Back in the Saddle

In 1988, Toronto's Cowboy Junkies briefly collided with the big time when their sloe-eyed reimagining of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" became a huge MTV hit, propelling The Trinity Session up the charts. A couple of years after that, Oliver Stone used the same track to memorable effect in his Tarantino-travesty Natural Born Killers. Granted, a band might need a little more exposure than that if it wants to reach superstar status. But if you're like the Cowboy Junkies and all you wanna do is keep making music, follow your own instincts with a minimum of outside interference, and prosper in modest terms, then you're pretty much set for life. Or so it would seem.

It's now 16 years after that initial flush of success, and the Cowboy Junkies have just released their 15th CD, One Soul Now. The band's lineup has remained constant throughout the years, and not much else has changed, either. Vocalist Margo Timmins still sways up front, her rich, Sandy Denny-ish voice austere and affecting; Michael Timmins is still turning out alternately wry and soul-searching songs custom-built for his sister's pipes while barely concealing his guitar-hero status; brother Peter still beats the traps; and lone non-Timmins Alan Anton's bass grooves remain the Junkies' barely concealed secret weapon. So what didn't happen?

"Musically and career-wise, we never really had any goals or plans," says Anton with a shrug. "We're just a band that plays, practices, writes all the time. We just go along, and it seems to work out. We still love what we're doing and are pretty much free from whatever industry cycle you're beholden to when you work for a big company. Zoe [Records] just puts out our albums when we're done with 'em. We were very fortunate to build on that original audience of hard-core fans. People still wanna hear us."

The songs on the first half of One Soul Now seem to lean heavier on the folk half of the folk-rock trope, but then Anton's modified "Come Together" bass line on "From Hunting Ground to City" strikes you deep in the gut, and "Stars of Our Stars" follows that up with an adrenalized, power-pop sprightliness that sticks out like a happy hitchhiker's thumb, effectively keeping you on your toes for the record's somewhat lower-key denouement. The album doesn't radically change any elements of the Junkies' signature sound, but it was recorded under different circumstances. The band recently built a studio in its practice space from equipment purchased on eBay. This allowed them to capture performances as they happened, working out the material as the tape was rolling, as opposed to the band's usual ritual of painstaking preparation. The results don't have the bracing, layered atmospherics of 2001's Open but more than make up for it in immediacy. (The process of recording One Soul Now is captured on the new Anatomy of an Album CD-ROM, available at

One advantage of the band's high-profile MTV-success era was the power to pick the opening acts on their national tours. You can still hear the wonder in Anton's voice when he recalls how what the band thought was a whimsical suggestion to their booking agent in 1991 led to their touring with their hero, legendary Houston singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt.

"That was great, touring with Townes. We were just in awe. Strange thing, though. Usually it's common practice for an opening act to travel separately from the headliners. That's just the way it's done. But when Townes agreed to open for us, he insisted that he ride in our bus. I mean insisted. We didn't mind at all, but we never could figure out why he was so determined to ride with us."

(Note: At this point in the interview a sudden burst of tact causes the reporter to refrain from suggesting that the notoriously fucked-up Van Zandt might have harbored hopes that the young star band's opiated moniker would turn out to have some literal truth behind it -- indeed, Van Zandt reportedly once asked the band if they had ever "shot up on horseback." When the band replied in the negative, Van Zandt replied that he had.)

"What ended up happening," Anton continues, "was Townes brought his dice along and got us all into gambling. We'd never done anything like that before, you know, nice, innocent Canadian kids and all. But he took thousands of dollars off us. I mean thousands. We couldn't get enough, though. He got us all addicted to craps. Later the band went to Vegas and got in way over our heads." He laughs. "I don't know if it's a regional thing, or just Townes, but I'll never forget, he had little nicknames for all the numbers on the dice when he was rollin', like six was 'sister hicks' and eight was 'skater' or 'the donator.' It was like his own little version of cockney rhyming slang, you know?" Anton affirms that the band is likely to pull out a song or two by their late mentor-corrupter at their Numbers show August 7, especially since the new 'Neath Your Covers EP boasts a version of the Van Zandt classic "Lungs. "

While it's true that the tone of the Cowboy Junkies' work is generally serious if not outright somber, this band's story and music are anything but depressing. One is reminded of fellow downbeat Canuck Leonard Cohen's protestation that he actually enjoys being serious, that mindlessness is what depresses him. True, songs about spiritual crises, aging and dysfunctional family relations don't generally sell millions of records and get the kids' bodies jackin'. But the artful exploration of such themes has put food on the Junkies' table for over a decade and a half. And there's not a thing wrong with that. The Cowboy Junkies appear Saturday, August 7, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. For more information, call 713-526-6551.

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Scott Faingold