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Slim Dunlap’s long, difficult recovery inspires star-studded Songs for Slim project

Slim Dunlap portrait courtesy of Songs for Slim

 

The Replacements made headlines this year when they reunited to record their Songs for Slim EP, which features four tracks by frontman Paul Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson, plus cover art and a fifth track recorded by drummer Chris Mars. But the release of the EP was also bittersweet for fans of the ‘Mats, because the impetus for the sudden reunion and release was that the band’s late-career guitarist, Bob “Slim” Dunlap, had fallen seriously ill.

Dunlap suffered a serious stroke on February 19, 2012, a day that his daughter, Emily Boigenzahn, says changed her family’s lives forever.

“My kids were playing at my parent’s house, and I was just about to come pick them up and we were going to go ice skating, and I got a panicked call from my mom saying that he was on the ground and couldn’t get up. And so she called 911, and the ambulance came, and we started on a rather harrowing journey, where we realized that my dad had had a massive, massive stroke on the right side of his brain, which left him paralyzed on his left side,” she recalls. “And we went through many months in intensive care, he was institutionalized for nine months. And he came home in the fall, and has had many trips back to the hospital, on a monthly basis, because his care is very critical and fragile.”

Despite his delicate state—he remains paralyzed on his left side and speaks in barely a whisper, and has been in and out of the ICU with bouts of pneumonia—Boigenzahn says that in many ways he’s still the same old Slim. “His mind is intact; we have great conversations,” she says. “And he’s doing much better now, and is just really, really happy to be home.”

As the family has adjusted to their new reality, Boigenzahn says that her mother, Chrissie Dunlap, has become “the hero in this story,” providing constant care for her husband and coordinating all of the nurses, aids, and various specialists that visit Dunlap each week. Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of Dunlap’s story is that there hasn’t been a lot of news to share—his recovery has been slow, and his need for round-the-clock care continues, even as his insurance has run out and he has been transferred out of a rehabilitation facility and into his home.

“We were very fortunate in the fact that my dad had health insurance with his day job when he had his stroke. But the thing that surprised us the most is, once you reach a certain point, and if you’re in a certain type of situation, where the doctors are maybe not seeing you to progress the way they want you to progress—like my dad will probably not walk again—they start cutting care out, and there is no coverage for long-term care,” says Boigenzahn. “So that was really surprising to us—that kind of the sicker you are, the fewer benefits you are able to receive.”

She says that she and her mother have learned a lot about the way the healthcare system is set up by following her dad through this ordeal. “It’s just been really eye-opening to see how much people make choices based on how much money it’s going to cost, rather than what is the best care available,” she reflects. “Even doctors will recommend one route or another depending on how much people can pay, which I just think is awful, because people’s health should be their number one priority. And we just feel so fortunate that we had insurance, and when it kind of ran out, we’ve had these great efforts that have so helped our family, and we would not be in the place that we are right now without them.”

Which is where the Songs for Slim series comes in. In addition to the successful EP by the Replacements, which features covers of two of Dunlap’s songs in addition to three covers, there is now an ongoing Songs for Slim 45 series that features high-profile roots artists like Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Joe Henry, Jakob Dylan, and Craig Finn covering Slim’s tunes.

The entire Songs for Slim project was spearheaded by former Replacements manager Peter Jesperson, who now works at New West Records, with additional support from Twin Cities writer PD Larson and Tommy Stinson’s manager Ben Perlstein. Jesperson says he got the idea to do a benefit album within days of hearing about Dunlap’s stroke.

“Tommy Stinson had actually called me to tell me about the stroke, he heard about it first, and he called me I guess the day it happened or the day after it happened back in February of 2012,” Jesperson recalls. “And I think both of us were pretty shook up. But quickly, it occurred to me that this was likely going to be an expensive circumstance for the Dunlaps.”

Given his long history with the Dunlaps, Jesperson says he jumped at the chance to help. “I feel a great personal debt to both Bob and Chrissie,” he says. “Bob was really the first musician I hung around with, he and Curt Almsted [a.k.a. Curtiss A], and I don’t want to sound too over the top about it, but they were inspiring to me in a way that I find it hard to put words to. Basically, seeing them made me want to start a record label. Seeing those guys in a band called Thumbs Up was really the first time where I went, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got something cooking here, at least this one band.’ And then, when I started following them I realized there were other artists too. So anyway, to make a long story short, they were very important people to me, and beyond the musical affection I had for them there was also a friendship developed, and you know both Curt and Bob have been just great pals for going on 40 years.”

As for the task of actually getting Westerberg and Stinson to record together again, Jesperson laughs. “It wasn’t hard. It was basically, ‘You want to do this?’ And the answer was yes. And of course they’ve had a lot of offers to do things together for money, to do live shows, Coachellas or whatever it is—and they of course also had recorded two new songs for the Best Of that Rhino put together in 2006, so they’d already crossed the bridge once. So it seemed like this was a good possibility. They decided they wanted to do the song ‘Busted Up’ and I thought they’d go in and knock that one song out, and fingers crossed it’d turn out well and we could use that to launch the 45 series, as one side of a single.”

But once the two bandmates got to Ed Ackerson’s Flowers Studio and began recording with session players Peter Anderson and Kevin Bowe, it became clear that they weren’t going to stop after just one song. When Jesperson got the call from Stinson that the recording was finished, he was pleasantly surprised to hear that they had actually recorded four songs and wanted to put them out as an EP.

“[Tommy] sent me the rough mixes of the tracks and I was just absolutely blown away,” Jesperson says. “I tell you the truth, I got quite teary eyed. I felt like they’d really captured something that was kind of the essence of what made them so great back in the day. Just an irreverence, a looseness, how fun the tracks were, and the playing was so great by all four guys. And maybe the best thing of all was Westerberg was singing, I thought, better than he’d sung in 25 years. He just sang the living daylights out of those songs.”

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Jesperson says that Chris Mars was eager to get involved in the project as well. “He was ahead of everybody else, I think he was the first guy to actually record a track. Very soon after Slim’s stroke, he recorded a song that he put up on his site called “When I Fall Down,” which is a beautiful song. We had talked to him about the fact that Paul and Tommy wanted to record something, and did he want to be involved, and he considered it for a while. But that kind of opens up an old can of worms that he just felt like he didn’t want to do, and we respected that. And he said, but I would like to record my own song, and how about I do one where I just play all the instruments myself? So he picked the song ‘Radio Hook Word Hit’ and did a track in his own home studio, and we loved it.”

Mars—who has spent the majority of his time post-Replacements working as a painter—was also tasked with creating the artwork for the Songs for Slim series, and his work appears on the ‘Mats EP as well as the progression of 45s that have followed. So far this year the series has issued Slim Dunlap covers by Steve Earle, Craig Finn, Lucinda Williams, Tommy Keene, the Minus Five featuring Curtiss A, and Tim O’Reagan, with even more Slim songs coming soon.

“I was completely overwhelmed back in December—we did a couple days of recording sessions here in North Hollywood and near where the New West office is, and in two days recorded Steve Earle, John Doe, Jacob Dylan, and Lucinda Williams and Joe Henry in two sessions, and we had the absolute A-List of L.A. session players,” Jesperson says. “We had all these people who are all very high paid musicians, and they all came in just to help the project, basically. And I haven’t had a single person ask for money. It’s really been very inspiring.”

All the while, plans for the Songs for Slim series keep expanding. The 45s will continue throughout the rest of the year, and Jesperson says that they plan to follow it up by reissuing Dunlap’s own material on both CD and vinyl. And as Dunlap’s daughter Emily says, there might even be some new Slim songs to add to the mix.

“He’s tried plucking out a few chords with his right hand, plucking at the strings, but he hasn’t really been doing any kind of finger-picking or things like that,” Boigenzahn says. “I think there was part of his brain injury that affected his ability to do that, unfortunately, because he really misses that, and he really misses writing songs—although he has told us that he’s got a few songs in his head, and maybe he can dictate them to us to help get those down for him. He’s got a lot more to say.”