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Off the Beaten Tracks: Hooked on the Cowboy Junkies

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IN a previous column about the American band 10,000 Maniacs I wondered how many would-be listeners were put off by the name. The same applies to the Canadian outfit Cowboy Junkies. They definitely ain’t cowboys and their drug of choice would probably be a nice cup of tea. Their four permanent members comprise two brothers, a sister and a best friend. And over the past 35 years they have become synonymous with mainly quiet, gentle music played beautifully.

Born in Montreal in 1959, Michael Timmins moved with his family to Toronto and became pals with Alan Anton at kindergarten. They formed their first group in high school and as 20-year-olds started a post-punk band named Hunger Project. This took them to London, where guitarist Timmins and bass player Anton formed an improvisational group, Germinal. They released two albums but admitted that their music was, for the audience, ‘quite a chore’.

Returning to Toronto in 1985, the pair rented a house and tried to soundproof the garage so they could use it as a studio. They recruited Michael’s 20-year-old brother Pete as drummer and their sister Margo, 25, as singer. A social worker at the time, she intended to go to graduate school and was reluctant to join the band, declaring: ‘I never wanted to be a musician or be onstage.’ However, she was persuaded to turn up at the garage for rehearsals, the first of which led to a visit from the police after neighbours complained about the noise.

‘We realised we had to tone down,’ Michael told the website No Depression. ‘One thing fed into the other: Margo began to realise that her singing voice was more effective quiet. Pete picked up brushes – he was just learning to play drums at that point. Everything sort of came down. We learned to play with less volume.’

The Cowboy Junkies played their first gig in a back room at the Rivoli, a Toronto nightclub cum pool hall. Among the audience was Peter Moore, a music obsessive who hoped to become a producer. ‘I was mesmerised by Margo,’ he said. ‘People weren’t paying attention to them, because they were playing so softly and quietly. Margo had her back to the audience a lot of the time.’

Moore later met the band at a dinner party and they agreed to let him record them on a spiffy new microphone he had bought. In June 1986 he arrived at the garage and, surrounding the single mike, with a mattress in front of the drums to keep the noise down, they made their first album Whites Off Earth Now! 

This is a collection of blues cover versions plus one original song, Take Me, written by Michael and Margo. Faced by a lack of interest from record companies, the CJs released it on their own label, Latent Recordings, and managed to sell 4,000 copies at gigs around Toronto.

The single-microphone format was retained for their next album. The Trinity Session was recorded at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto, chosen by Moore for its natural reverb. Church officials were reluctant to allow a bunch of long-haired twentysomethings into their hallowed space but were won over when the band announced they were the Timmins Family Singers, recording a Christmas show for the radio.

The songs feature several guest musicians, including another member of the Timmins clan, eldest brother John on guitar and backing vocals, but were not overdubbed or messed about with in any way, giving the album a feeling of great intimacy. There are six Timmins originals plus a couple of traditional tunes and a cover of Hank Williams’s I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, but the main attention centred on a brilliant, languid interpretation of Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane. This, by the way, is based on the version from 1969: The Velvet Underground Live rather than the studio effort which appeared on Loaded.  

The Trinity Session appeared on the Latent label in early 1988 but was released worldwide later in the year by RCA with the inclusion of Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis) which is partly original and partly a cover version of the Rodgers and Hart standard. The album was rapturously received by the critics, particularly Anthony DeCurtis in Rolling Stone who wrote: ‘The Trinity Session is in the great tradition of albums that establish a mood and sustain it so consistently that the entire record seems like one continuously unfolding song. The mood in this instance is hypnotic and introspective – an intense, melancholic longing that blends the elemental emotions of country music and the blues with the poetic world-weariness of the Velvet Underground. Having good songs, the skill to convey what they have to say and, most important, a vision, the Cowboy Junkies dispensed with high-tech trumpery and made their record simply and seriously. That attitude helped make the album as important as it is inspiring.’ The Trinity Session was a major success, eventually going platinum in the US and Canada.

The next album, 1990’s The Caution Horses, featured a less spare, more radio-friendly approach with songs such as Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning and Rock and Bird.  It’s still a restful listen, though. As Margo said, their music is ‘not country, it’s not blues, it’s not rock, we just do what we do’.

Touring to promote the album, the CJs invited the great country singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt along.

He responded by writing The Cowboy Junkies Lament. This was included in 1992 on their next album, Black Eyed Man, along with one of his songs, To Live Is To Fly,  and a tribute to him, Townes’s Blues. 

In 1993 came Pale Sun, Crescent Moon, which features some stellar slide guitar from guest Junkie Ken Myhr, particularly on the tracks Seven Years and The Post.  

A double live collection, 200 More Miles, covers the years 1986 to 1994 and acts as a sort of ‘greatest hits’ package. It kicks off with Blue Moon Revisited, for which Margo sets the scene by announcing: ‘Before I do some rock and roll I like to sit down.’ If you’re expecting pyrotechnics, you’re in for a long wait. The tempo is upped now and then, however, for example on the seven-minute Murder Tonight in the Trailer Park. And on the next studio album, the CJs really kick over the traces.

Lay It Down, released in 1996, is a terrific effort, recorded in Athens, Georgia, after the material was put together at a house on Lake Kasshabog in Ontario. This is the CJs’ first LP with no cover versions and there isn’t a dud track on it. First up is Something More Besides You, which starts off quietly but soon builds up an impressive noise. This is followed by A Common Disaster and the title track, also excellent.

While at the house on the lake, the band’s supplies were ferried in by an Eastern European refugee named Zolt, whose wife was a victim of Alzheimer’s. This inspired the song Come Calling, which comes in two versions – one giving a husband’s point of view and the other, more subdued, representing the stricken wife. 

While writing songs for 1998’s Miles From Our Home, Michael Timmins heard that Townes Van Zandt had died. That day he roughed out a song, Blue Guitar, ‘as a tribute to the man who had the bluest guitar that I had ever heard’. Van Zandt’s widow gave Michael some of his unpublished lyrics, one of which, Screams From The Kitchen, he incorporated into Blue Guitar. He said it was his favourite track on the album.

In 1999 came a compilation, Rarities, B-Sides and Slow, Sad Waltzes which contains my all-time number one Cowboy Junkies song. Leaving Normal makes great play of the North American tendency to give unusual names to communities in the back of beyond.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the high planes of Expectation
And I’m way past the lowlands and the deserts of Failure and Doubt
And the last time I passed through Satisfaction
I felt like a stranger there
Now I’m leaving Normal and I’m heading for Who Knows Where.

Great guitar solo, too.

In 2001 came the album Open, which was recorded live in the studio. Here’s an example of its light and shade, Upon Still Waters. A statement from the band said: ‘All in all we couldn’t be more pleased with the way this record has turned out. We set out to record the menace and beauty of life as we experience it.’ Job done by the Cowies. Which reminds me, we used to know a tennis mum whose maiden name was Cowie. She married a man called Horsey. I kid you not.

The years 2004 and 2005 brought the albums One Soul Now and Early 21st Century Blues, the latter of which contains a cover of Dylan’s Licence To Kill  and starts with Margo having a good cackle.  At the End of Paths Taken (2007) is a celebration of family life and includes a contribution from the Timminses’ elderly father John. On the track Mountain  he reads a passage from his book I Don’t Know Where I Am But I’m Making Good Time. That same year saw the release of Trinity Revisited, marking roughly 20 years since the release of The Trinity Session and featuring guest vocalists Natalie Merchant, Ryan Adams and Vic Chesnutt.

After that flurry of activity there was a three-year gap before the release of Renmin Park,  the first of four albums known as the Nomad Series. This was inspired by a three-month visit to China by Michael Timmins, who stayed in the city of Jingjiang with his wife and three children and was mesmerised by the musicians who played in said park. Demons (2011) is a tribute to Vic Chesnutt, who had killed himself two years earlier at the age of 45. All 11 tracks were written by Chesnutt including Flirted With You All My Life, a poignant conversation with death.

Several more albums later, the CJs are still going strong, with the latest releases being 2018’s All That Reckoning and 2020’s Ghosts, both of which I can recommend. For those of you whose interest in the band has been piqued I would advise a lengthy trawl through YouTube, which features concert footage from throughout their illustrious career. And a visit to their website is a must.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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