the infamously delayed, wildly ambitious, and ultimately celebrated Chinese Democracy album of 2008. Someday we’ll have to do an interview about that on its own.

The new project emerged from a small touring group Stinson carried around to smaller venues with his songwriting, guitar-playing friend Chip Roberts. “It was low maintenance, high fun,” he says, “stopping at weird places along the way. We were really kind of doing the Americana journey.” And that’s the tone that comes out on the debut album Wronger, with strokes of color from the roots heritages of the deep South, the Midwest, California and Texas. “Mr. Wrong,” for example, rocks jauntily along, and it takes concentration to realize there’s not a drummer here (like a bunch of other tracks), just a couple of guitars and a bass, with Tommy’s sincere, weathered voice singing to a former girl, wishing her well. “Fall Apart Together” has a wonderfully bluesy, woozy drift with a sliding guitar. Album closer “Dream,” released as a single, conjures Elvis Costello’s country leaning projects.

It’s a wonderful, bracingly organic project that sounds like smart and experienced cats enjoying the whole process from song to stage. Find out more about them here.

Tommy Stinson's Cowboys in The Campfire - "Dream" • Official Video

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org