Tony Kinman lived in Austin for just a short time in the early 1980s, but the music he and his brother Chip Kinman made here had reverberations worldwide. With a young Alejandro Escovedo and drummer Slim Evans, they formed Rank and File, whose cowpunk sound combined elements of country and punk long before alt-country music became more widespread.
Tony was born in 1956. The Kinman brothers started punk rock band the Dils while in high school in Carlsbad, Calif., eventually moving to the Bay Area where they encountered Escovedo’s band the Nuns. Eventually they all ended up in New York, but when they hit upon fusing elements of punk and country with Rank and File, they decided that Austin was the best place to get it started.
Tony, Escovedo and others had started a proto-version of Rank and File in San Francisco, but when the group went on tour in 1980, the lineup included Chip and not Tony — until a gig in Portland, Oregon, where Tony was living at the time.
“I had broken up with my girlfriend, and I was ready to get back in a band,” Tony told interviewer Scott Bass for a 2001 Maximum Rock N Roll interview that reappeared on the Perfect Sound Forever site this year. “So I got in the van with them and finished up the tour and ended up in New York. When we got back, Chip and Al and I talked about it and decided that if we were serious about doing this kind of music, New York is the wrong place to do it. We needed to move somewhere where we could really do it, and so we decided to move to Austin. All of us had played in Austin before and really liked it. It was around April of 1981 that we moved to Austin. That’s how the band started.”
In a 1997 interview with me, Escovedo recalled the era similarly. “That’s when really kind of the whole thing started for us, you know, was once we moved to Austin,” he said. “And at that time, also, we got to see Billy Joe Shaver, Townes Van Zandt, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Lucinda Wiiliams, Nanci Griffith — playing all the same little clubs. We would play at the Alamo Lounge. We played the Shorthorn Bar on every Sunday.”
Rank and File initially was managed by Steve Chaney, who’d grown up with the Kinman brothers in Carlsbad, Calif., but was living in Austin when the band moved there. A tour of California resulted in a record deal for Rank and File with Slash Records. The group appeared on “Austin City Limits” for the 1983 release of their debut album “Sundown.” Here’s a clip of their song “Amanda Ruth” from that broadcast:
Escovedo departed shortly thereafter and the Kinmans relocated to California, releasing two more albums before shifting gears with the more synth-oriented band Blackbird and later Cowboy Nation. Chip Kinman has continued to play music recently with the band Ford Madox Ford, including a 2016 Austin show.
Speaking from a residency gig in New York on Friday, Escovedo said that Tony “was really kind of our captain” during the Rank and File days. “He was a leader. I learned a lot from Tony, and I think that a lot of the stuff I learned form those guys, I carried on to the other bands I was in.”
Escovedo remembered Tony as being “a very kind and generous person. He was a solid guy, intelligent and well-read. I’m always proud of what we did together as a band.”