Cowboy Junkies are neither
by Seth Rogovoy
(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., September 23, 2001) – The first minute of music of the Cowboy Junkies latest album, “Open” (Zoe), could be viewed as a metaphor for the group’s entire sound. The first song, “I Did It All for You,” opens with a half-minute of noise – electric guitar distortion, squawl and feedback, before a lushly fingerpicked acoustic guitar and deep electric bass come in on top and underneath the noise as if to sandwich or contain the fury.Then comes the group’s signature since day one – Margo Timmins’s voice, sailing in ghostly and angelic from above, suggesting transcendence out of squalor.
Sixteen years after the group first formed, and 13 years after its seminal, groundbreaking album, “The Trinity Session,” gained the group widespread critical acclaim, Cowboy Junkies still clings to its musical dialectic, pretty much lifted wholesale from the legendary ‘60s rock band the Velvet Underground and given a makeover through Timmins’s hypnotic lead vocals and her brother Michael Timmins’s organic, surrealistic lyrics.
“In one sense we haven’t changed much at all,” said bassist Alan Anton, a founding member of Cowboy Junkies, who perform at Mass MoCA on Saturday night, September 29, at 8, in a recent phone interview from Gainesville, Fla. “We’re still doing what we always wanted to do and playing the music we wanted to play. The only thing that has changed -- our popularity -- was a big surprise. We never had the idea that we’d be doing it for a living, that there’d be a crowd big enough to support us.
“That was a big surprise, so we spent a lot of time fending that off, because once you sell records they expect you to sell more, which was never what we were about. So we’ve had that struggle with the commerce side of it from the beginning, and as a result we wasted lot of energy dealing with bozos, but the basics haven’t changed.”
Those basics include a tough dedication to roots music – heroes in Cowboy Junkies pantheon include Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Robert Johnson – combined with a love of gritty urban rock – hence the group’s early versions of songs by Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed. They also include a kind of quiet insularity no doubt fostered by the fact that Cowboy Junkies is primarily a sibling band, comprised of Margo and Michael Timmins, their brother Peter, and childhood friend Anton.
The group expands for recording and touring projects to include other musicians. Currently Jeff Bird plans mandolin with the group, and Linford Detweiler plays keyboards.
Anton’s father was a jazz drummer and his was a musical household. When Anton and best friend Michael Timmins were 11, Timmins’s older brother John brought some Velvet Underground records home, which Anton says “opened wide our eleven-year-old eyes.”
“It’s always been our number-one influence, the Velvet Underground,” he said. “That’s what we heard when we were eleven years old, and it always struck a chord with us.
“Michael and I started in bands in the punk era, the late Seventies, and a surprising number of bands were influenced by the Velvet Underground. It’s like Lou Reed said -- nobody bought Velvet Underground records, but everyone who did started a band.”
Anton and Timmins first teamed up in a band called Hunger Project in Toronto in 1979. A few years later, they moved to England and formed an experimental instrumental group called Germinal.
By the mid-‘80s, they returned to Toronto, and brought in Margo on vocals and Peter on drums, and they recorded their first Cowboy Junkies album, “Whites Off Earth Now!!”
The follow-up, “The Trinity Session,” was the unlikely hit of 1988. Recorded in Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity with a single microphone at a cost of $250, the album eventually went platinum and garnered the group international fame for its languid, mysteriously laid-back versions of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” and Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
A succession of albums followed, including 1990’s “Caution Horses,” 1992’s “Black Eyed Man,” 1993’s “Pale Sun, Crescent Moon” and 1996’s “Lay It Down.” In 1998, the group released “Miles from Our Home.” Its last major-label release, the album featured several potential hit singles, but fell the victim of panic and stampede when Geffen, the record label, merged with Universal.
Since its inception, the Cowboy Junkies have often been called a country-rock or alt-country band, perhaps as much because the word “Cowboy” appears in its name as for any better reason for a band that rocks and crunches as hard and loud as Neil Young’s Crazy Horse.
“It’s really a hard influence to shake, the Velvet Underground,” said Anton. “It’s so potent, it encapsulated a whole sound, but even the Velvets had country tunes and distilled it, and that’s always been our goal -- to have many influences and make it our own.”
Now recording for the independent label Rounder, Cowboy Junkies have much more creative control. They also take a hands-on approach to promoting themselves, interacting with fans daily on their website, www.cowboyjunkies.com, which features a bulletin board, tour diary and sound files.
The group’s Mass MoCA show is the final show on the current U.S. leg of its tour. The band then travels to England, Italy and Norway, before returning to North America to record a tribute album to the late Texas singer-songwriter Townes van Zant.
Tickets to Cowboy Junkies are available through the Mass MoCA box office located off Marshall Street from 10 to 6 daily. Tickets can also be charged by phone by calling 662-2111 during box office hours, or purchased online at www.massmoca.org. Doors open at 7. Tim Easton is the opening act.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 27, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]
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