Canadians Who Still Have Fun Being Somber
by David Belcher
Haunted songs by the Cowboy Junkies like “Lonely Sinking Feeling” and “To Love Is to Bury” won’t be turning up on “Glee” one day, but this band has turned somber into a mysterious sort of success for 25 years.
The Cowboy Junkies’ music is moody and often solemn, and this Canadian alt-country group is best known for its slow, stripped-down covers of classics by Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Townes van Zandt, among others, sung in Margo Timmins’s ethereal smoke-and-honey voice. In 1988 the band scored a minor hit, its only one, with a reinterpretation of “Sweet Jane,” written by Lou Reed, from its second album, “The Trinity Session” (RCA), which went on to sell more than a million copies in the United States and two million in Canada.
But while countless other 1980s bands have fizzled out or disappeared after far greater success, the Junkies still pack clubs throughout North America and Europe about 75 times a year, thanks to a cultish, Deadhead-like following that seems to surprise outsiders.
“We never bought into the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle by moving to New York or Los Angeles,” said Michael Timmins, the lead guitarist (and Margo’s brother), who writes the band’s original music and lyrics. He, like his band mates, still lives in Canada. “We’ve just always made music, which is what we love to do. It’s kind of pathetic and really boring. Maybe part of that is being Canadian.”
And now a band whose story seems to define quiet survival has seen its profile expand. Last week it played two sold-out shows in New York, performed at the Neil Young tribute concert at Carnegie Hall along with Patti Smith and the Roots, and recently appeared on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” And on Tuesday it released “Demons” (Latent Records), a tribute to the singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who died at 45 in 2009, and the second in the band’s four-album Nomad Series being released over the next year or so.
“There’s no other band that can stay that quiet and that dynamic at the same time,” said Ryan Adams, the alternative country singer who performed on 2007’s “Trinity Revisited” (Cooking Vinyl), a CD and DVD package that recreated “The Trinity Session” song for song. “They create tension by not adding tension. I sort of imagine them living in an attic in a library in Canada or something.”
The band’s long-running Web site is a big reason the group is still thriving. It’s a community center for fans and a clearinghouse for hundreds of “bootleg” recordings and Web-only downloads. Fans can stream free online or pay for individual song downloads or entire concert recordings. When they join the e-mail list, they receive three free downloads and for a one-time subscription fee of $150 they receive 300 of them.
The site also features intimate blog entries written mostly by the introverted Mr. Timmins (he wrote last week with mixed feelings about four jam-packed days in New York), early sketches of music and lyrics, and anatomies of albums from concept to finished product. The band encourages (and sells) the bootlegs many of which are recorded by a fan known as Cookie Bob. (He brought the band a batch of ginger cookies years ago.)
“They really show the fans the writing and recording process, and these are educated fans who know a lot of music and music history,” said Jason Lent of Las Vegas, a fan of 17 years who followed the band around for four months last year after quitting his job. “Whether it’s sneaking a few fans into a sound check or coming out after a show to greet fans, the band genuinely wants to share its music.”
The Junkies had been planning to record an album with Chesnutt, who was partially paralyzed in a car accident in 1983, but he died after an overdose of muscle relaxants. “One of the hopes of this album is that it inspires people to seek out the originals and keep his music alive,” Mr. Timmins said. “We had intended to do an album where he would write the songs, and we would be the band. Now we’re trying to fulfill a bit of that desire.”
Michael, Margo, their brother Peter Timmins (on drums) and the bassist Alan Anton, a childhood friend, grew up in Montreal. Years of playing together as teen-agers eventually evolved into Cowboy Junkies, and the band developed a following on the Queen Street West scene in Toronto. (The band has played for more than 20 years with the solo artist Jeff Bird, who adds mandolin, harmonica, violin and other instruments.)
After “The Trinity Session” the Junkies released a series of modestly successful albums, including “The Caution Horses” in 1990 on RCA and 1996’s “Lay It Down” (Geffen), which speak to the changing of seasons, small-town gossip and tragedy, and an almost Southern Gothic approach to life and death.
After the band left Geffen in 1998, the Junkies moved to independent labels and built their own Web site, message boards and an online store, and they embraced social networking with the arrival of Friendster. Many of their covers they smooth out the twang on the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” and pump up the bluesy guitar on Mr. Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” for example are exclusive to the Web site.
“We are more about relating to our audiences than what the labels wanted us to be,” Michael Timmins said, referring, in part, to the band’s embrace of fan bootlegs. “That’s why we’ve survived. We might have had more economic success, but then I don’t think we’d still be around.”