The Cowboy Junkies and Tom Rush: Six degrees of separation
By Margaret Moser,
1:00PM, Mon. Jun. 2, 2008
Bet you money the Cowboy Junkies have an in-joke about the different drug references used to described singer Margo Timmins’ dreamy voice. The phrase “narcotic haze” inspired this train of thought, and I like to imagine writers pouring over the thesaurus after rejecting “opium vocals” and “aural heroin.”
Nevermind the adjectives, here’s the Cowboy Junkies. Taking the recent trend of performing of classic albums one step further, the Canadian family band re-recorded their seminal 1988 album, The Trinity Session, as Trinity Revisited. It was a brilliant move from a band that never showboated, depended on volume for effect, or had a Top 10 hit. They are substance with style, proof that variations on a theme and a limited vocal range can still define a band with elegant clarity and never a dull moment.
“Twenty years down the line, we’re more confident as a band, there’s more aggression to what we’re doing, more attitude,” offers guitarist Michael Timmins, speaking from a hotel room in Flagstaff, Ariz. “Here we are, this is what we do.”
One of the hallmarks of the Cowboy Junkies sound has been their imprint on cover songs. Both Trinity recordings feature “Blue Moon,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Sweet Jane,” and “Walkin' After Midnight,” but Timmins admits choosing covers is dicey.
“You do a song for various reasons, and the common denominator is that we all love the song," he explains. "Sometimes, you can’t find your way into the song to make it your own. That’s the key; you can copy it but if you can’t bring your own expression to it then it feels pointless. We’re not a bar band and we’re not a jukebox. We want to make sure it’s us playing it.
“Back in the early 1990s, we tried to cover Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road,’ but we could never find our way into it. We’d rehearse it at various times over the year but dropped it eventually. About three years ago, we brought it out and found our way into it. Maybe it was just experience, learning how to interpret things better. We came back to it and it actually worked.”
One Cowboy Junkies cover that’s had a long life is "Drivin’ Wheel.” It was popular among folkies of the 1960s like Roger McGuinn and Ray Wylie Hubbard, who used its mournful beauty on his album Delirium Tremolos.
“We still play that song live,” Timmins notes. “Not every night but it’s one we can pull out on a moment’s notice. To us, it’s a really powerful song and we love to perform it. It was written by David Wiffen, a Canadian songwriter of the era. It was the way [those songwriters] approached their music … there are those types of ballads that have a bluesy, R&B groove that I love and is influential on us as people and as musicians.”
Tom Rush, another “songwriter of the era,” recorded a gentle version of “Drivin’ Wheel” on his self-titled 1970 album. In a spark of synchronicity, Rush appears at the Cactus Café the Wednesday (June 11) after the Cowboy Junkies’ two-night stand at the One World Theatre.
Rush’s era was a prolific one, the 1960s and 70s Boston/Cambridge folk scene detailed beautifully in the book Baby Let Me Follow You Down, for sale at Rush's shows. Those songwriters took great pride not only in their own compositions but those of fellow songwriters, known and unknown. Rush’s albums from 1970 featured songs by then-emerging composers James Taylor and Jackson Browne, as well as Jesse Winchester and Sleepy John Estes.
In the tender green month of April, 1971, I heard Tom Rush for the first time. “Drivin’ Wheel” and “Starlight” became a soundtrack for an adolescence derailed, then accelerated, and the songs branded deep in my soul. About 10 years ago, the Cowboy Junkies played the Paramount and, amid a stark set decorated by one bouquet of red roses, delivered an exquisite shot to the teenage heart languishing inside me by performing “Drivin’ Wheel.”
I’ve dearly loved them ever since.