Rattling the Neighborhood
The Cowboy Junkies cook up some fresh country blues
That's it: mystery. That's what's been missing, and that is precisely
what the Cowboy Junkies offer. This Canadian-based band takes hold
of some old blues or some vintage country that is threatening to lose
its edge and turn into something cushy and classic. They spin it out,
rework it, rediscover it, find the secret pulse under the familiarity.
Suddenly a song that's been on tape delay somewhere in the back of
the memory bank comes into the consciousness at full volume. I'm
So Lonesome I Could Cry hasn't sounded so desolate since Hank Williams.
The Cowboy Junkies work their wiles on it, and the song is reborn.
There is enough new country music around just now to make it seem like
a 365-day spring down in Nashville. There is music of anger (Steve Earle)
and oddness (Lyle Lovett), music full of craft and winning ways like
the tunes on a Randy Travis album. But, with the exception of the wonderful
O'Kanes, the sounds in the country air do not abound with enigma. Country
has traditionally run to chill depths, though. When Patsy Cline sang
Walking After Midnight, she found a lonesomeness whose locus
was closer to the soul than the heart. When the Cowboy Junkies cover
Cline's tune on their just released RCA album, The Trinity Session, they
bring something extra of their own to it, something haunted. In the false
lull of Margo Timmins' lovely voice and measured phrasing there is the
suggestion that whoever's up after midnight may not only be walking,
but also stalking.
"Our music's very drifting, very ethereal," says Margo's brother,
Michael, 29, who is the driving force (as well as tour van driver)
behind the Junkies. "We lay down certain rhythms and grooves, establish
them, then Margo and I color them. Not paint. Color. We're not concerned
with reproducing Hank Williams as he was. We want his intent, his
feel, as we hear it." The band, which has recently grown to seven members,
also has a maverick edge that harks back to the best rowdy traditions
of country. The Trinity Session contains a startling version of Lou
Reed's acrid Velvet Underground tune Sweet Jane. The Velvets were a
formative influence on the Cowboy Junkies, one that is still discernable
in the unpolished precision of their playing, all those drifting Svengali
chords that put on the whammy and make every tune into a three-minute
"It's the perfect 3 a.m. listening music," Michael observes, and he
is right, if what's wanted is a night of unsettled dreams. The sound
of the Junkies is a direct and salubrious reaction to the mainstream
softening of country music. "What you hear on the radio is pretty sappy,"
he says. "It's pop with a Southern accent." Margo Timmins, 27, sings
slow and deliberate. The other Cowboy Junkies play the same way. After
a while, they can sound as if they're working a gig at the funeral
for the sweetheart of the rodeo. This is a band grounded in silence
("The lack of sound is as compelling as sound"), in suggestion and
indirection. Such stylistic focus - or, occasionally, obstinacy- seems
as if it might be limiting a record or two from now, but the band remains
untroubled. "The sounds coming at you today are so blatant, so up front
about everything, that they force an emotion on you," Michael says.
"We want our music to be evocative, to pull at emotions." Anyway, Timmins
and bass player Alan Anton, 29, put in a lot of time with the musical
pummeling. They are entitled to take a different road.
Friends since kindergarten, Michael and Alan shared records and formed
a band in high school. At "about 18 or 19" they went semipro, putting
together an outfit called Hunger Project, which moved from Toronto
to New York City in 1980. They tried - mostly unsuccessfully - to make
a living playing adaptations of the kind of fierce rock that was then
coming out of England. "The kids in England had a lot to growl about,"
Michael recalls. "We didn't. We were middle class. We didn't really
hook into the philosophy of the music so much as the expression." Finally
landing in England in 1981, Anton and Timmins found the rock scene
there "pretentious and unreceptive to any outsiders. Innovation was
the squeal of a car brake." They boys lasted four years. They had a
band called Germinal, in which guitar, bass, drum and sax "all did
whatever, all at the same time. IT was the ultimate release for us.
But for the audience, it was quite a chore."
Besides taxing the audience, Germinal helped Anton and Timmins blow
their own circuitry so that it was ready for a more delicate rewiring.
"We'd gotten the aggressiveness out of our system," Michael says. "Now
we could think about our music - and leave some spaces in it." Back
in Toronto again, working out of a rehearsal space inside his brother
Pete's garage, Michael started to work up the meditative, mood-ridden
sound of the Cowboy Junkies. Pete was recruited to play drums. Margo,
whose previous vocal experience was confined to school pageants, was
coaxed into singing. The garage walls were covered with carpeting so
the neighbors wouldn't complain. "That's where a lot of the quietness
of the Cowboy Junkies comes from," says Michael, almost with a straight
face. "It's from not wanting to disturb the neighbors."
Their first album, released in 1986, got a modest cult going for the
band, but The Trinity Session landed them a big time deal
with RCA. They are planning a new album, with a more folkish influence,
to be recorded early next year, and will be making occasional touring
forays into the States before they return to the studio. Don't expect
to tune in immediately, though. "We don't show everything," Michael
Timmins says, "We keep a little bit hidden." That's the solution to
the mystery of the Cowboy Junkies, then: they may not show what's hidden,
but they surely can play.