London, england, 1983: The filth and the fury long ago succumbed to fashion and frill. British bobbies even pose next to tartan-clad, Mohawk-coiffed punks for tourists' cameras and nobody bats an eye.
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But here come Americans Tony and Chip Kinman, in Britain with their band Rank and File for a five-week tour with Elvis Costello, strolling down Kings Road and decked out in what, for them, is their usual garb: fringed jackets, flannel shirts, cowboy boots, and impossibly wide-brimmed Stetsons. Shoppers stop and stare; punks gawk and giggle; some wiseacre cabby slows his vehicle down and bellows, "Hey, Texwhere's the bloody roundup?"
"At every step along the way, Rank and File had to prove it deserved to exist," says Tony Kinman, with an exaggerated sigh that gives way to a deep-throated chuckle. He's deeply proud of his former band, but he also has vivid memories of how it felt attempting to break through with a wholly unique songwriting, singing, and visual style.
Because back in the early '80s, there was no such thing as the "alternative country" scene or No Depression magazine. At the time, Rank and File was one of but a handful of outfitsamong them, rockabilly kingpins the Blasters, psychedelic cowboys Green on Red, and Gram Parsons acolytes the Long Ryders dedicated to re-examining the Americana underbelly. As Kinman once famously told a reporter for the New Musical Express, "You can't really label [what Rank and File do]. It's not country-rock. One writer called it rock-country. It's been called country-punk. It's all those things!"
Most of us settled for the term "cow-punk."
Two decades later, Rank and File's first two classic albums, 1982's Sundown and 1984's Long Gone Dead, have been compiled for the first time on CD (with unreleased bonus tracks and a thick booklet, natch) as The Slash Years, courtesy of Rhino/Handmade. And for Kinman, it's a long-overdue acknowledgment of his band's pioneer status. "It used to bother me that it was almost like we'd never existed," he admits. "A lot of younger people playing now never had the chance to hear us. They'd make the jump from, say, Gram Parsons to the Knittersor Uncle Tupelo. There's this whole void there, and I think it's simply because our stuff was not around on CD."
In 1977 the then-teenaged Kinman brothers formed the Dils, quickly becoming, along with X, the Germs, the Avengers, and the Nuns, one of the top West Coast punk bands. Likened to "an American Clash," the Dils issued a handful of seminal 45s (in particular "I Hate the Rich" and "Class War"), even touring with the Clash. By 1980, however, with a rigid punk orthodoxy setting in hard and the musically restless Kinmans not content to adhere to a louder/faster aesthetic, it was time to call it a day.
Chip headed for New York to hook up with former Nuns guitarist Alejandro Escovedo, who'd joined Judy Nylon's band but shared with Chip (whose father had owned numerous country albums) a reawakened interest in Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Merle Haggard. Meanwhile, Tony, who'd split for Portland to pursue a romantic interest, became increasingly intrigued by his brother's letters and phone calls detailing his and Escovedo's embryonic country/pop project they dubbed Rank and File.
"So they had booked a little tour that was going to bring them through Portland," recalls Tony, picking up the story. "I'd broken up with my girlfriend, and I thought, 'This is a perfect opportunity! I'll just hop in the van with them and get out.' All we did on the way back was talk about music. And we talked about going someplace other than New York as well."
That someplace would turn out to be Austin. Shedding the original Rank and File drummer and bassist, Escovedo and the two siblings headed for the Lone Star State.
Kinman remembers the move being based on an out-of-date mental image of a region dominated by Willie, Waylon, and the outlaw-country movement. "We weren't hip enough to know that that scene had been over for six or seven years!" he laughs. "It would have been like being a punk and moving to London around '84 to hang out with the Sex Pistols." Yet despite that naïveté as well as some initial resistance from both the local punk scene and the older country players, Rank and File flourished in Austin. They picked up a drummer, Slim Evans, and began working up a repertoire. They additionally took in as many country shows as possible; Kinman recalls seeing the likes of Ernest Tubb and Jimmie Rodgers protégé Bill Neely on a regular basis.
"Another big part," observes Kinman, "was Chip, Al, and I really thinking about what we were doing, trying to bring some life and skill into it. Because you know how badly it can sound when people are just going, 'Hey, even I can do a country song!' We didn't want that. Plus, you're gonna come up against guys who can pick and sing the pants off you. So you better be able to play."
The band got its break during a tour of the West Coast with Slash Records act the Blasters, striking up a friendship with Dave Alvin, who advised the record label to sign Rank and File, and hooking up with San Francisco producer David Kahne, who loved their sound. By June of '82, Rank and File were in the studio with Kahne recording their debut for Slash.
Listening to Sundown on remastered CD now, it's not hard to figure out why critics fell all over the record. These nine, exquisitely rendered songs are, in a word, timeless, from the Roy-Orbison-meets-the-Everlys opening track "Amanda Ruth" to the power pop-flavored choogler "Rank and File" to the visceral, twangy rocker "The Conductor Wore Black." No hint of overblown '80s studio gloss, and no suggestion of a revivalist band retrofitting its vision, eitherjust solid tunes with great guitar work and the best high-low vocal harmonies (Chip and Tony, respectively) since the Righteous Brothers.
"To be honest," responds Kinman, thinking over the "timeless" comment, "it was just a relief to get it done. None of us had any experience in recording. But one of the reasons it got such good reviews was that people weren't really ready for how good the material was. As I said before, you know how poorly this kind of thing can be done. That was really gratifying."
The band undertook a lengthy national trek that saw them sell out numerous venues and even land a choice TV appearance on Austin City Limits. By tour's end, however, cracks in the foundation were visible; Kinman claims that Escovedo's guitar playing had frequently turned sloppy on the road. After all was said and done, Escovedo left Rank and File, returning to Austin where he'd go on to form the True Believers and, later, have a successful solo career.
His spot was temporarily filled by another Austinite, Junior Brownyes, that Junior Brown, before his guit-steel dayswho accompanied the band on the aforementioned trip to England. (Kinman: "He was a phenomenal player even back then, fun to play with and he knocked 'em dead. But I guess he felt after a while he wasn't challenged enough, and it got to where he was undependable.") Drummer Evans eventually left, tooby now the Kinmans were ready to move to Los Angelesand it was a two-man Rank and File plus session musicians that went into the studio in January of '84 to record a second album.
While common wisdom holds that Long Gone Dead isn't as strong an effort as Sundown, in fact it received equally glowing reviews and, in hindsight, clearly holds its own against its predecessor. "It's funny about how people view those records," muses Kinman. "Looking at the arc of most modern alt-country bands, they do the country thing for a while, then get back to being more pop- or rock-oriented after that. Look at someone like Ryan Adams now. We did it just the opposite way, because our second album is far more country-sounding than the first. I was listening to the albums for the first time in a long time, and I remember saying to Chip, 'If you listen to the second album, we almost invented the modern country sound of today.'"
Another successful national tour was mounted, and momentum for the band continued to build. Then disaster struck in the form of a near-interminable delay in recording the third album, simply titled Rank and File. (Kinman blames it on Slash's not being able to settle on productionat one point Van Dyke Parks was slated to work with the bandand budget matters, as well as, ah, certain chemical issues. Kinman wryly notes that "bands can have members on drugs and recover, but a band can't recover from a record company that's on drugs.") That delay, combined with an inability to tour in the downtime, took the wind out of the Rank and File sails.
The band's attitude, says Kinman, became "'Screw it.' We just didn't care anymore. That's basically why that third album sounds like it does, heavy metal and hard rock or something. It's just wrong. We put the record out [in 1987], we went on the road for it, but we knew it was over. The whole idea of what Rank and File was in the beginning, that whole trying to create a new sound, excitement and exploratory and imaginative, was gone."
When the rank and File tour ended in New York, they decided to hang up the band for good and, in Kinman's words, "do something completely new, just for fun." The result was the dream- poppy, two-men-and-a-drum-machine Blackbird, which during its 1987-93 tenure issued three fascinating (albeit poorly received) albums.
After that, following a temporary layoff, they resurfaced in '97 as Cowboy Nation. It's not quite the full-circle return to the halcyon twang 'n' harmony days of Rank and File that some have claimed, having a more stripped-down, wide-open-spaces vibe and additionally featuring a healthy sampling of traditional Western tunes like "Back in the Saddle," "Old Paint," and "Shenandoah." Although both Kinmans do have some serious wide-brimmed hat action going for them once again.
That said, Cowboy Nation's third album, Cowgirl a-go-go (Paras Recordings), issued last November, has moments remarkably in step with the first two Rank and File albumsthe strummy "Dollar a Day," for example, and the rollicking/ thumping "Rebel." In concert, too, the trio (former Weirdos/Cramps drummer Nicky Alexander recently joined) doesn't shy away from playing Rank and File favorites like "Coyote," "I Don't Go Out Much Anymore," and "The Conductor Wore Black."
"Putting together this was similar to putting together Rank and File, looking for a different sound," admits Kinman. "It's not revivalism, however. That just means 'stuff that's been done before.' While you can't help but be inspired by what went before, to have it limit your imagination, well, that's deadly.
"I remember in the early Cowboy Nation days and we were having to justify our existence because we didn't sound like any of the cowboy bands out there. People would say, 'Don't you care about preserving the traditions?' And I'd say, 'No. I'm not into preserving somethingI'm into perpetuating.' You preserve something that's dead; you perpetuate something that's alive. And it's not going to stay alive unless people are bringing something new into it."
Suddenly aware that the conversation is starting to resemble some of the Rank and File debates he had years ago, Kinman pauses, then, with a knowing snicker, offers up a perfect punch line, gratis.
"Not long ago, after a gig, I decided to wander down the street to this other club. I walk in, and I can see all the discrete little scenes: some Hot Topic punks over there, some goth-y types over there, dance kids over there, etc. Well, I've still got on my [stage] clothes and the hat.
"And of course, what is everyone doing? They're turning around, looking and pointing at me."