It says a great deal about the temperament of bass player Tommy Stinson that in the course of his storied career, he’s rocked side by side with two of the most difficult personalities in rock ‘n’ roll.
For 10 years, he was the bassist in the seminal alternative band The Replacements alongside reputed curmudgeon Paul Westerberg. For almost twice that, he was a member of the second version of Guns N’ Roses, holding his own beside the volatile personality of Axl Rose.
“I’m a good team player, straight-up,” Stinson told The Daily Times recently. “I’ve had moments where I faltered from that, but I learned to tolerate and embrace the human condition, whatever that could be at any moment, and its effect, and I work within it. With Guns, I was in that band for almost 18 years, and Axl and I had our throwdowns. Not physical ones, but if you’re playing with somebody that long, you’re bound to have them. It’s just natural.
“I guess the only thing I feel comfortable saying is that I’m a team player. That’s about all I got, and all there is.”
He’s also, he pointed out, a good team captain: After The Replacements disbanded in 1991, he founded the garage rock outfit Bash and Pop, which he recently resurrected and released a new record, “Anything Could Happen.” He’s also teamed up with long-time friend and fellow musician Chip Roberts for Tommy Stinson’s Cowboys in the Campfire, which he’ll bring to Magnolia Records on Sunday.
“I got Chip via a past marriage, and we met and started writing songs together, and for all practical purposes, he’s one of my best friends,” Stinson said. “We decided recently to follow up on our notion of becoming Cowboys in the Campfire last summer. I had nothing going on, and we thought, ‘Let’s go tour it!’ It comes from this watercolor painting Chip did maybe eight or nine years ago — that seeded the name for us, and it was what we had on our T-shirt; two cowboys fighting over an open fire pit thing.
“That was the whole preface for it. I didn’t have Guns N’ Roses or Replacements gigs anymore, and I had the time last year, and I thought, “I gotta do something,’ because I’m really not good at sitting around doing nothing. So we did that, really small house party shows, and it was just intimate and fun. It’s just him and I with a couple of guitars and a bunch of songs — stuff he’s written with me, from the Bash and Pop record, from my previous solo stuff, and we’re writing Cowboys stuff exclusive to that as well. And we’re just interpreting it all through two acoustic guitars.”
By the standards of Stinson’s previous projects, it’s a much more stripped-down, laid-back affair. Stinson was 11 years old when his older brother and Replacements bandmate, Bob, bought him his first bass; by the early 1980s, Westerberg and drummer Chris Mars had joined the brothers in putting together one of the seminal bands to come out of Minneapolis, a four-piece ramshackle rock outfit with a reputation for drunken stage antics and catchy riffs. The Replacements were an underground phenomenon, but signing to Sire Records didn’t translate into widespread acclaim, and the guys parted ways in 1991. They reunited in 2013 and went on a short tour in 2015, but it never felt right.
After Bash and Pop and the follow-up band Perfect, Stinson was asked to sit in on a G’n’R rehearsal in 1998; he and Rose clicked, and Stinson agreed to take the place of original bass player Duff McKagan.
The G’n’R gig was fantastically good for me on so many levels,” Stinson said. “On a creative level, I was working with people I probably would never have known before. It was the first time I had collaborated with other musicians of that caliber, and I did it with six of them. The learning curve was off the string. And we had some really good times and played great gigs. We toured the world several times, and I’m glad to see the majority of those guys still out there doing their thing. I’ve seen them twice since I left, and I’ll probably see them again sometime soon, because they’re all buddies of mine.”
Back behind the wheel of Bash and Pop, Stinson called in a group of friends to make a record that sounded too big for a solo album; the songs, trusted friends told him, sounded like the classic Bash and Pop release “Friday Night Is Killing Me,” and so he dusted off the name, called it a band record and brought two-thirds of the studio musicians on the road with him to tour it.
He’s got plenty of other irons in the fire; he and Roberts are working on a Cowboys in the Campfire records, and he’s producing a TV show, he said; he’s also looking at a potential project around the 2018 election cycle that he can’t elaborate on at the moment, but he’s excited about it nonetheless.
“I’m just trying to keep myself from sinking,” he said.
And in so doing, he more than lives up to the Tommy Stinson mythos, best encapsulated by the late Jim Dickinson, a session musician and record producer out of Memphis who worked with many of rock ‘n’ roll’s greats: “I want to say this about Tommy: Some people say that Keith Richards is the embodiment of rock ‘n roll. Well, I know ‘em both, and I say it’s Tommy Stinson. Keith is a cowboy, he goes back to Gene Autry. Tommy — he goes back to Johnny Thunders. Tommy Stinson is rock ‘n roll.”
Such words are flattering, Stinson said, and he’s grateful he was able to talk to Dickinson before the latter man died; Dickinson had produced the classic Replacements record “Pleased to Meet Me,” and Dickinson’s son, Luther — half of the North Mississippi Allstars — plays on the new Bash and Pop record. At his core, however, Stinson sees himself as a much simpler guy than the picture painted by Dickinson and perpetuated in the rock ‘n’ roll media.
“I don’t wake up every morning thinking, ‘I’m Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll!’ I wake up every morning and think, ‘What am I going to do today?’” he said. “I’m going to mow the lawn, then maybe play my ukulele for a minute. Then I might go back out and trim the hedges, then maybe I’ll play a kazoo solo on a track I did the other night. I just don’t sit and think about it, because I don’t feel like Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll.”