Rank and File liner notes return, although the compilation is still out of print or sold out or something
Sean had lunch with a colleague today who turned out to be a big Rank and File fan. I told Sean about the Rank and File compilation Gary Stewart and I put together for Rhino back in, I think, ’02, and I learned that the page on which I posted my liner notes for the set — a page linked to on my home page (link about to be fixed) — got blown away during one of Blogger’s hissy fits. So I’m posting the notes again, for anyone who’s interested. The long-awaited CD of out-of-print material is, alas, itself out of print already.
“I’d like what we do to be called country music,” Tony Kinman told the New Musical Express in early 1982. “You can’t really label it. It’s not country-rock. One writer called it rock-country. It’s been called country-punk. It’s all those things.”
Along with his brother Chip, Tony Kinman was one of the two unique voices behind Rank and File, a band so good that even the musicians who drifted in and out fairly quickly, folks like Junior Brown and Alejandro Escovedo, turned out to be major talents. The Austin outsiders who turned into L.A. punks, ended up lending a jump-start to country music that, along with contemporaries like Jason and the Scorchers, made today’s alt-country/No Depression movement possible.
It’s no surprise that Rank and File broke barriers since the band the Kinman brothers ran before it, the L.A. group the Dils, was stretching listeners’ ideas of what punk could include. The Dils was an all-too-unknown band that played punk before its members had heard the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, or the Clash. “Musically, the Dils were always very adventurous,” Chip says. “We’d do long songs, we’d do slow songs. Other punk bands didn’t do that. On our third EP, there were acoustic guitars. It was kind of a shock to our fans. When punk started changing into hardcore, we realized we didn’t want to be part of that scene. We’d done our punk rock bit and it was time to move on.”
So Tony quit the music business (or so he thought) and Chip moved to New York to start a band with Alejandro. At the time, Chip was listening to “a lot of George Jones, Tammi Wynette, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash” and, almost by accident, began collaborating with his brother via the mail. “I’d send lyrics and he’d send me better ones. Alejandro and I put together a band in New York City, booked a small tour, picked up Tony, and brought him back to New York.”
“After the Dils I was tired of the music business,” Tony says. “I wasn’t interested in playing anymore. But after a year off I wanted to do it again. I liked the band Chip and Alejandro put together. I wanted to be a part of it.”
Chip calls what happened following that brief initial tour “pivotal. When we went to New York at the end of the tour, we figured we’d have to go to a place where they play country. We were not yet playing those real moody songs Tony writes. We were playing country so hard so fast so punk, we were perceived as high concept. Some folks thought it was like cabaret, but we meant it. Tony and I like to be contrary to what’s popular. We had listened to that stuff all our lives: watched the Porter Wagoner show and I remember one time our dad [who worked in the military] came back from Japan with Johnny Horton and Johnny Cash bootlegs. We always listened and played country, trendy or not. We had to get out of New York.”
So, to avoid “playing for writers in New York,” as Chip puts it, he, Tony, and Alejandro moved to Austin, Texas, in early 1981. (Alejandro has roots there.) “The first thing we did was audition drummers,” Tony says. “Everyone thought we were crazy. Slim Evans was literally the only drummer willing to play with us. We booked a show at Club Foot, a big new wave nightclub. After the show, they told us to go and never come back. They hated what we were doing. They were charging hard down that new wave highway. Eventually, we found a little honky-tonk called The Shorthorn Bar, a totally obscure place. We got a gig playing three or four sets a night on Wednesdays. And we started playing acoustic sets at the Alamo Lounge, which is where we began to develop a following, such as it was. The quality became apparent, the songs were good, people responded.”
Shortly thereafter, the Kinmans returned to the scenes of their crimes as the Dils and brought Rank and File to play in Los Angeles and San Francisco. “The thing we learned from those shows was that country music in California was even worse than it was in Texas,” says Chip. “We were playing to west coast Dils fans, punk rockers who had no idea who Lefty Frizzell was. It was weird and difficult. People didn’t care. No one was waiting for country-punk. There was no ready market for what we were doing, but it was a fun band to be in. Maybe our difference from what was going on helped create the camaraderie among all four of us.”
At one of those shows, Rank and File opened for the Blasters. “That was instrumental in getting us signed to Slash,” Tony says. “Dave Alvin was very supportive of us and he had the ear of Bob Biggs [top dog at Slash]. At another, the group opened for the Red Rockers. As Tony recalls, producer David Kahne “was at the show because he was thinking of producing the Red Rockers. He thought we were the Red Rockers and worked with us as a mistake! So we went to the Automat in San Francisco, where David was the house engineer, and cut four or five demos that sealed the Slash deal. We snuck in and did those tracks; we were working around the schedule’s of Jefferson Starship and Journey.”
Fortunately, the proximity of the corporate-rock icons didn’t rub off on Sundown, the record Rank and File recorded with Kahne at the controls. Their debut reveals Tony and Chip to own two of the most distinctive and complementary voices of the moment. Tony’s studied baritone suggested a punk Johnny Cash, whereas Chip’s quivery Lefty Frizzell tenor hovered over the songs he sang, occasionally swooping down to make some deadpan point.
If you listened hard, you could tell that the Kinmans were veterans of the Dils: The nihilism of Los Angeles-style punk influenced Rank and File’s lyrics as much as Merle Haggard encouraged some of their attitudes. “Things she does make me glad I’m not in love.” “Today was gonna be my lucky day.” “I don’t go out much anymore.” The words of every one of Sundown’s nine songs posit Rank and File as outsiders both socially and musically. In the sprightly “I Went Walking,” a bewildered Chip walks through New York’s St. Mark’s Place, bravely announces that he’ll never fall prey to such pretension as he’s seen there, and prepares to move on. Then he remembers. Without any antecedent (in the song, that is; this device goes back to Ernest Tubb), he recalls a woman who left him and he wanders away from the song. It’s even darker on “The Conductor Wore Black,” the story of a train being passed in the other direction by Woody Guthrie’s bound-for-glory locomotive.
There’s a sadness in every one of Sundown’s narrators, be they illegal aliens, union workers, or aghast lovers. Razor-thin country two-step rhythms propel most of these songs, only to end up cutting the singers. Sundown hurts; its performances imply that the sun may never rise again. But there was something new here: a unique country-rock hybrid. It’s a hybrid that has stuck in many minds: Nearly a decade later, Bruce Springsteen would regularly perform “Lucky Day” at sound checks.
“We weren’t trying to be revivalists,” Tony says. “You listen to the day’s rockabilly or ska revivals and you hear people trying to breathe life into forms that have gone away. Country never went awa., Rank and File was a new kind of country band and we faced the same problems so-called-alt-country up against now. Someone traditional like Kasey Chambers is not a revivalist but she has to go against the existing pop junk on country radio.”
Chip says of making Sundown: “Kahne is meticulous and painstaking, but he didn’t have to do a lot. He fixed up a couple turnarounds. He had good ears, which was great, because Sundown was our first experience at real recording. Back in the Dils days, the punk engineer didn’t care. He’d just say ‘are you done?’”
After recording the LP, the quartet returned to Austin, flush with the afterglow of several high-profile positive reviews, the most crucial one being from the L.A. Times’s Robert Hillburn, which were syndicated nationally. “Hillburn’s review gave us some real visibility,” Chip says. “There we were, doing something so different. It was fun to get up every night and show this shiny new marble we’d found. The alternative audience was getting bigger, too, since MTV was getting all over the place. But Rank and File never drew a lot of country fans. They didn’t really know about us. Country fans did not read Slash magazine or the alternative press. In Texas we had some country fans. Some genuinely old people knew we had the spirit.”
“Nobody likes condescension,” Tony says. “Older folks found that refreshing. We didn’t want to be the best country band in Austin. We wanted to be the most different country band in Austin. We honored the art form, but not as a monolith that could never be touched.”
After a scorching tour behind Sundown, including a handful of memorable double bills with the Blasters, Chip and Tony were ready for the next record. The Kinmans hoped to record again with Kahne, but schedule problems prevented that. There was another significant change: Alejandro had left the band. For Long Gone Dead, the Kinmans and producer Jeff Eyrich worked with session musicians. Flute, banjo, and slide guitar augmented the basic sound, although the lyrics (“Try to get up/They’ll only knock you down”) came from the same territory. “The first record was fresher,” Tony says, “but the second record was more of a country record.” Not mainstream country: the standout track on the sophomore set may be “Sound of the Rain,” an amazing reworking of a Dils standard. (Votes for “Hot Wind” and the title cut will be counted, too.) Throughout Long Gone Dead, Chip and Tony channel the open, lonesome sound of classic country – the sort of country that’s “too country” for country radio – and graft it atop rhythms and melodies that are darker than those on Sundown, no small achievement.
“A lot happened with the band between two records,” Chip says. “We got a bit of creative roadblock, which is part of why Alejandro left the band. We’d bring in a new song and start wondering what the band could do with the song. We’d all look at each other because we weren’t really sure. It left us in an odd place and I think you can hear that on the record.”
Recalls Tony, “The second album got incredible reviews except in L.A. It was the first Slash record with no hosannas in the L.A. Times. And then we had all these transition issues with Slash moving to its deal with Warner Brothers and the record coming our on Slash/Warner. And with few exceptions no one at Warner Brothers knew who we were. We did the classic tour-your-ass-off and the record sold whatever it was going to sell after nine months. We were ready to get started on the third record.”
And then corporate indecision, some of it chemically fueled, took over. “We spent months and months literally thinking we were going into studio the next week,” Tony says. “So we weren’t on the road or writing more songs. While we were waiting, people thought the band had broken up. If you’re not out there on the road, you don’t exist. After year and a half of that, we went to Slash and got out of the contract. A small band has to work to let people know you exist. So the band was dead before we got into the studio for the third album.
That record didn’t appear until three years after Long Gone Dead and began a series of unexpected moves by the brothers that continue to this day. Those Rank and File fans who wish the brothers Kinman might one day make more records in that vein have been rewarded recently, as the brothers have recorded a pair of records as Cowboy Nation (a third set is on its way), a unit even more stripped-down than Rank and File. But the feeling remains the same. “When you talk to people who followed Rank and File,” Chips says. They don’t tell you that Rank and File was another band they liked. It was a band they loved.”