EXCLUSIVE: Cowboy Junkies Cover Vic Chesnutt
by Peter Gaston
Vic Chesnutt, the late Athens, Georgia-based musician, wasn’t beloved out of charity. Sure, his confinement to a wheelchair since a 1983 car accident made him an unlikely and easy-to-admire force as a touring rock act, but it was his completely gripping, unfiltered songwriting that earned him appreciation from friends like Michael Timmins of Canadian rockers Cowboy Junkies. That respect flows through Demons, the Junkies’ forthcoming album of Chesnutt covers, out Jan. 18 digitally (and Feb. 15 on CD). Download their version of “Wrong Piano” below.
Timmins and his band toured with Chesnutt years ago, and forged a long-standing friendship that they hoped might ultimately lead to a full-fledged collaboration. But Chesnutt’s death from an overdose of muscle relaxers on Christmas Day 2009 quashed such dreams. (Click here to read a moving tribute to Vic by SPIN contributor David Peisner.)
Last year, Cowboy Junkies announced their Nomads series, an 18-month project that would see them releasing a whopping four albums, and they knew one would be a covers record. After considering a set of Townes Van Zandt songs, whose material they’d often performed, the choice to record Vic’s music came as an epiphany.
“It was shortly after Vic died, and we were just kicking ideas around for covers,” Timmins tells SPIN. “And then it sort of popped into my head: ‘What about Vic? We should do an album of Vic’s songs.’ And everybody went, ‘Yes.’ There was no hesitation. It was like this light bulb went off and all four of us completely grasped it right away.”
The problem was that they’d already tried to cover Chesnutt’s song “West of Rome” over 15 years ago, but scrapped the idea because they didn’t think they could pull off a version that gave enough reverence to the original, especially due to Chesnutt’s innately personal storytelling. “Vic’s songs are very specific to him,” says Timmins. “Margo [Timmins, the band’s lead singer, and Michael’s sister] is a huge fan, but was unsure how she was going to approach this stuff Margo felt she didn’t quite get it, you know? So we just let it go.”
“We don’t want to just recreate it; we want to bring something to it,” Timmins continues. “But I think, with this record, Margo really got into figuring out Vic and getting deep into the songs, figuring out what she could bring into it. And I think just being older — really there’s just that much more maturity and that much more insight into things and she was able to nail it.”
And while Timmins is proud of how Demons honors Chesnutt’s legacy, and hopes it leads more listeners to the late artist’s catalog, which barely moved over 100,000 copies over his whole career, his “greatest sadness” is that the tribute couldn’t be shared with Chesnutt himself.
“I’d love to get his comments on it,” says Timmins. “I think Vic was such an open person. I think he’d be very excited about it. He wasn’t the sort of person who would say, ‘That sucks.’ He’d have the right attitude towards it. He’d be excited that somebody had as much interest in what he was doing to dedicate a whole album to his songs and I think that’d be really exciting for him.”
As for the next record in the Nomads series, Timmins says it’ll be more akin to the “psychedelic blues” sound that infects Cowboy Junkies’ live show, and will be recorded “live off the floor” in the band’s Toronto studio. “Maybe we’ll do three takes of a song and pick the best one,” he says. “We’ll be strict with ourselves about using overdubs or correcting stuff.”
Download “Wrong Piano” below, and be sure to catch Cowboy Junkies play a song from Demons February 9 on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Timmins “thinks” they’ll be choosing “Wrong Piano” for the TV appearance.