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The year of the cowboy: Tommy Stinson on Cowboys in the Campfire’s debut ‘Wronger’

Vivian Wang
Planetary Group

Tommy Stinson’s Cowboys in the Campfire issues its debut LP, Wronger, on June 2 via the Done To Death imprint.

The duo is a long-running collaboration between Stinson (The Replacements, Guns N’ Roses, Bash & Pop, Soul Asylum) and Chip Roberts and, unsurprisingly, features many of Stinson’s songwriting/performing hallmarks: Lyrics that alternate between sweet and acerbic but which are never less than heartfelt; vivid guitar orchestrations that command repeated listens; reminders that the human condition is often as funny as it is sad, as celebratory as it is mournful, and that as painful as it can be it’s one of the best gigs there is.

Stinson concedes that the project started “as a joke at first,” nearly a decade ago but took on a new life roughly seven years ago as other ventures he’d been involved in cooled. The timeline went something like this: The Replacements, a band he was first a member of when he was barely in his teens, had enjoyed a brief reunion but folded once more; he’d left his longtime posts in both Soul Asylum and Guns N’ Roses in part to care for his young daughter; Bash & Pop and his solo career were momentarily on hiatus.

Suddenly, Cowboys in the Campfire took priority and he and Roberts booked some successful shows, often in non-traditional performance spaces. Not only did it afford the veteran musicians a chance to get out of the clubs and into art galleries, coffee shops and fans’ houses, it meant that they could draw on virtually anything for material.

It seemed only natural that Stinson would take the project into the studio and so he and Roberts tracked a collection that culminated in 10 songs, five produced by friend Christine Smith and four featuring bass and backing vocals from John Doe of X. Parts of the album were tracked at Stinson’s home in Hudson, New York, a place he’s called home for several years, having long since left behind previous digs in Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

The influences on the record range from the classic rock sounds that Stinson was weaned on, including punk and English rock ‘n’ roll to the likes of Tanya Tucker and Conway Twitty. In short, the diverse range of music heard on Wronger will probably not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed Stinson’s career and the various styles he’s incorporated into his own songwriting or performed in various other settings.

A relaxed and funny conversationalist, Stinson is open to a number of topics, including his collaborative process with Roberts, his current favorite contemporary musicians, and his determination to continue striving to be a better, more formed artist. His former band, The Replacements, a frequent subject in interviews, is mentioned exactly once—in passing—though Stinson recently revealed to fellow musician Lisa Loeb that a box set covering that band’s LP Tim is in the works and will likely be issued in fall.

But for Stinson, 2023 is very much a year with heavy focus on Cowboys in the Campfire and Wronger. 

And rightfully so.

He recently spoke with KMUW from his home in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Tommy Stinson’s music, including Cowboys in the Campfire, will be featured on Strange Currency in June.


My understanding is that this year is very much about Cowboys in the Campfire, that you’re focused on this record and touring behind it. 

You’ve summed that up well I would say. [Laughs.] Been a long time coming and but we’re taking it to the road. Taking it to the people. See what they think.

What earmarked this material as being for Cowboys in the Campfire. Was it just songs that you felt you and Chip could play together or stuff that had a specific attitude? 

He and I write together. Some of that wound up on a solo record called One Man Mutiny. Some of the songs that we wrote wound up making it on the last Bash & Pop record [Anything Could Happen]. We’ve been writing together in different ways for a while and finally came around to making stuff that was more geared toward a duo even though a lot of the record has drums and upright bass—John Doe [X] plays upright bass on it and my buddy Chops plays bass and Otto plays drums on some stuff. It really is more geared toward [Chip] and I touring together very simply and as I say that we added Chops to the lineup so we’re traveling as a three-piece.


After making this record we thought we could use some low end if you know what I mean. In the writing process it just made more sense that he and I would tour as Cowboys in the Campfire than a solo thing, even though, when I go out and play solo shows I play a little bit of everything, including this Cowboys stuff.

You mentioned writing with Chip. Is this where you sit down knee-to-knee and bash stuff out or do you tend to work in isolation and bring things to each other to see where the material might go, do you bring ‘em to a session and say, “What have you got”? 

Kind of all three. He’ll come up with a guitar riff and a thing. We’ll jam it out or I will come to him with something and just see what he thinks of it, see what he starts playing on it, if we can come up with something. Sometimes things will start where he’ll come at me with a title or something funny and we’ll take it from there but all three of those things you mentioned guide us in the writing process.

What’s it like for you to write with someone because even the first Bash & Pop record was just you. 

The collaborative thing came to me more when I joined Guns N’ Roses. It was a special thing. I’d worked with people in writing songs a little bit when I joined Guns it was a six-piece band, all writing together. The collaborative effort was my favorite part of that, writing with different people from different backgrounds and musicalities. When I look back that made for a good record [Chinese Democracy]. From there, I learned the collaborative thing in the trenches. [Laughs.]

It sounds like maybe in Guns people would offer something as a counterpoint. Is Chip saying things like, “I like that chord but let’s try a different inversion or a different progression,” maybe adding a different point of view? 

Somewhat. He’s more of a guitar player guy. He’s more like, “I got this note. This little melody.” We take it from there, however it should roll out. We do come from a similar background in a way. It’s different than working in Guns because it was a different beast altogether with six beastly people! As opposed to one beastly guy that’s somewhat similar.

I thought it was an interesting choice to pick the last song on the album as the first single. I think that bodes well for the quality of the album. 

[Laughs.] Not sure how everyone else will go with that but I’ll take it.

But that song speaks to me about your strengths as a writer. It has a beautiful lyric and beautiful melody. What made “Dream” the choice as the first single? 

I left it up to my team of folks who helped me put this record out to kind of come up with this. I don’t really know. I’m a writer. I don’t know what people want. I listen to things on the radio now that I have no clue about. I just do my thing and let the other people figure things out in a way. I lean on a lot of other peoples’ opinions in my camp for the guidance on that. I think because it has drums on it, that made it an easier pick.

I’ve always detected an English sensibility in your writing: Small Faces, Faces. Was that stuff that you gravitated to early on? 

Certainly up there. As time has gone on I’ve gone back to Bob Dylan and earlier records. I even work up today listening to Glen Miller. [Laughs.] Oh boy! Defintely Small Faces, Faces, Stones, Beatles, all those things are in the mix with Bob Dylan and myriad other things. Slade was in there as well. Kooky stuff, real stuff, funny stuff. Good stuff. All of that.

It’s funny you mentioned Dylan. I’m in a deep period of appreciation of his work right now. I’ve got that box set from the Time Out of Mind Sessions. 

I saw that.

It’s so good. And the thing is, people talk about “Bad Dylan” but even when he’s bad he’s pretty dang good. 

I saw an interview clip with him recently where he’s talking in reverence about his younger days. “That was a time and a place and that was magical and I could never recapture that.” He basically came out and said, “I don’t know, that was then. I was that person once. It came and went.” It was an interesting piece. I think every artist goes through that thing. It’s like the fans have their own ideas about what makes the writer, what makes their best part. I think as artists we’re always striving to find what our best is and if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’re always still looking.

I don’t think anyone who is still doing this after 30-40 years, if they’re still active and still writing, they’re still looking. They’re still looking to find that thing. I think what it comes down to is that it’s a bottomless hole if you will, a bottomless pit, to find out what our best thing is because we’re always creating. You put it out. And you move on. You’re striving for other things. You’re always looking. You’re always curious for different sounds, different vibes. At least I am. I’m assuming maybe other artists out there who have been doing this for a long time would have this similar thing in their background that they’re always just looking. And, lucky for me, at 56-years-old, I still am curious, I still have an intrigue about it.

What do you listen to in terms of contemporary music? 

I listen to stuff that captures my ear. Lately I’ve been really into Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers. Brandi Carlile I’ve been a fan of for a while. But as you’re saying this I want to remind myself of this cat that I just found that I really like. Sean Rowe.

He’s great. 

I’ve been catching his songs here and there. He’s got a good sound. He’s a good songwriter. My last real rock thing that I was into was probably Queens of the Stone Age and that whole camp of folk. Not that there’s anything out there that isn’t good. I just haven’t heard anything in the last couple of years that’s really got me going in that rock ‘n’ roll or pop realm. I hear a lot of kid music now because I live with a 15-year-old daughter.


That’ll do a thing to ya!

There’s some of that with my kids. But then there’s this: My son got in the car one day and said, “You’ve got to hear this!” And puts on Sonic Youth. 


I said, “Yeah, I’ve heard this a time or two,” and he said, “My math teacher turned me on to this.” 

I just produced this band of kids, they’re 16-23. A band called The Freedom Rockets. They’ve been friends of mine for a while. I finally had some time to make a record with them. Young kids. All heart, just still love Dad’s record collection: The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma, they’re just all about it. I produced the record and sat back and said, “It’ll be interesting to see what they turn into when they get past Dad’s record collection.” I look forward to it because I think they’re really good musicians. It’s fun to see them working it out.

With Cowboys in the Campfire you’ve performed in a lot of non-traditional spaces. How much of that is about getting away from venues taking cuts on merch and how much is about just kind of getting out of the bars and seeing the rest of the world? 

A little of both. When Chip and I started doing this we’d do it on kind of a spur and a whim. Clubs now they book a year in advance. Damn if I know what I want to do next week let alone a year from now. Let alone if I’m even going to be sitting here a year from now, so I tend to want to one, do things in a different way than the norm. Two, I can make more out of it both financially and make more out of it for the fans doing it the way that I’m doing it. It’s more of an intimate experience.

I only book a couple of months in advance when I want to go out and do it. I’m fortunate enough that I can pull that off. Not a lot of people can pull that off. I just throw it out to the universe and see what happens. They end up being fun, intimate things. Less stress. I do it on my own terms. I just show up. Playing whatever I want. I like that. I don’t like to be bound to all the other things. I’ve done it enough to know that it can be fun still.

Was some of the initial thought of Cowboys in the Campfire, “This will be two guys with guitars, I don’t have to worry about the four other bands the drummer’s in and trying to book around that”? 

Yes and no. When I put together a Bash & Pop record I’m pretty confident that I’ve got access to the guys I had on the last one. But, again, you gotta plan so much for stuff like and I’m really not a great planner. I don’t think, “If put this record out in the spring of next year, by the fall I’ll be playing this venue.” I can’t project that far in the future, especially with a fifteen-year-old and having done it so many years. I just choose to do it this way. It’s probably faulty as [all hell] but whatever. [Laughs.]

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.