Music Triumphs Over Technology

by Hank Davis

The Collector's Record and Compact Disc Marketplace
June 30, 1989
Vol 15, No. 13, Issue 233

No one would have been surprised if Canada's Cowboy Junkies had slipped into quiet obscurity following the release of their second album (Trinity Session, RCA 8568-1-R). Their first album, Whites Off Earth Now!!, enjoyed some chart success with only limited distribution in Canada.
Despite their highly assertive name, the Cowboy Junkies represent a brand of music almost unheard in today's market. Laid back, reflective and mellow to the extreme, the Cowboy Junkies are an antidote for everything strident in popular music of the '80s. That they should not only survive, but become a media event (a feature in Time magazine, a segment of the TV show 20/20) is a marvel of modern culture.

Not yet three years old, the Cowboy Junkies extend the grand musical traditional of family groups (the Carter Family, Statler Brothers, Carpenters, Bee Gees). Their special intimacyand rapport centers on 28-year-old Margo Timmins, whose ethereal vocals are backed by the guitar and drums of brothers Michael and Peter, respectively. Joining them on bass in lifelong friend Alan Anton, who has known the Timmins family since nursery school days. The connection is deep.

The music of Cowboy Junkies is at once highly distinctive and yet difficult to describe. It has been referred to by critic Tom Tevlin as "an enigmatic mix of lilting, brooding North American countrified subcultural music." The Toronto Star's Mitch Potter observed, "this is what you play after the Tom Waits vinyl is used up." Even more picturesquely, Time magazine's Jay Cocks describes the Junkies "as if they're working a gig for the funeral for the sweetheart of the rodeo."

The Cowboy Junkies' repertoire includes originals as well as idiosyncratic covers of material by artists as disparate as Lou Reed and Waylon Jennings. The formula is simple. Take a standard, like Hank Williams ' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Set it in the ambience of a late-night club where booze and smoke fill the air. Slow the tempo down, way down, then let Margo's lacelike voice soar over the melody and chord changes, taking liberties with both as she goes.

"These are not supposed to be literal copies of the originals," the Cowboy Junkies rightly protest to the inevitable offended purists. Margo elaborates, "We don't call our songs 'covers'. We consider them interpretations. We work harder on them than on our original material."

Either by design or by default, the Cowboy Junkies seem to be in the business of interpreting classic tunes for an '80s audience. Their repertoire consists of songs that more listeners in 1989 know by title than by the sound of the original recording. Titles like Williams' "I'm So Lonesome" or Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight" become unbearable eulogies. As guitarist Michael Timmins observed to Time's Jay Cocks, "It's perfect 3 a.m. listening music." Cock's reaction: "Michael is right, if what's wanted is a night of unsettled dreams."

What the Cowboy Junkies capture, even enhance, is the basic emotional tone of the original. If this means sacrificing the melody line here, chord change there, or a bit of lyric, so be it. Witness Margo's reading of a line from the Williams' 1949 original, "The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky." In Margo's hands, what gets lit up is a purple haze. Jimi Hendrix meets Hank Williams.

Country music may be an inspiration to the Cowboy Junkies, but they are not uncritical of the sound of modern country. Michael Timmins rightly observes, "What you hear on the radio is pretty sappy. It's pop with a southern accent." In the hands of the Cowboy Junkies, the accent is gone, but so is the pop-inspired blandness and the MOR aspirations.

Indeed, far less went into the recording of their seminal Trinity Session album than goes into the recording of much of today's country. Forty years ago, country music was often recorded in small makeshift studios, with several musicians crowded around one or two microphones. Balance was something you achieved on the floor, not on the board. Although such primitive technology could still be found in the 1950s in locations like Memphis' Sun Records, it has all but died away in favor of sterile rooms, mandatory separation and multi track boards. Often today's pop and country hits are recorded in layers by musicians who never even see each other.

The Cowboy Junkies reversed all that for their Trinity Session. Harking back to an earlier time, the group entered Toronto's Church of Holy Trinity (located an easy walk from the garish Yonge Street strip). Fourteen hours later, an album was in the can that would garner unexpected praise and sales. on a day that Margo has described as "magical", the band gathered around a single microphone. With them were Jeff Bird on fiddle and mandolin; Kim Deschamps on pedal steel and dobro, Jaro Czerwinec on accordion and Steve Shearer on harmonica.

Hard as it is to believe in the same decade that has seen as many as 12 microphones used to capture the sound of a superstar's drums, the single mic that accomodated the singer and all backup instruments ran directly to a two-track digital recorder. There were no over-dubs, no song edits and no post-production mixing. (There was nothing to mix.) Talking to journalist Bruce Scott, Margo Timmins reflected, "When we recorded The Trinity Session, honestly it was the best day of my life. It was an amazing day... it was brilliant! And next day when Mike and I listened to it, we were blown away by something we had created ourselves."

Sam Philips, the maven of Sun records who recorded Elvis at his most vital, along with the classic sides of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Howling Wolf and Jerry Lee Lewis under similarly spartan conditions would have been ecstatic: triumph of feeling over technology! Even the accountants could love it. In response to the question, "How much did the Trinity Session cost?,"Michael Timmins told journalist Robert Hilburn, "Two hundred and fifty."

"Two hundred and fifty thousand?" queried Hilburn. "No," replied Timmins. "Two hundred and fiftydollars." Canadian.

The Cowboy Junkies music works best under sympathetic surroundings. A home stereo is ideal because mood and timing are under control of the listener. Things have not always been so ideal on the road, and the Cowboy Junkies have had their share of awkward and unpleasant moments. But as listeners become aware of the delicacy of the Junkies' music, accidents become less likely and even large audiences can share in the magical silence. Margo recalled, "We played Chicago and it was amazing. A huge club, about 800 people, and they were really quiet. But once in a while we've played a small town where there hasn't been any radio play and if the local press doesn't explain what we're about, sometimes we get a crowd that's come for their Friday night drinking hour."

Such mismatches were inevitable early in the Cowboy Junkies' career, but they are becoming progressively unlikely as the group's fame spreads. Beginning last January, the group embarked ona major U.S. tour that included Washington, Atlanta, Nashville, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, San Francisco, Sand Diego and Los Angeles. As this piece went to press, gigs in the U.K. and Europe were in the offing, and a May appearnce on the Tonight Show was already history. The Cowboy Junkies' shows at New York's Bottom Line were sold out in advance, and attracted the kind of media attention (Rolling Stone, Billboard, Musician, Spin, time, People) that will make it unlikely that a Friday night crowd looking for a hard rocking hillbilly boogie band will wander into a set by the Cowboy Junkies, no matter what the group's name implies.

Although their climb to success has been meteoric by music business standards, it hs repeated a fundamental pattern. The usual experience for Canadian artists is to be ignored in their own country. Only after the U.S. accepts an act do Canadians hop on the bandwagon, often with fierce nationalistic pride. "Where was that nationalism when we were starving?" has been the complaint of many Canadians who finally made it, no thanks to audiences and record companies back home.

Margo Timmins seems more forgiving, or at least more understanding than many. "I can understand that those Canadian A&R guys can't take risks. They have to report to the American side. But it's unfair because there's a lot of great music in Canada that somebody should take risks with. On the other hand, RCA has Whitney Houston and their Dirty Dancing. So they can afford to take risks. If we hadn't sold, it wouldn't have been that serious." It appears that possibility is not something RCA will have to contemplate in the near future.

The Cowboy Junkies next LP has been recorded and will be released this fall.

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