Mike Stinson takes a personal inventory at just about every gig he plays. One song on his new album, Hell and Half of Georgia, "The Box I Take to Work," totes up a good two dozen things he — or any talented independent musician clawing out a living one show at a time, really — needs within arm's reach. He's got a power strip, highway map, Willie Nelson bandanna, George Jones tapes, Breath Savers, an extra shirt (stage lights are warm), even an "attitude adjuster, if all else fails." But like many great writers, he leaves exactly what that might be to our imagination.
Though there's not quite such a thing as a typical Mike Stinson song, "The Box I Take to Work" is indicative of his writing in several ways: his probing eye for detail, dry wit and laconic delivery, and the way he raises a song's emotional stakes with a line that almost seems tossed off, like "She still thinks I'm a jerk." To hear him tell it, there's just one problem with it.
"That song has too many words for me to remember," Stinson admitted to the audience last week at his monthly Under the Volcano date, a night that marked his four-year anniversary playing the West U watering hole decorated with Day of the Dead masks. The set list was 35 songs deep, closing with a Chuck Berry-style gallop called "Married Me a Rocker" ("but now she wants a houseboy") that Stinson wrote about one of his bandmates.
That show stretched to two hours and 15 minutes. When the band — lead guitarist Lance Smith, bassist Mark Riddell and drummer Matt Johnson, the newest member at six months in — play Ginny's Little Longhorn in Austin, their sets can stretch to four hours and 60 songs.
Stinson works his ass off, reckoning he and the band played 120 gigs last year. He does his own driving, "except when I'm opening for Todd Snider in Lubbock," and his own management. He did hire some people to help turn the promotional wheels on the new album but admits handling the minutiae himself can make everything seem to drag on forever; Hell and Half of Georgia was recorded in September 2011. Still, he says, "Ultimately it's its own highest reward, when things go well."
The wheels are definitely turning now. Now in his mid-forties, Stinson moved to Houston after more than a decade in the L.A. music scene and another decade of gigs around the Washington, D.C., area. (He's originally from Cashville, Virginia, about 80 miles north of Virginia Beach.) It was basically a whim that brought him to Texas, Stinson admits, because he had had fun here a few times. Houston has worked out better than he could have hoped, he says, and not just because of its central location as a touring base of operations.
"If I'd stayed where I was, I still think I would have grown as a songwriter, but the change of scenery has done me good, man," he says a few weeks before the Volcano anniversary gig as an old Lightnin' Hopkins song rambles through the sound system at Leon's Lounge. Stinson has taken to covering the Houston blues legend himself, with a version of "You Better Check Yourself" that pushes the song about as far into the red as it can go.
"It was time for me to do something different, and Houston has vastly exceeded my expectations as a place to hang out," notes Stinson, who for the past few months has also been drawing a substantial happy-hour crowd to McGonigel's Mucky Duck on Wednesdays. "It really has."
Hell and Half of Georgia allowed Stinson to call his personnel shots, so he drafted players from both L.A. and Texas (Jesse Dayton shows up) and brought in old friend Kevin Szymanski as engineer. They assembled at South Austin's Red Horse Studios and knocked out the whole thing in two weeks under the bohemian auspices of producer R.S. Field (Shaver, Uncle Lucius). About half the songs are L.A. leftovers; the rest were written in Texas, including Stinson's aw-shucks love song to his adopted hometown, "Died and Gone to Houston."
Veering from the mordant humor of opener "Late for My Funeral" to '60s-style tear-in-my-beer ballad "Put Me On" and starving-id rockers "Got a Thing For You" and "The Kind of Trouble I Need," the album chugs straight through its 45-minute running time. Lovelorn midtempo ballads "The Lost Side of Town" and "This Year" are so pretty you can almost imagine them on mainstream country radio. Satellite is a better bet, though, and in fact five songs have already been added to Sirius/XM's Outlaw Country channel; RS Field calls it "country music for grown-ups."
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The songs, adds the album's producer, are "blue-collar Psychology Today articles about middle-aged C&W consenting adults who might listen to the Gatlins as easily, or more easily, than they would to, say, Gillian Welch."
True, Hell and Half of Georgia's studio glaze is sometimes front and center in the added keyboards or backup singers. That might take a little getting used to — if you're used to seeing Stinson in his often blistering bar-band context, anyway — but none of that diminishes any of the 11 songs Stinson and crew have laid to tape. It's a mature, thoughtful album that can be randy at times and melancholy at others, and not only grows on you but is meant to be lived with.
"It's consumed my life for a long time," Stinson says. "One of the ambitions of mine was to make a record that was as cool as the ones that inspired me when I was growing up.
"I don't know if we've done that with this record," he admits. "It might be this record. If not, we've taken another big step towards that, anyway."