Cowpunk Survivors

Not many people remember Rank & File, but I do. I remember that they started out in the late 1970s as the Dils, one of America's first punk bands. I also remember that once the Dils became Rank & File, they were the often-uncredited catalyst for the early '80s roots-rock revival. With a psychedelic cowboy vibe in ways reminiscent of the Byrds, but with a fundamentally fresh sound, Rank & File inspired dozens of bands to abandon already-routine punk rock and cutesy-pie new wave. Overnight, it seemed, people were playing music of hefty cojnes and melodic substance again, drenched in traditional Americana.

My own band, the Beat Farmers, was among those inspired by Rank & File, and we were lucky enough to play oodles o' shows with them. Front men Chip and Tony Kinman even sang backup vocals on our first album, being good sports 'n' all. I was awestruck by their sound—the Kinmans' harmonies were so pure, so crystalline, so precise that you couldn't hear any discrepancy between their records and what they did onstage. Guitar gods Alejandro Escovedo and Jeff Ross propelled the ethereal vibe of their sound into the stratosphere. Great songs like "Coyote" and "Amanda Ruth" took over portions of your brain—you hummed 'em involuntarily while doing the laundry or mowing the lawn.

Unfairly—but predictably— trendiness and imitation done did Rank & File in. Suddenly, there were so many roots-rock bands coming over the horizon that Rank & File were viewed as just one in an overcrowded scene rather than as the creators of that scene. All the bands were saddled with stupid, media-created labels like "cowpunk" and "moo wave"—tags we all resented, though none more so than the Kinmans. Ultimately, they got lost in the very landscape they discovered. Last year's mohawks and spiked wristbands became this year's bolo ties and cowboy boots. And if the Beat Farmers were a part of that trendification, I hereby humbly and belatedly apologize.

The last time I saw Chip Kinman was in 1985. The Beat Farmers were middle-billed on a "cowpunk" extravaganza with the Blasters and the Unforgiven at the Hollywood Palladium. After the show, Chip approached me and put an invisible something on my head. "This is the moo-wave crown," he said. "You are now the moo-wave kings. Take this moo-wave crown—I don't want it anymore."

That coronation stuck with me hard through the years. Rank & File disappeared shortly afterward, only to resurface a few years later as a hairspray-metal band. I got the distinct impression they went that direction simply to flabbergast and infuriate their old fans and the media, although I can't be certain. The whole thing reeked of bitterness and black humor to me. Or maybe (shudder) they were serious. They disappeared again after one metal album.

Happily, Rank & File are back, albeit with a new sound and a new name—Cowboy Nation. Gone is the electric instrumentation; gone is the psychedelic vibe; gone is any pretense of commercial ambition; gone is any trace of bitterness. Cowboy Nation play sweet, simple acoustic cowboy music with its feet in tradition but its head in innovation. This isn't your standard, pious, archival, cowboy culture act; this is essentially Chip and Tony Kinman unplugged, with all of the wonderfulness that implies.

On Cowboy Nation's new album, A Journey Out of Time (their second since '97), Tony Kinman comes to the fore. His voice is an eccentric but not unpleasant baritone —part Tex Ritter, part Lou Reed—that always makes me think of a bullfrog on a few shots of Kentucky Sour Mash. Chip's angelic tenor is mostly relegated to the role of a background instrument, perhaps because Tony's earthier tone better evokes cowboy imagery.

Yet there are hooks to spare: as they did in Rank & File, the Kinmans weave hypnotic, modal spells that compose the main portion of a song and then come back and hit you with a simple, melodic hook that stays in your memory from the first listen. They also cover a few cowboy standards—"Back in the Saddle," "Blood on the Saddle" and "Shenandoah"—which they stamp with their own idiosyncratic Kinman-ness rather than tackling them as museum pieces. They approach this music with brass balls and almost confrontational irreverence, which I suspect pisses off the staunch traditionalists who make up a good portion of the cowboy-culture movement. But fans of the old Rank & File—and fans of simple, purty, harmonious glory in general —will find a lot to like on this album. Cowboy Nation play the Blue Cafe Monday night, and as far as I'm concerned, these guys will always wear the mythic moo-wave crown atop their heads, whether they want it or not.



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