Mike Stinson hasn't played much in the past month. He's been packing 11 years of accumulated belongings, selling some of his stuff — especially his drums — and making a U-Haul trailer move to Houston.
"Man, I haven't had a whole month without a gig since 2001," Stinson says as he paces the floor, acoustic guitar strapped to his shoulders. He exhibits all the signs of a worrying perfectionist.
He's got a cable-television gig tomorrow night he needs to be knocking the rust off for, but at the moment the rehearsal has detoured into some dark Marty Robbins space. Evilly, Stinson strums his way through Leon Russell's "Manhattan Island Serenade," which is not on his set list for the show.
Ignoring discipline and any instinct for self-preservation, he segues into Larry Hosford's Vegas memoir "Pardon Me" ("...I don't believe we've said hello"). He's just roving through his encyclopedic, eclectic and often obscure honky-tonk repertoire, re-sharpening himself.
The acclaimed king of Los Angeles's neo-honky tonk scene, Stinson watched a caravan of friends leave Southern California for Austin before he decided the time had come for a move to Texas. So why Houston?
"I can't put my finger on anything specific that made me move here," surmises Stinson. "I just know it's been building up in me that this was where I wanted to locate myself.
"I've played down here five times in the past three years, and every time I've just liked the feel of the place, the way the people are, what's going on here. I think I can contribute something to a cool scene here, and people seem to get what I'm doing."
His first impressions are all favorable.
"Whether I'm looking for a place to live or I'm in a restaurant, one of the overriding impressions is how much less a premium is placed on space here versus L.A.," Stinson says. "It just hit me immediately there's more elbow room here, and that really feels good."
Part of Stinson's logic for leaving the L.A. scene, where he's had longstanding residencies at Cinema Bar and Redwood Bar & Grill, is that he recently recorded an album in Austin.
"I've always wanted to do a Texas record, and playing the gigs over here the past couple of years only increased that feeling," he says. "And I just kept thinking I needed to be here to play it and promote it. Couple that with how long I've been in L.A., and a move just made sense right now.
"And I moved down here to play music all over the state, not just pound a few bars in Houston," Stinson adds. "I happened to land in Houston because I love the place. I just decided Austin probably didn't need me anyway, and I wanted to be based here.
"Moving here was a quality-of-life thing for me, too, not just a career thing," he concludes. "I had a decent thing in L.A., but I was just at a place where I was ready to shake things up. I'd been restless for a while."
Stinson's oeuvre is hardcore honky-tonk, and he may be the genre's premier writer today. Dwight Yoakam cut Stinson's "The Late Great Golden State" on his album Population Me.
"That thing keeps my head above water," Stinson grins. "That was one of those lucky breaks every aspiring writer hopes for, the proverbial mailbox money."
Stinson has also been covered by Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Gilkyson, and his "Counting My Lucky Stars" was the centerpiece of an episode of CBS procedural drama Cold Case.
"Financially, all that's great," he says, "but playing live shows is what it's at for me.
"One of my last California gigs was in Fresno," he continues, "On the way back to L.A., I stopped on a Monday night in Bakersfield to hear Red Simpson, who's been doing a thing at Trout's, the legendary Bakersfield joint, for years. He got me up onstage to sing "Close Up the Honky Tonks" with him. How cool is that, getting to do a true classic with the guy who wrote it?"
Stinson began his musical life as a rock drummer, and until a couple years ago played drums in Randy Weeks's band. But in one of his barroom anthems, "Last Fool at the Bar," Stinson moans that "packing drums don't hold the allure / But when you're 14 you don't think that far."
He first sang as the front man in his own band in 1996, but it was five more years before he stood out front with his guitar.
"When I was packing I needed everything to fit in that 5x8 U-Haul," says Stinson. "So I sold all my drum stuff and [am] damn glad of it. It's really hard to present yourself well as a singer-songwriter from behind a drum kit."
Jesse Dayton produced Stinson's new album, Jukebox in Your Heart, at Pedernales Studios outside Austin.
"When I first heard about Mike and went to see him at the Cinema in L.A., I was just blown away. As a writer, he's so legit," says Dayton. "For a while, I was actually considering doing a full album of nothing but Stinson covers. Then he decided to come to Austin and do a record.
"He's doing something old and timeless, but the way he does it makes him a completely unique thing," observes Dayton. "He's just very compelling when you see him live."
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