Tony Kinman, Southern California 'cowpunk' pioneer who defied musical boundaries, dies

Tony, left, and Chip Kinman, during their stint with the western-tinged band Cowboy Nation. (Fredik Nilsen / Paras Recordings)

In most circles, playing country music might not seem like a radical move. But that's exactly what it was in the early 1980s when Tony and Chip Kinman retired their Doc Martens after years in the seminal L.A. punk band the Dils, moved to Austin, Texas, slipped on cowboy boots and launched a new musical hybrid soon dubbed "cowpunk."

With Tony's booming baritone carrying echoes of Johnny Cash, Chip's soaring tenor and a muscular rhythmic drive forged in the late-'70s hotbed of Southern California punk rock, the Kinman brothers created Rank and File, an influential band that wedded the narrative storytelling lyrics and twangy musical textures of country with the raw power and take-no-prisoners attitude of punk.

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It was one of several distinctive musical incarnations also including Blackbird, Cowboy Nation, duo performances and Chip's latest band, the punk-blues group Ford Madox Ford, a.k.a. FDMDXFD.

Yet the brothers were still collaborating: Ford Madox Ford's debut album, "This American Blues," released in February, was produced by Tony, who died Friday after a recent battle with cancer, Chip Kinman posted this week on Facebook.

On Thursday, Chip Kinman's Facebook page alerted fans of his brother's condition: "Tony is home with his family. He is no longer receiving treatment and is comfortable and at peace. I have read him everything that people are posting and he is very moved. I will let everyone know when it is done. I love you all. Thank you, Chip."

He was diagnosed with cancer in March, and had begun what had been expected to be a six-month program of chemotherapy, according to the CaringBridge page Chip's wife, Lisa Kinman, created to keep fans informed. But the cancer turned out to be extremely aggressive.

Tony was born in 1956 and grew up with his family in Carlsbad in San Diego County. In 1977 he and Chip formed the Dils, a stridently political punk group known for songs including "I Hate the Rich" and "Class War."

The Dils were so poorly received in San Diego that the trio moved briefly to San Francisco, which had a more thriving punk scene.

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There they associated with bands including the Avengers (for whom Tony briefly played bass) and the Nuns, before heading south again, where the group plied Los Angeles' erupting punk scene at Hollywood clubs such as the Masque.

Quickly, the Kinmans began to move in another direction.

"There were louder and faster bands who were pushing even farther into punk," Tony said. "That wasn't the kind of music we were interested in anymore. It was frustrating to write songs for a punk audience that didn't like them."

Chip moved to New York for a time, and teamed up there with guitarist Alejandro Escovedo, whom he knew from the Nuns. Soon Tony joined them, they relocated to Austin, found Austin drummer Slim Evans through an audition, and Rank and File was born.

The group's 1982 album "Sundown" was declared the year's "best debut album by an American rock band" by The Times' pop music critic, Robert Hilburn. The Austin Chronicle crowned Rank and File the country band of the year.

Even those heaping praise on the group couldn't settle on what Rank and File was — just that they liked what they heard.

"'Sundown' steps boldly from the new wave, punk and electro-pop styles that offer today's most appealing rock," Hilburn wrote, "yet it conveys much of the same driving spirit that fuels the most compelling new music …. The band injects its most invigorating songs with a charm and original vision that haven't been seen in rock-tinged country since Gram Parsons' early work with the Flying Burrito Brothers."

It was, in fact, a thoroughly punk move that came at a time when punk was adopting its own musical, political and sartorial formulas. It started to resemble the same rigidity that the genre's free-thinking originators rebelled against in other forms of music when they threw the rock rule book out the window and started bashing their guitars and drums at breakneck speed, volume and intensity.

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As they expressed it in the Rank and File song "I Went Walking," "This fellow told me that I was a square / That I didn't wear buttons or spike my hair / A badge is just a badge and after all I've seen / When the line's been drawn, they don't mean a thing."

"I think one of the most important things about this so-called 'new country' sound is its independence," Tony said in 1983. "Besides, country music has a long tradition of scaring away young blood. Remember what happened when Elvis tried out for the Grand Ole Opry [in 1954]? They told him he'd better not give up his day job."

One of the great testaments to the compelling authenticity of Rank and File's music was a version of their song "Amanda Ruth" recorded by one of their role models (and sibling musician predecessors), the Everly Brothers, who included it on their 1985 album "Born Yesterday."

Indeed, in rebelling against the rebels, the Kinmans added their names to a long list of proud California musical mavericks that included Buck Owens, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Fittingly, given their early career path, the Kinmans didn't stick to a singular style long enough to get pigeonholed with it, largely ditching the twang and morphing Rank and File into a harder-rock outfit on the group's third and final album, 1987's "Rank and File."

"Now they're into the semi-heavy metal, arena-rock bag," writer Kristine McKenna noted of that evolution, "and being the talented pair that they are, they do it pretty well."

After Rank and File disbanded, the Kinmans created an even harder-edged techno-metal band with Blackbird, which released two independent albums in 1988 and 1989, and one major label album in 1992 — all three titled "Blackbird."

Again, the Kinmans found themselves swimming upstream in the music business.

"Our orneriness really works for us because we're always wanting to do something different. It's gotta be a challenge," Chip told The Times in 1992. "A lot of people want rock to be safe. There is a lot of B.S. in the business — there's hundreds of rules: 'Don't release a record at Christmastime.' 'Don't release the record in the summer.' 'Don't release the record at spring break.' None of them are true. If everybody knew how it worked, everyone would be rich."

Several years into their existence as Blackbird, the Kinmans again started getting the urge to shift gears.

"Right now we're thinking, 'Do we still want to be Blackbird?'" Chip said in 1993. "It's been five years, which is longer than any of our other bands. We sort of did Blackbird just to wipe the plate clean from Rank and File. We're just getting back into the swing of things. Maybe we'll change our name to the Grunions. Then we can say 'We do it on the beach.'"

They subsequently formed Cowboy Nation, which emphasized the western side of the rootsy hybrid once known as country-western.

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"There's nothing here that could not be played around a campfire," the Colorado Springs Independent wrote of the band's 2001 debut album. "Aside from a few ki-yi-yippies, the songs provide very easy listening, atmospherically closer to the Cowboy Junkies than Roy Rogers. Once again, the Kinmans leave us, delightedly, unable to categorize them."

Such was the Kinmans' stature in the history of Southern California music that organizers of the Stagecoach country music festival in Indio booked Cowboy Nation for the inaugural edition of that event when they decided in 2007 to spin off a country cousin to the annual Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival.

More recently, although Tony Kinman worked behind the scenes on the new Ford Madox Ford album, which also features Chip's son, guitarist Dewey Peek, Chip said his brother played a crucial role.

"Tony was instrumental in the whole thing, he was really important, contributed musically, threw in a few lines and made it all cohesive. He's got really great ears," Chip told the L.A. Weekly in December. "Tony is a true taskmaster. At one rehearsal, we went through a song and I asked him, 'How was it?' And he says, 'That was fine. Now play it so it sounds like music'."

Throughout their lives, the Kinmans took a certain pride in confounding listeners' expectations—and learned to brush off the inevitable criticism.

"We don't really pay much attention to that stuff," Tony told Times contributor Steve Hochman in 1987. "We've always been willing to take that kind of short-term risk to satisfy ourselves and have fun. There's really no other reason to do anything."

Fans and fellow musicians posted messages on a Caring Bridge page that Lisa Kinman created to keep followers informed.

"He was my bandmate and an unwitting mentor to me as a young man," former Rank and File drummer Evans wrote. "Always smart and articulate, clear in his intentions, strong, determined, funny, he does not suffer fools gladly, sometimes stern, but also very kind. Always a gentleman. Standing there tall and ready, calmly smoking his Pall Malls. Looking cool on a stage.

"His voice is a beautiful thing," Evans wrote, "with a deep sonorous tone that would draw you in and you knew he meant business, singing all those songs about the working class, historical figures like John Brown, the KKK, trains going to hell with a conductor that wears black…and then maybe a moving cover of the Patsy Cline ballad 'He's Got You.' You could hear his integrity."

Guitarist and singer Mike Palm of Orange County punk band Agent Orange wrote, "I know it's been a long time, but I often look back on my time in L.A. and think of Tony.… Nothing but great memories. Mucho Love."

Besides his brother, Kinman is survived by his wife, Kristie.

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