COWBOY JUNKIES RIDE HIGH BLAZING INDEPENDENT TRAIL: CANADIAN BAND MEMBERS KNEW THEY HAD TO KEEP EVOLVING TO SURVIVE
Bands that make it big when they're young have a choice: They can base the rest of their career on their early hits or blaze ambitious new trails.
The Cowboy Junkies, an alt-folk and blues band from eastern Canada, chose the latter. Or maybe it wasn't a choice. Lead singer Margo Timmins said that to stay together, the band had to keep evolving.
"Our goal is to fulfill our ideas -- and we have a ton of them," she said in a phone interview this month, adding that the band is now independent and not subject to record-label control.
The scope and approach of recent CDs like the Chinese-influenced "Renmin Park" -- part of the recently completed four-CD "Nomad" series -- wouldn't have been permitted by most labels, Timmins said.
"The labels were great for us. I would never regret the years on labels -- they gave us a global audience," she said. "But it was very limiting, and by the time it ended it was the right time. Like any relationship, sometimes it's just time to go."
Those attending the Cowboy Junkies' show on Wednesday at the Napa Valley Opera House will get plenty of both old and new, said Timmins.
"We do two sets" with no opening act, Timmins said. "The first set is all the 'Nomad' series; then in the second set we do all the old stuff. It works because people settle down. They know they're going to get something old and something they know, so they're more open" to the new material.
Those attending the show can submit song requests by email (JunkieInfo@aol.com). "We're asking the audience for a lot, so we're opening up the second set to the audience," Timmins said.
The biggest day in the Cowboy Junkies' career was Nov. 27, 1987, when band founder and Margo's brother, Michael Timmins, had the group record "The Trinity Session" in a single day at Toronto's Church of the Holy Trinity.
The band gathered around a single microphone in the cavernous space, giving the album a haunting, ethereal sound. The album included a complete makeover of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" with transcendent vocals by Margo Timmins.
"The day after the recording, our mother happened to be visiting us while we listened to the playback," Michael Timmins says on the band's site. "After listening for a while she turned to us and said, 'Your lives will never be the same,' and she was right."
Twenty years later, the band recorded the CD/DVD package "Trinity Revisited" with guest artists Natalie Merchant, Vic Chesnutt and Ryan Adams.
The Cowboy Junkies' music is often bright and uplifting -- such as "Anniversary Song" -- but the band has never been afraid of the dark.
"The darker stuff is more interesting to us," Margo Timmins said. "We've always reached toward that kind of literature and music, so it makes sense for us to sing about the human conditions that aren't so easy."
Timmins was concerned about how the band's 2011 album "Demons" -- a set of covers of songs by their friend Chesnutt, who committed suicide on Christmas Day in 2009 -- would affect her.
"I thought it would really bring me down to go to this dark place all day, but then I'd drive home feeling empowered," she said. "I could never have handled that kind of material in my 30s. I could have sung it, but I don't think I could have opened my heart up as much to it.
"As I get older, I get less concerned with being scared -- maybe I've become braver. Maybe I've seen more and done more, and I'm not as messed up as I thought I was. The darkness is more interesting and it's something people need to share more, and that's what music is - sharing."
Michael Shapiro writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or see his site: www.michaelshapiro.net.