place of origin:
slow, sad country, post-punk folk rock
Hank Williams, Velvet Underground, Neil Young, Patsy Cline
Whites Off Earth Now (1986)
The Trinity Sessions (1988)
The Caution Horses (1990)
Black Eyed Man (1992)
Pale Sun, Crescent Moon (1993)
200 More Miles, Live Performances (1995)
Lay it Down (1996)
Miles from Our Home (1998)
Rarities, B-sides and Slow, Sad Waltzes (1999)
Michael Timmins (guitars); Alan Anton (bass); Margo Timmins (vocals); Peter Timmins (drums)
"We have given up on major labels. We're tired of them. We're sick of dealing with people who don't listen to music."
"We used to have a lot of ideas, but couldn't pull them off. Now we can do pretty much anything we think of".
Cowboy Junkies music is rooted in blues, folk and country styles in the vein of Hank Williams. But they bring it all down to the quietest, most melancholic, dusty, lonesome, small-town sadness imaginable. Defined by Michael Timmins keen ear for country-flavoured melodies and narrative lyrical outlook on claustrophobic small-town life and his sister Margo Timmins' angelic alto, the band has garnered a large enough following to make them one of the most successful cult bands in the world. Yet, their contemplative waltzes have found more of an audience amongst fans of The Velvet Underground, Dinosaur Jr. and/or David Sylvian as Cowboy Junkies brilliance is far beyond the thinking levels of your avergage fan of Garth Brook's brand of over-energized country pop.
The story begins with childhood friends Michael Timmins and Alan Anton, who formed a punk-related outfit by the name of The Hunger Project in 1979 in their native Toronto. When that group folded, the pair set out for England with hopes of joining in on the cutting-edge punk scene of the day. There they founded an instrumental punk outfit, Germinal, which also disintegrated. Feeling their dreams had shattered, the two returned home where Michael began jamming casually with his younger brother Peter Timmins on drums. Before long Margo began rehearsing with the pair and Alan was soon called in on bass.
Naming themselves Cowboy Junkies to attract attention, the foursome's 1986 debut Whites Off Earth Now's title did little to describe the burgeoning country elegance. Signing to RCA in 1988, the band's second release, The Trinity Sessions (1988, RCA) was recorded at the abandoned Trinity Church for $250 with a single microphone. With melancholic tenderness the Cowboy Junkies brought Hank Williams' "Im So Lonesome I Could Cry" into the despairing, dislocated 90's while a cover of The Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" revealed wide ranging influence. Michael Timmins' delicate guitar riffs, Margo's heavenly, soft vocals, Anton's bluesy, walking basslines and Peter's layed-back, simple drumming revealed a band of remarkable talent and originality. No doubt they were, to say the least, a far-fetch from the sexual obsession of Prince's 80's glam empire. Garnering ecstatic reviews and excellent sales, The Trinity Sessions was named album of the year by Rolling Stone.
With the success of their second record Cowboy Junkies were able to work with a larger budget during their next recording sessions. The new album, The Caution Horses (1990, RCA) appeared in mid 1990. It continued with its predecessor's shadowy country darkness and a cover of Mary Margaret O'Hara's "You Will Be Loved Again" revealed excellent taste. Although it lacked 'Trinity''s power and stunning quality, and perhaps even bordered on excessive, its sales were excellent and secured the band's loyal following for years to come.
The distinguished Black Eyed Man (1992, RCA) would follow two years later. This album's innovation and diversity would correct any of The Caution Horses' weaknesses. "This Street, That Man, This Life" and "Southern Rain" were marvelously akin to Hank Williams' story-telling imagery. The most diverse instances were "To Live is To Fly", the bursting folk-violin energy of which would never be repeated on anything Junkies, and the bass-thick "Murder, Tonight, in The Trailer Park", alluding to a move towards an edgier sound.
The more rocking direction continued on Pale Sun, Crescent Moon (1993, RCA), one of the band's finest moments. While the whispering delicacy remained on tracks such as "First Recollection" and "Seven Years" they were now accompanied by bluesy guitar shards that added beautifully to the desolate, wandering feel. Even the quieter tracks, such as "Ring on the Sill" and "White Sail" were less spacious and slightly more upbeat than anything on The Trinity Sessions. Relayings of bewildered, struggling romance were no less astounding and vivid. The most standout track was the nearly shimmering "Anniversary Song", which featured bright guitars and an almost care-free lyrical feel.
As 1995 came around Cowboy Junkies parted ways with RCA, and so the label issued a live album, 200 More Miles. Signing to Geffen, the band entered the studio with John Keane to unveil Lay it Down in 1996. Having turned away from more recent releases' rockier feel, Lay it Down was a quieter record in the vein of The Trinity Sessions or The Caution Horses.
The rootsier direction caused for some surprise when 1998's Miles from Our Home (1998, Geffen) appeared. With a bold, guitar-heavy drive, the album flaunted a thundering rock approach that somehow kept a clear country edge. Opening track "New Dawn Coming" was twisted, surreal, collapsing effortlessly into the drifting ballad "Blue Guitar". "Miles from Our Home"and "Those Final Feet" were audacious, driving toward the light in a manner completely unheard of from the Cowboy Junkies. Perhaps the most standout track was the gleaming "Darkling Days", a warm reflection carried by graceful, ringing guitars. This was no doubt the Cowboy Junkies' brightest record to date, and also one of their best selling. It was followed by a highly successful tour, in the middle of which the band parted ways with the increasingly over-bearing Geffen.
Setting up a dot-com website and forming their own record label, Latent, the Cowboy Junkies settled into a completely uncompromising future. In 1999 they assembeled a collection of rare songs entitled Rarities, B-Sides and Slow Sad Waltzes. They are currently at work on a new album which they have personally expressed will resemble Lay it Down and will supposedly appear sometime in 2001.
Cowboy Junkies are clearly one of the most original and interesting bands of the past twenty years and their extremely loyal following seems to bear testimony to their greatness. While they may not rack up the sales of the superficial over-produced over-hyped glam-pop country popularized by the likes of Garth Brooks, they have certainly created music most similar to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash (the godfathers of country) and they have certainly been, by far, the most original of any country-flavoured act to emerge in recent times. Their realm of lonely highways, romantic disillusion and dusty small town life is certainly far more artistic and innovative than new country pop's meandering expulsion of excess energy. They are already showing signs of tremendous influence. Upon simple observation it is clear; Garth Brooks is Michael Jackson with a cowboy hat. Cowboy Junkies are the real deal.
from left: Margo, Michael, Peter and Alan