It's no secret that California has long since squandered away a stunning country-music heritage, but for those of us in Los Angeles who give a damn, Mike Stinson represented an almost mystic renewal of the Freddie Hart/Wynn Stewart transplanted-genius equation that damn near redefined the entire genre decades ago.
An offbeat, passionate cat whose reverence for, and contemporary expansion of, the Golden State's progressive honky tonk legacy distinguished Stinson from the local pack of jackals attempting to claim the music as their own and quickly established the singer as a force who set a new, far higher artistic standard.
Where the Hollywood "alt-country" clan dully labors at Gram Parsons-damaged mimicry, Stinson's consistent display of soul-deep, expressive originality was a shock, one that came as one hell of a sweetly satisfying surprise.
Naturally, despite two outstanding albums and a small, die-hard cult following, Stinson's rewards were frustration and heartache. While he deftly harnessed these as inspiration for such epochal gems as the Dwight Yoakam-covered "Late Great Golden State," Stinson eventually wised up and got the hell out of California.
He had finally recognized our terminally suicidal fascination with planned obsolescence: All we do out here is destroy beauty and replace it, as quickly as possible, with some glossy, disposable atrocity.
Thus, his visit for a handful of Southern California shows last weekend was an emotionally supercharged proposition. In the two years since he fled Tinseltown for Houston, Stinson has issued his masterpiece The Jukebox In Your Heart (an album conceived and composed in California but, not insignificantly, recorded in Texas), rounded up a hard-hitting quartet of able musical co-conspirators and embarked on an exploration of previously ignored tuneful contours.
Heading West was no easy task. Even booking this return to the scene of the crime was a pain in the culo - only one of his four official appearances carried a cover charge - but he rolled into town on a hot tsunami of feverish anticipation, and while he ably delivered the goods, it was scarcely a cake walk.
Hobbled by the non-participation of his M.I.A. barefoot Houston steel man Ricky Davis, Stinson's Saturday gig at beauteous middle-of-high-desert-nowhere honky-tonk Pappy & Harriet's immediately turned into an aural metaphor for California foolishness. Having drafted, for whatever reason, local steel yahoo Chris Lawrence as a fill-in swiftly proved disastrous.
Lawrence specializes in working with some of the biggest phonies on the Coast (Mike Ness, Jonny Kaplan, Cisco) and his hyperactive, wrong-headed playing stomped Stinson's finely wrought compositions into the dust. Bad, as we say out here, trip.
Thankfully, after about six or seven numbers, guitarist Lance Smith was compelled to intervene via some between-song censure, but that resulted in Lawrence turning on some dreadful candy-ass synth-sounding effect which only made it an even worse carnival sideshow. To his credit, Stinson's reliably idiosyncratic and drastically communicative vocal delivery never wavered and the band nobly swaggered through to the break.
Lawrence returned for the second set thoroughly chastised, and the rest of the night flowed through the Stinson catalog on a far more surefooted basis, one received with much high-volume approval from the near capacity crowd (dozens of whom had made the 100-plus mile trek from Los Angeles).
At Culver City's Cinema Bar two nights later, Stinson wisely opted for no steel at all and threw down a marathon show that mixed up old favorites, dance-floor packing covers and served as a far more representative showcase for his clutch of rock-tinged new material. The band charged hard, Mike sang his guts out and the crowd practically turned it into a swoon-fest.
This dive had been his primary L.A. HQ and while some longtime observers grumbled (everything from "he's lost his edge" to "I hate that new song, it sounds like fucking Dire Straits") when the dust finally settled at last call, it was a suitably bittersweet, romantic and fulfilling dose of Stinsonian thrill-wrangling.
While we can't help but harbor some resentment at the defection of our primary figurehead and artistic provocateur, it was nonetheless a pure pleasure confronting the reality of what we drove away and what he has subsequently achieved.
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Jonny Whiteside is a regular contributor to Houston Press sister paper L.A. Weekly.