Mike Stinson,
Last Fool at the Bar
(Boronda, 2005)

Remarkable -- amazing, really -- how many songs have been written around a simple premise: sad sack drinking his blues away, or more often sinking deeper into them, in a lowdown bar. That used to be the plot of a whole genre of country songs, and today, even in the Southern-suburban pop that passes as "country" these days, honkytonk, albeit of a watered-down sort, is making a modest comeback.

As the title suggests, Last Fool at the Bar is mostly about alcohol and heartache. Maybe songs like this get their power not just because they evoke familiar experience -- who among us, save teetotalers, has not been there? -- but because listeners suspect that they're hearing a true story about something that actually happened to the writer and/or the singer. Certainly that is the feeling one gets listening to Los Angeles hillbilly Mike Stinson's open-hearted plaints, and the suspicion grows with each reference to a certain hard-hearted, hard-drinking, heart-crushing woman from Detroit ("We were honkytonk headlines, making the rounds"). This could well be made up, obviously, and it doesn't matter; what does matter is that the emotional melodrama is pretty much irresistible.

Still, this is not pure honkytonk histrionics. Sure, some cuts unambiguously address the ripped-up side of life. "Another Day Without You" is as wrenching as it sounds, as is "Cross Your Mind" (as in "I never cross your mind," as in the woman who didn't bother to phone from Detroit when she went home to visit). There is no question that Stinson is immersed in the masters -- George Jones, Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell -- but he doesn't, as so many do, imitate them. His strangely froggy voice -- it's an endearing frogginess, be assured -- alone sets him in a class of his own.

In his most striking songs, too, there is a hint of self-mockery, evident in the wonderful title tune. It starts out like a classic Merle Haggard honkytonker -- say, "My Friends are Gonna Be Strangers," even down to the emblematic Roy Nichols lick -- but soon seems to turn on itself. Stinson's wry vocals betray rueful realization: yes, my suffering is real enough, but it is such a cliche that from another perspective it may be laughable; I am indeed a fool, and sitting here late into the night, listening to the jukebox, with a DUI in my immediate future ("the sheriff has staked out my car"), I lack the imagination to be anyone other than yet another self-pitying mope in yet another lugubrious country song. Yet, remarkably, "Last Fool at the Bar" is in no sense a parody. Stinson's touch is much too light, too assured, to need to seek the cheap laugh.

All of this is set to the rhythms of a stripped-down honkytonk band that occasionally erupts into raw rock 'n' roll. Stinson's is an idiosyncratic, respectful yet original take on barroom traditions both musical and behavioral. It says something about the state of country music these days that you're more likely to hear this sort of thing in Los Angeles than in Nashville.

by Jerome Clark
Rambles.NET
1 July 2006

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