Cowboy Nation – Ford over Autry
Over the past six years, brothers Tony and Chip Kinman — who have played together in outfits as musically diverse as the early punk band the Dils, the roots-rock pioneering Rank & File, and the noise-pop duo Blackbird — have turned their attention to cowboy music. They play songs from the long-gone era of the American west and originals that sound of a piece with the traditional material.
“We’ve actually played shows with other cowboy music acts,” Tony Kinman says. “There’s always been a bit of resistance to us when we do it. It’s a very close-knit scene. A lot of the performers that are in it feel very proprietary toward it. A lot of them are older and they regard outsiders with a little bit of hostility. Not in the sense that we’re not authentic, because there are no authentic cowboy performers — the cowboy era has been over for a hundred years, and everything in it right now is essentially somebody exploring the mythology of it and the history of it. But rather in the sense that these are their gigs and they know there’s not enough to go around for everybody.”
Tony says he and his brother are at sixes and sevens with certain key aspects of that whole scene, which emphasizes the happy-go-lucky side of the cowboy mythos over a more realistic portrayal. He recalls an article in a magazine that covers cowboy music in which the writer lamented Cowboy Nation’s emphasis on the bleaker, more lonely aspect of the west.
“I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, has this person never seen a John Ford movie?'” Tony says. “A really good analogy of our differences with the whole cowboy music scene is that they much prefer Gene Autry movies to John Ford movies. We’re exactly the opposite.”
After two albums — 1997’s self-titled debut (reissued in 2001 as We Do As We Please) and 2000’s A Journey Out Of Time, both of which stressed traditional songs and a sparse, minimalist sound — the brothers released Cowgirl A-Go-Go in 2002. Though it retains the cowboy aesthetic, the songs are all originals, the sound is richer, and there are a few decidedly outre touches as well, such as name-checking the Ramones in the title track.
“Chip and I always loved the Ramones,” Tony says. “We wrote that line after Joey died, just out of a sense of tribute. And then of course Dee Dee died a little while later. That’s why we did that: out of a true sense of honor and love for that band.”
Of their newly fleshed-out sound, Tony says, “We wanted people to have to work a little less hard to get it. Cowboy Nation up to now has been a very high-concept band. When we started doing this, it was bizarre. People would say, ‘What are you doing?’ I’d say, ‘Cowboy music.’ People had no idea what I was talking about. They’d say, ‘Gene Autry?’ ‘No, not really.’ Then it was, ‘Oh, like Cowboy Junkies?’ ‘No.’ But I guess that kind of goes with the territory.”
As for the trailblazing accomplishments of the brothers’ previous bands, particularly Rank & File, Tony admits that, until recently, he felt as if they had been largely written out of music history. It’s understandable, he notes, given that Rank & File’s landmark early-’80s albums Sundown and Long Gone Dead — “You know, the good stuff, not the crappy third album,” Tony quips — have never been available on CD (though that’s finally scheduled to change this spring with a Rhino Records reissue titled The Slash Years). A whole generation grew up without hearing the band unless they made the effort to delve into their elder siblings’ scratchy old records.
“But I was there at the beginning, and I know what it was like,” Tony says. “There were no magazines, there were no radio stations, there were no nightclubs. Everything that we did, we had to create out of our own head. It was literally pioneer days. Rank & File ran its course, though, and I saw things change as we were doing it. I saw how many bands we inspired. I saw the crowds start coming to the shows, I saw the record sales. I knew things were getting bigger. But the band had an ugly ending, and things just moved on and times changed.
“It’s like David Bowie says — it doesn’t matter who did it first, it’s who did it second.”