BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: For this installment of my “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: features on Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter Hours, Green On Red, Thomas Anderson, The Sidewinders, and The Windbreakers) I flash back to the mid ’80s and a pair of albums that caught my fancy back then and continue to be favorites to this day.
The indie music world received very sad news this week: Tony Kinman, a pioneering West Coast ground-zero punk in the late ‘70s with The Dils, and a pioneering alternative country twanger in the ‘80s with Rank And File, passed away at the age of 63. The cause of death was listed as cancer, his brother and bandmate Chip Kinman announcing the news on Facebook on May 4. Writing at his Facebook page a day prior, Chip explained, “Tony is home with his family. He is no longer receiving treatment and is comfortable and at peace. I have read him everything that people are posting and he is very moved. I will let everyone know when it is done. I love you all. Thank you, Chip.” (According to the LA Times, Kinman “was diagnosed with cancer in March, and had begun what had been expected to be a six-month program of chemotherapy, according to the CaringBridge page Chip’s wife, Lisa Kinman, created to keep fans informed. But the cancer turned out to be extremely aggressive.”)
The news of Tony Kinman’s death was particularly hard on the Americana community, for the Kinmans were more than just “pioneering” with Rank And File—they were a key influence upon and godfathers to the burgeoning alt-country movement that would commence picking up steam in the late ‘80s, by which time the band had broken up following three albums and several U.S. tours.
Yours truly was fortunate enough to see R&F on their first cross-country trek supporting 1983 debut Sundown—I still have my LP signed by the band—and I still have fond memories of hanging out and sharing drinks with the members during soundcheck and after the show. I hadn’t really kept close tab on the Kinmans following the band’s demise, although I did enjoy their post-R&F activities, including Blackbird and Cowboy Nation. More recently, Tony had worked with brother Chip on Chip’s latest band, Ford Madox Ford. There was a genuine lifelong bond between the two brothers as profound as any you’d care to cite.
Then in 2003 word arrived that Rhino Handmade was reissuing their two albums, along with bonus tracks, as a remastered CD, so I jumped at the opportunity to write about them for my column that appeared regularly in Harp magazine, “Indelibles,” in which I zeroed in on classic or influential albums that were finally seeing reissue in the digital era. So I consider myself even more fortunate to have been able to renew my acquaintance with Tony Kinman, if only for an hour or so over the phone. What follows below, then, by way of a remembrance of Kinman now, is an expanded version of the “Indelibles” profile. I found him to be more than affable, and quite willing to reflect on his old band’s fortunes—the good times as well as the less-than-good ones. He was rightfully proud of the music he and his brother and the other members (one of whom was Alejandro Escovedo—you may have heard of him) made together, stating simply, “I know what Rank and File was and I know what we did in terms of pioneering.”
A lot of us out here also know what you did, Tony, and we’re all immensely proud of you. Rest in peace, sir.
From Harp magazine, 2003: Nowadays, spotting lapsed punks hooked on twang is commonplace (just ask Ryan Adams or Jesse Malin). But back in the early ‘80s, when two alumni of West Coast punks The Dils – aka “the American Clash” – turned up sporting wide-brimmed Stetsons, singing about trains, sundowns and border crossings and emitting a hard-edged but distinctively country rock sound, the sight was alien, to say the least. Some clever critic dubbed Rank And File “cowpunk”; the label stuck, subsequently being applied to the likes of Jason & the Scorchers, Green On Red, Lone Justice, etc.
Looking for an escape from punk’s “faster/louder” orthodoxy, brothers Tony and Chip Kinman (bass and guitar, respectively) had formed the band with another ex-punk, guitarist Alejandro Escovedo (late of San Fran’s Nuns), and after migrating to Austin and picking up a drummer, Slim Evans, began rehearsing and songwriting with a military-like dedication.
“You know how badly it can sound when people are just going, ‘Hey, even I can do a country song!’’ recalls Tony Kinman. “We didn’t want that. Plus, if you’re gonna say you play country music, you’re gonna come up against guys who can play and sing the pants off you. So you better be able to play. And we wanted to bring some life, skill and imagination into it.”
The diligence paid off; after a tour opening for The Blasters, Rank And File landed a deal with Slash, and recording sessions (with producer David Kahne) for Sundown quickly commenced. Upon its release in late ’82, critics wet themselves, as much for the record’s unique-for-its-time sound as for its obvious musical merits – visceral, twangy rock choogle fueled by some of the sleekest fretwork since the cosmic cowboy duels of Roger McGuinn and Clarence White, not to mention harmony vocals that conjured everyone from the Beatles and Eagles to the Brothers Everly and Righteous.
Muses Kinman, “I thought it was a good record. None of us had any experience in recording, and we were on such a low budget that the only way David could afford to bring it in under budget was to have us come in [to the studio] late at night after everyone else was done! But reviewers weren’t really ready for how good the material was – ‘Wow, this is pretty strong!’ – and that was gratifying.”
Rank And File promoted its album heavily, even landing a choice TV appearance on Austin City Limits. The schedule took its toll, however, and after the tour was over Escovedo took his leave, eventually embarking on a notable solo career. For a brief unrecorded spell, future guit-steel virtuoso Junior Brown was Escovedo’s replacement. (Kinman says Brown “was phenomenal even back then and he knocked ‘em dead, but wasn’t challenged enough” in the band.) Drummer Evans left too, so it was a two-man Rank And File that went into the studio in January of ’84 to work on a sophomore album, sessions that Kinman now admits were “definitely strange. It wasn’t the ‘all-for-one’ thing like the first one. Al was gone, Slim had gotten married and left the band as well, so it was just Chip and I. But we got it done.”
Rank And File may have been unstable personnel-wise, but musically speaking, Long Gone Dead is every bit as strong as its predecessor. Somewhat slicker in feel due to the presence of session players (including Tom Petty drummer Stan Lynch) and with additional country flavorings (prominently featured were pedal steel, fiddle, banjo and slide guitar), it still sounds fresh today, more “cow” than “punk.” As Kinman quips, “We almost invented the modern country sound of today, what gets on the radio. Country-sounding, but with a drive to it, like our version of [Lefty Frizzell’s] ‘I’m An Old, Old Man.’”
Reviews once again were terrific. Except, ironically, the one that appeared in Slash’s hometown paper, the L.A. Times, which Kinman says sparked an odd bit of tension between band and label. In fact, once the Long Gone Dead national tour (guitarist Jeff Ross and drummer Bob Kahr were now in the band) was over and it was time to begin work on the third Rank And File album, Slash waffled over everything from studio scheduling to producer choices – at one point Van Dyke Parks was on board – for nearly two years.
In 1987 Rank And File was recorded and released, but the delays had taken the wind out of the band’s sails and it was a substandard effort. Says Kinman, “Basically everything went to hell, and my attitude, Chip’s attitude, everyone’s attitude was getting more and more like, ‘Aw, screw it.’ And that’s basically why that third album sounds like it does. It’s a record that has some good songs on it, but the whole idea behind it was just wrong, like, heavy metal and hard rock or something, and by the time we got in to make it we just didn’t care anymore.”
Following a final tour, Rank And File called it a day. The Kinmans went on to the duo-plus-drum-machine Blackbird, subsequently picked up acclaim for yet another Stetsons-and-twang project, Cowboy Nation. Now, with the Rhino Handmade expanded/remastered reissue of the first two Rank And File albums on one CD as The Slash Years (see sidebar, below, for details), Kinman hopes his former band’s precedent-busting efforts in the pre-No Depression/alt-country era will finally get their due.
Admits Kinman, “For awhile it used to bother me that it was almost like we’d never existed — like, the only Rank And File ever got mentioned at all was in an Alejandro Escovedo article A lot of younger people playing now simply never had the chance to hear us. They make the jump from, say, Gram Parsons to the Knitters – or Uncle Tupelo. And there’s this whole void there, and I think it’s simply because our stuff was not around.”
“But,” he adds, with undisguised pride, “I know what Rank and File was and I know what we did in terms of pioneering.”
Rank And File: The Slash Years (Rhino/Handmade RHM27816; 2003). Personnel: Chip Kinman, Tony Kinman, Alejandro Escovedo, Slim Evans
1982 saw Rank And File debut with the David Kahne-produced Sundown (Slash SR114); appearing in 1984 was Long Gone Dead (Slash/Warner Bros. 25087), produced by Jeff Eyrich. Plans were made years ago, then delayed several times, to reissue both LPs on CD. Finally, with the Slash label’s back catalog controlled by Warner Strategic Marketing, under which Rhino now operates, Rhino Senior V.P Gary Stewart – a huge R&F fan, not so coincidentally – got involved, shifted the project to Rhino’s Internet-only collectors’ imprint Handmade, and co-produced the CD along with the Kinman brothers. The Slash Years is a numbered/limited edition of 2500 copies (www.rhinohandmade.com ).
In addition to remastered sound, a 16-page booklet with incisive liner notes penned by veteran journalist Jimmy Guterman and a separate mini-booklet of lyrics and gig poster repros, The Slash Years includes four non-album bonus tracks. Three of them hail from the Sundown recording sessions: edgy anti-racism screed “Klansman,” an early staple of the band’s live sets; a cover of old-school country standard “Wabash Cannonball”; and twangy gem “Post Office,” which previously appeared on the cassette of Sundown and a Warners rarities compilation, Revenge Of The Killer B’s. The final bonus cut is a spirited (if slightly muddy-sounding) live recording from ’87, “White Lightnin,” a J.P. Richardson (Big Bopper) penned drinkin’ ‘n’ stinkin’ recorded over the years by everyone from Waylon Jennings and George Jones to the Fall and the Waco Brothers.
The Slash Years, as noted, was a limited edition. It quickly sold out, and is considered relatively rare nowadays; at the time of this writing, the lone copy listed at Discogs was going for $99. In 2005 the Collectors’ Choice label reissued all three R&F albums on CD, minus any bonus tracks; this marked the first time 1987’s Rank And File was available on CD. And here in 2018, The Slash Years is available for streaming at Spotify.