Time Nor Tide
Mike Stinson and Johnny Irion’s Bittersweet Musical Detour
Honky tonk maverick Mike Stinson is a cat of formidable prowess, one whose handful of recordings essentially redefined modern country songcraft at the century’s turn. He is also one from whom we too rarely hear and the arrival of new, 11-song set Working My Way Down provides a most gratifying respite from his absence.
A collaboration with self-proclaimed troubadour rocker Johnny Irion, himself an accomplished, get-around musical force of no small consequence, the disc has a deep-rooted, emotionally complex provenance—an acutely personal, lost & found equation which significantly elevates the creative proceedings.
“I met Johnny Irion in the mid-90s in LA, when we were recruited by Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes for a band he was putting together,” Stinson said. “Johnny was on lead guitar and I was the drummer, and we both hit it off. He’s from North Carolina and I’m from Virginia, and we moved into a house in North Hollywood and in 97, we put our own band together and that lasted a few years.”
“We were just kids, but there was something there, it was primitive, but it was cool. Our musical chemistry was good, and that’s what started it. We have a cool vocal blend. He’s a great harmony singer, and I’m not the easiest guy to sing with—and we can also rock, we can make a lot of noise.”
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The final element in the Working My Way Down saga was supplied by composer-musician Andrew HM Butler Jones, who contributed five of the album’s eleven songs (up to and including the title track).
“Andy Jones was my best pal in Hollywood, we worked together in the tape room at Polygram music,” Stinson said. “He was in Bigelf, a great prog rock band and he always helped me out and he loved what I was doing with Johnny, always wanted to jam with us. He was a songwriting maestro, and he wrote those songs for us, he’d just bring them to us.”
Jones’ remarkable generosity was matched by an innate gift for custom tailoring each number to the offbeat twosome, and all are distinguished by a consistent high quality and almost uncannily atmospheric and stylistic congruence. By 1999, the Stinson-Irion alliance had necessarily fractured—Irion wed his musical partner Sarah Lee Guthrie and moved back East. As Stinson was prepping his solo debut masterpiece Jack of All Heartaches, Butler-Jones, touring Scandinavia with Bigelf, lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered.
“Andy got sick on the road, he was a diabetic and he died,” Stinson said. “It was very sad and so those songs were never gonna get heard unless we just did ‘em. That’s a big part of this project, to honor him—his songs are the bedrock of the album. And when Covid happened I found myself on the East coast and Johnny has a studio back there, so we finally made the record we were trying to make 25 years ago, to honor Andy’s memory.”
Produced by Irion, the disc takes a highly stylized, unrefined rocky-tonk approach, put over with dynamism, nuance and a tastefully idiosyncratic exaggeration that lends a singular appeal. There’s a lot of personalities and accounts to be settled up here and the egos in play are controlled, always secondary to the larger memorial and renewal issues at hand. It’s a masterly double whammy—their manifest chemical bond and unusual vocal blend are compelling while the delivery’s extravagant nonchalance is utterly disarming.
“It definitely felt like Johnny and I had unfinished business,” Stinson said. “This was inevitable, we have a lot of passion for it and it feels good. Half the record is those songs we did back then augmented by some new things of Johnny’s and mine. I thought it was just for fun, but it’s really happening.”
To introduce Working My Way Down, the pair have devised a modus operandi almost as unconventional as the album’s origin.
“Rather than barnstorming everywhere we’re going to spend a month in Texas,” Stinson said. “We’ve got an every-Saturday-night in February residency at the Continental, to establish a presence, see what happens. If the momentum builds, maybe camp out in California for a month, try to do the same thing on the West Coast. And we have a big record release up here in Massachusetts—Johnny’s like the Mayor of the Berkshires, so were definitely going to do a run of cool gigs in New England, maybe do a month in Tennessee.”
“It had to explode when it did, we had to make our own way and we finally brought it home. Having Andy’s songs on there means a lot. It’s a sweet little detour and if it gains traction we’ll make another record, one way or another it’s going to go on. It feels really good to have finally pulled it together.”
Mike Stinson & Johnny Irion appear at the Continental Club, 1315 S Congress Ave, Austin, every Sat. in Feb., 7:30 p.m.; $10; “Working My Way Down” releases March 24 via Blackwing Music.