Cowboy music for moderns

cowboy nationFor some reason I don’t entirely fathom, sometime in 1982 I began to hanker for some country music in my life, but it was a very bad time for country music. What little I heard on the radio had gone sappy and boring. None of it had anything to do with my life. I wanted something that fit into my punk sensibilities, but still had some grit to it.

There was a little record store in Lompoc, Calif., where I was living at the time, though it mostly carried the pop-hit crap of the day, it sometimes got in something interesting.

One day, with a sawbuck in hand, I headed down to this store and found an interesting looking LP on a display rack — barbed wire on the cover, and the band’s name etched across the top in faux-wood plank lettering. Rank and File. It looked promising. I bought it.

From the opening strum and twang of “Amanada Ruth” I knew I had uncovered something amazing. This wasn’t my daddy’s county. There was a propulsive drive that I hadn’t heard in country music up to that time (admittedly, I was less familiar with pure honky tonk as I should have been).

But it takes more than a steady beat, steely guitar and the right attitude to make good music. It takes infectious rhythms and catchy melodies. Rank and File aced that test as well.

Then Rank and File seemed to fade into obscurity. Getting busy with college and starting career (and being totally broke through most of the ’80s), I lost track of Chip and Tony Kinman (the heart and soul of Rank and File –the original line up included Alejandro Escovedo), but they continued to make music throughout the 1980s and ’90s.

A few years ago, the Kinmans formed Cowboy Nation, returning them to the cowboy genre. I remained ignorant of this development until a couple of months ago, when my pal Buddy Siegal wrote about bands third CD, Cowgirl a-Go-Go. I immediately tracked down the band’s publicity agent and requested a copy.

Within days, I received the CD and I’ve been addicted to it since. It stayed in my car for weeks. Since moving it into my home office, I’ve listened to it at least 5 times for every time I’ve listened to something else. It’s just that good.

The Kinmans have managed to create cowboy music that is at once rootsy and modern. There is something Beach Boy-like in their melodies and vibe, but the tumbleweeds still blow threw their songs. Songs like “Dollar a Day,” “Rebel,” “Good Old Days” and “Cowgirl A-Go-Go” rock with a punk intensity (“Cowgirl” pays tribute to the Ramones both musically — pay close attention to the intro — and lyrically), while graceful melodies highlight “Spooky,” “All I Had to Offer,” “Full Fathom 5.”

Americana has become a big industry over the last few years, but Cowboy Nation isn’t likely to appeal to the Ryan Adams crowd. The Kinmans remain slightly off-kilter from the mainstream and far too witty for the high-minded sensibilities of the No Depression coterie.

I started wearing boots again in 1982 (after disposing of them in high school), thanks to Rank and File. Cowboy Nation makes me glad I still own a pair. Cowgirl A-Go-Go demonstrates there’s still a lot of verve left in simple songs about life out west.

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