This kind of discernment was not always a strong point for Hinson. Nowadays, he's touring the country with his childhood hero Erich Bachmann's band Crooked Fingers, performing stirring solo sets of downtrodden alt-country ballads in a heart-rending, long-day's-journey-into-night moan that belies his small frame and pixieish looks. But back when most so-called professional musicians in Abilene, Texas, were bargaining for studio time to record their next Nashville knockoff or chest-beating hymn to Jesus, Hinson was descending into a maelstrom marked by a devastating relationship with a Vogue cover model (the widow of late Tripping Daisy guitarist Wes Berggren), as well as serious trouble with the cops over forged prescriptions and an eventual collapse into bankruptcy and homelessness -- all before he could even legally buy a beer.
Proud to hear that this once-troubled fellow Abilenian was making a name for himself on the indie-rock circuit (his debut full-length, Micah P. Hinson and the Gospel of Progress, came out Tuesday), I called Hinson to play a little catch-up.
I had been absent from his life during the dark times. I would gasp at the rumors and the complaints his closer friends voiced to me, I'd make a note to watch out for him, and then I'd eventually forget about him all over again. "It's probably good you didn't know me then," he says over the phone as his tour van leaves Indianapolis for Chicago. He told me how he escaped his residency as prodigal son to the church-infested community we were raised in, how he finally began realizing his musical ambitions and, finally, how he got his parents to start talking to him again.
It all started with a little help from his friends. Another ambitious Abilene kid, John Mark Lapham (son of the local movie critic whose opinions we loved to hate), had been moving back and forth between Texas and Manchester, England, where he was DJing and building up a trans-Atlantic band called the Earlies, which now has a deal with 679 Recordings (the Futureheads, the Streets).
Unlike most other hometowners, myself included, Lapham took Hinson seriously -- so much so that he began aggressively pitching Hinson's demos to English labels alongside his own work. Two and a half years after Lapham took up his cause, Hinson was shacked up in Austin with his girlfriend, figuring his career had pretty much stalled out. Then, very early one morning, Lapham called to tell him that he'd gotten Hinson a deal.
"I was like, 'Holy shit! I'm going back to bed.' And I went back to bed," Hinson says. Later that day, Hinson was the newest client of Sketchbook Records, which offered to fly him to England, buy him studio time and settle the $600 he owed in unpaid traffic tickets that would have precluded his getting a passport. Hinson jumped at the offer, and after the voyage and a 12-hour welcoming interrogation by British customs officials, Hinson was set free with 160 American dollars and a pass to stay in the Queen's garden for one month.
Lapham and Hinson recorded The Gospel of Progress in ten days, with different members of the semi-orchestral Earlies coming in each day to lend instrumental flourishes to the album, building a dramatic but economical backdrop to Hinson's psyche-denuding tales of misery and hope. Hinson toured England for two weeks with the Earlies, then traveled around the UK and Amsterdam in support of Iron & Wine, with which he'll roll across America in a bus shared with Calexico this fall. Also, Hinson and Lapham have recorded an EP that has been picked up by the prestigious label 4AD for a May release in England.
All of this is great, but Hinson knows that if it weren't for Lapham's undying support, he'd probably still be at home, gazing despondently at the brown grass of vacant lots littered with church bulletins and sun-bleached beer cans.
"He [Lapham] really, really saved my life," Hinson says. "Before the record came out, and before all this, I never really had a fire under my ass. I wanted to accomplish things, but I never wanted to put in the time for it."
Nonetheless, Hinson has never had trouble putting in time at the guitar and the tape recorder. He's built up an archive of songs, some of which he plans to release on future albums. Almost all of them were written when his life was falling apart.
"A lot of the pain and the bullshit I put myself through led to a lot of those songs. They weren't particularly meant for anybody to hear them -- they were just kind of self-therapy," says this son of a respected psychologist. "It's pretty weird, because Abilene is a complete shit hole, devoid of anything reasonable ... but I think there's enough boredom and enough trouble you can get yourself into that some songwriting skills could come about."
Hinson's knack for music has enabled him to begin a career in spite of never finishing college, but it took more than a few good songs to win back the respect of his family. To accomplish that, Hinson had to make the hardest move of all -- he had to come back home.
Now, Hinson says, things have never been better. "They know I do questionable things, like I might drink too much or I might smoke too much grass or live with my girlfriend, and they don't like those things, but there's so much respect and love for me that they can put that aside," he says. "I don't think a lot of parents of that whole group of kids that we grew up with would be able to do that, to step aside and let their kids live their own life if it wasn't good in their eyes."
Now, Hinson's father buys all of his son's rare, overpriced records from overseas dealers, and Mrs. H often can be found singing one of her son's tunes -- except, of course, the ones with cussing in them.
In Hinson's own gospel of progress, there's a clear note of redemption. His music doesn't make use of the capital-g Gospel found in many country-music songbooks, but I have to ask whether his childhood spent on a church pew was lurking somewhere in his inspirational machinery.
"There's not really a lot of God in there or spiritual things," he answers. "It's really just human relationships -- that's all I can sing about, to be honest."
And for the kid whose friends once couldn't trust him with so much as a spare microphone cable, that's just enough.