Wrote a Song for Everyone: Slim Dunlap’s Art/Roots Marriage

The Replacements
Songs for Slim
New West

Slim Dunlap has been called “one of the last old-school cool guitar players” and for good reason. His penchant for country-inflected passages and a focus on rock steady rhythms that’d make Keith Richards sit up and take notice have made him a hero in his adopted hometown, Minneapolis, Minnesota, but also to rock enthusiasts around the world. His style was markedly different than that of his predecessor, Bob Stinson, in the Replacements, something he would have been well aware of but still probably had to hear about and discuss in many a Q&A session.

His tenure in that band, 1987 to 1991, must have been strange. He came aboard just in time for 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul, one of the band’s finest later records, but one that saw the group teetering on the edge of mainstream success for the last time and having to account, at plenty of steps along the way, for its turn toward a more commercial sound. It was followed a year later by All Shook Down, not so much a swan song but a beautifully caustic death wheeze on which session musicians supported frontman Paul Westerberg.

Still, Dunlap doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d let all of that phase him. You get the sense, from everything that’s been said and written about him — in the last 14 months especially — that one of the reasons he got the Mats gig was that he’s a guy you really want to hang out with and that one of the reasons you’d want to hang out with him is that, in the end, he’s just a good guy. Dunlap’s name has come in conversation for a number of reasons over the last year, starting with a somewhat grim one. In early 2012 the guitarist suffered a major stroke that has left him paralyzed on one side of his body and in need of major medical care.

The silver linings that have revealed themselves amid these struggles include the remarkable support that he and his family have received from friends and colleagues. There’s also been light shed on his gifts a songwriter. Late last year, when former Replacements manager Peter Jesperson announced Songs for Slim — a series in which artists would cover Dunlap’s tunes and issue them first for auction, then for mass release — one of the hopes bandied about was that there would also be a critical reassessment of Dunlap’s work, namely his two solo albums, 1993’s The Old New Me and its successor, Times Like This (1996).

Dunlap was a seasoned veteran by the time he joined The Replacements after the group’s 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me. He wasn’t just older than the others — he had several years on Westerberg and drummer Chris Mars and more than a decade on bassist Tommy Stinson — but he’d already been part of Spooks with Minneapolis legend Curtiss A by the time the Stinson brothers, Mars, and Westerberg joined forces in 1979. Listen to 1980-1990, the wild, abrasive, and often funny six-song EP Spooks issued in early 1978 and you’ll hear some of the same attitude the Mats possessed on early and even later recordings.

Dunlap — then still known as Bob, Slim would be a gift from Westerberg — comes off as a well-formed player. Though the band was ostensibly aiming for a punk/new wave aesthetic, there was far more going on than what might first meet the ear. The rich Keith Richard’s-esque chords, the Stonesian sway, and the rough-and-tumble tone that betrayed an appreciation for Chuck Berry are all present on songs such as “Fun Is Everything (Science Fiction World)” and “Sinister Forces… Peculiar Points of View”. He continued to record with A. throughout the early ’80s, performing on records such as The Damage is Done (1983) and Courtesy (1980). There’s country-friend playing to be heard in “Kickin’” and early rock/blues via “Jelly B. Bop”. (Dave Ahl and Chris Osgood of Minneapolis’s first strike punk band, Suicide Commandoes were also part of the Curtiss A camp.)

As interesting as that early work is, it’s with his two solo records from the ‘90s that we see the true depths of his talents. Released in the early hours of 1993, around the time he’d completed a stint in Dan (Georgia Satellites) Baird’s touring band, The Old New Me might have seemed a little underwhelming at the time. Soundgarden, Nirvana, and even the once slightly quieter but no less deranged outfit Meat Puppets were all delivering punishing blows with frequently detuned and often overdriven guitars. The Jayhawks had issued Hollywood Town Hall in the months before Bill Clinton was elected to his first term but that record was still viewed as a stylistic anomaly in the mainstream. Uncle Tupelo was issuing quiet, roots-oriented records at the time but the band was still several months away from its grandest and final statement, Anodyne when Dunlap’s debut crept into stores. Let’s not forget that the bands that’d come to be categorized as alt country — with all due respect to Dan Baird’s former band — were still in their infancy or just gathering enough steam to be noticed on the club circuit.

As a 1993 record — and a record from a former Replacement — goes The Old New Me opens like punk, alternative, and heavy metal never happened. “Rockin’ Here Tonight” might have rubbed elbows with something from the first Keith Richards album, Talk Is Cheap, but even that — a record released in 1988 — sounded more like something you’d have heard before Jimmy Carter took office. In this way, Dunlap’s debut was both behind the times and just a little bit ahead of them. “Isn’t It” might have passed for a darker, more groove oriented Dwight Yoakam track while “From the Git Go” should have been the honky tonk hit of the summer. The lyrics — though filled with rock ‘n’ roll and rural sass — were hardly filled with cool, ironic stance fashionable at the time and that song, as well as several others here, speaks to the sweetness and sincerity of their author.

The album closer “Love Lost” was the kind of breathtakingly beautiful track that would have fit perfect on a late ‘60s country record and “Busted Up” was smart and dangerous enough that you couldn’t — and still can’t — help dance to it. “The Ballad of the Opening Band”, a statement that needs to be made today as much as it did back then is both heartbreaking and funny, two of the qualities that make it so endearing and enduring. Dunlap’s ability to work with cliché — using phrases such as “Taken on the Chin” and “Partners in Crime” to launch into songs that had something fresh — and, in the case of the latter, intimate — to say is remarkable, highlighted, in the case of “Partners” by Lucinda Williams’ recent cover of it — as good a love song as anyone wrote in the ’90s.

By the time Times Like This emerged three years later the alt-country swing was gathering steam — or was just about to run out of it. Wilco was already shedding its country leanings for psychedelic-infused weirdness on Being There, Son Volt’s 1995 debut Trace set a template that band would follow for years to come but The Jayhawks had endured the loss of Mark Olson and, according to some reports, nearly split up.

If it had looked like alt country had a promising future a few years earlier, the shifting sands were suggesting otherwise at the tail end of 1996. Not that that mattered to Slim Dunlap. He issued what is arguably the strongest of his two solo albums with songs such as “Cozy” (another Stones-y number that could have been on Exile on Main Street), “Hate This Town”, a country/folk anthem for any kid who’s hated their small town — or city — since the beginning of time, and the beautiful title track. (More on that in a moment.)

It’s hard to make the case, though, that Times Like This is as straight a roots record as its predecessor. It’s the strange side of Slim — “Little Shiva’s Song”, said to have been inspired by Shivika Asthana of the Boston band Papas Fritas, is funny and sweet in an unexpected way, “Radio Hook Word Hit” comes off as commentary about the competition, all those bands who sold their souls for a little slice of Nirvana and wound up as unemployed baristas instead. “Cooler Then” and “Jungle Out There” show signs of the artist’s more obtuse humor, all of this culminating in a kind of roots art record, an amalgamation of Dunlap’s early work with Spooks, his rural/country influences and having come of age in the era of Captain Beefheart. Once more, it’s a riskier record than you might expect but a better one too, evidence of an artist continuing to broaden his horizons.

The range of acts who have come forth to cover Dunlap’s material speaks to its range — Westerberg and Tommy Stinson put together a new version of The Replacements for the inaugural Songs For Slim release, an EP that features “Busted Up”, John Doe recently recorded “Just for the Hell of It” and Joe Henry’s version of “Taken On the Chin” will soon see the light of day.

But it’s Steve Earle’s take on “Times Like This” that’s thus far been the best — well, at least as good as “Busted Up” and Chris Mars’s “Radio Hook Word Hit” — as the hardcore troubadour has found both the sweetness and sadness in the song but also — just as in the original — allowed resolve to triumph over resignation. It’s the new settings in which these songs appear and the voices that sing them that also remind us of their origins and the power of casual, understated observation and a good, golden heart wield over the songs one helps bring into the world.

Slim Dunlap’s songs deserve wider attention because, among other things, they speak to us all, whether we know it or not.