Cowboy Junkies Shoot for Success

Their mysterious mix of country and blues has earned them the critics' acclaim. But can this minimalist band keep the public hooked?

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NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
The Cowboy Junkies perform on Saturday Night Live in New York.
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Nashville's Bluebird Cafe is packed for the local debut of the Cowboy Junkies. The Canadian band's lethargic cover of "Sweet Jane" has been talked up by Lou Reed, but it remains to be seen whether the dreamy mood music the Cowboy Junkies conjured up for their RCA debut, The Trinity Session, is the work of a rural Velvet Underground or just the result of iron-poor blood. Even after the second set at the Bluebird – as at many of their other shows around the country – the jury is hung on whether the Junkies' amalgam of country and blues is the real deal or simply posturing.

"The root of both musics comes from the same American experience," says guitarist and group mastermind Michael Timmins, 29. "Blues is black, country's white, and yet they come from the same sort of feelings. It's a poor, rural experience."

Poor and rural are hardly the words one would use to describe the members of the Cowboy Junkies. Michael, along with his sister, vocalist Margo Timmins, 28, his brother, drummer Peter Timmins, 23, and a longtime family friend, bassist Alan Anton, 29, hail from upper-middle-class homes.

"It doesn't make a difference where you come from," Michael says. "If you strip away all the bullshit and the pretense, we all relate to the same basic emotions."

The Trinity Session, which was originally released on the band's own label, Latent Records, came at the end of ten years of avoiding the musical mainstream. After Michael finished school, he and Anton drifted to New York with a band. "It seemed romantic to go to New York with a band," Michael says. When that group broke up, they drifted to London and formed an improvisational band.

That, too, ran its course. Michael went home to Toronto and began jamming with his brother and sister, with Anton later joining them. Though the Cowboy Junkies – a name picked strictly for its attention-grabbing nature – sounded nothing like his previous bands, their lulling, drugged sound drew on Michael's experiences.

When asked about the relationship between the group's name and dreamy music and his own exposure to drugs, Michael is cagey. "Hopefully, the music I'm involved with reflects my life as accurately as possible," he says. "The fact that I've lived in neighborhoods like New York's Alphabet City and Notting Hill Gate, in London, where there were drugs everywhere, definitely has an impact on the music."

But Michael isn't the only group member who feels his experiences shape the group's music. Margo, whose low-key vocals help define the ambiance of the Junkies on record and in concert, offers an unusually personal – if cryptic – perspective on the band.

"The music we're doing now fits my personality," she says. "It's low-key, it's soft, it's an offering. A gentle offering. It's not a demand."

Where the Junkies go from here is anybody's guess. The Trinity Session, recorded in one 14-hour session in a Toronto church, shows them to be a band that plays one mood well. In order to sustain the public interest, they're going to have to expand, and they know it. Their current tour features an augmented band, with Kim Deschamps on pedal steel, Jeff Bird on fiddle, mandolin and harmonica and Jaro Czerwinec on accordion.

"When we did Trinity Session, the sidemen had just joined us," Michael says. "Our next album will incorporate their instruments more into the actual sound. It won't be a kick-ass rock & roll song and then a ballad – but it'll evolve. We'll surprise people."

This story is from the March 9th, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 547: March 9, 1989