The Angel & the Aggie

photograph by Scott Newton

Five songs: "Undone," "Over the Waterfall," "I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight," "The Coming Home of the Son and Brother," and "Then Came Lo Mein." A whopping five songs, the last of which is a full-on duet, to which the delicious Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies fame lends her delicate voice on Robert Earl Keen's Picnic.

That type of volume goes a little beyond the "Well, we were recording next door, and we thought it'd be fun, so during a break we did some stuff," type of happy coincidence that usually explains unexpected musical marriages. Hearing Timmins tell the tale of how the angel and the Aggie got together, however, it seems "happy coincidence" might just be the correct term.

"My husband was down at South by Southwest last year," recalls Timmons, "and he was at a Robert Earl show when he ran into Robert's A&R guy and just casually said, `Well Marg's always wanted to sing with Robert. If he ever wanted to sing with her just let us know.' So then sometime last year in the middle of my tour [with the Cowboy Junkies], I was in Texas, and I got a chance to meet with Robert and go to his house and just sort of connect with him on that level. I told him, `I'd love to sing with you.' Then, when he started to record he asked me if I would, so I did."

As far apart as Bandera and Toronto (the Junkies' home) may be geographically, Timmins' fervent desire to work with Keen ain't all that outlandish, as fans of the Junkies know that the group have long been disciples of another Texas treasure, the late Townes Van Zandt. The Junkies' fourth record, Black Eyed Man, features the band doing a couple of Van Zandt songs as well as penning the ode "Townes' Blues." (Incidentally, it's to the memory of Van Zandt that Keen dedicates Picnic.)

"Townes is different than Robert," says Timmins. "Robert, I've been a great fan of, and Townes, I mean I'm also a great fan of, but Townes has had more influence on us, especially when we were a younger band and traveling around. Every once in a while we'd bump into him, just when we felt desperate and were wondering, `What are we doing this for?' We'd go see a Townes show and realize that it didn't matter that maybe nobody was coming to your shows. It didn't matter. I mean, here's this guy playing for so many years and those people who did see him were so affected, whether there was one person or 50,000 in the audience. So, Townes is somebody who has kept us going."

In addition to leaving her vocal handiwork all over Picnic, Timmins performed with Keen both on his most recent Austin City Limits taping and at this year's South by Southwest showcase. Not having played onstage with many people outside of the Junkies, Timmins admits to having slightly selfish motivations for doing the live shows in that she's been taking copious notes on how other musicians do things. Lesson number one: "They play really loud, which was the biggest shock to me, how quiet we really are. Even in their monitors I was like, `Whoa, this is really loud.'"

It's not just the volume separating the two acts, as Junkies shows don't exactly incite people to riot. "It was really fun because there were all of these young kids who were squished up against the stage going insane, which isn't exactly our kind of crowd," says Timmins. "So it was a lot of fun to be up there and feeling that kind of energy -- and they'd sing along with every song. It was a whole other energy, but it was great."

So, been there done that. Any Texans left on the wish list, Margo? "Any of them," chuckles Timmins before adding, "Jimmie Dale and I tried to do a duet once, but it didn't work out. I'd still like to give it another try, maybe with another song. It's hard because the thing about these Texas singer-songwriters that you love so much is that their vocal techniques are always so strange. So it's never really easy to sing with them. That's part of the challenge, I guess. If you can do it, you have sort of done something special." -- Michael Bertin

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