Formed in the mid-1980s, the Canadian band Cowboy Junkies — consisting of bassist Alan Anton and Timmins siblings Margo (vocals), Michael (guitar) and Peter (drums) — rode an ethereal cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” right into the limelight and MTV glory. Margo’s subdued vocals seemed the perfect vehicle for injecting their version’s mellowing agents directly into the listener’s circulatory system.
The song came from the group’s breakthrough sophomore album, 1988’s “The Trinity Session,” so named for the site of its recording, the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto. A rock act with country and blues tendencies, Cowboy Junkies proved they could write great original songs (“Misguided Angel”) as well as memorably interpret songs like “I’m so Lonesome, I Could Cry.”
Music writers couldn’t make a paragraph on the band without tossing around words such as “narcotic,” “mournful,” “ethereal” (guilty!) or “lethargic,” and they weren’t knocking Cowboy Junkies when they used them.
Margo Timmins’ mournful (you were warned) vocals distilled the emotional richness at the core of Junkies’ music. Even on covers, when she sings that she’s so lonesome she could cry, you believe her. As they grew in popularity, it didn’t hurt the band’s credibility or prospects that she’s easy on the eyes — enough to make it on to People’s “Most Beautiful” list in 1990. (Her quote from the issue, found through the magical time machine that is the Internet: “As a kid I was always mistaken for a boy. I didn’t get long hair until my early 20s. That’s when I discovered hair was important.”)
Bassist Anton told The Bulletin last week by phone that his personal history with the Timmins’ family stretches back to kindergarten, which he attended with Michael Timmins. The two played in several bands together over the years before eventually settling into Cowboy Junkies, now celebrating its 25th year.
“We still love what we’re doing,” Anton said, noting that as the band members have families and are pushing or past 50, they limit touring to about 10 shows a month.
One of the Junkies’ October dates will bring the quartet to Bend’s Tower Theatre on Tuesday (see “If you go,” Page 3). The band is promoting the new album “Renmin Park,” the first in a series of four albums they’re calling “The Nomad Series.”
“This is what we’re doing that’s special,” Anton said, referring to the band’s 25 years together and the four-album cycle, to be released over an 18-month period.
In a statement on their website, www.latentrecordings.com, Cowboy Junkies explain that “for the first time in 20 years we are completely free of any recording contracts and obligations, we find ourselves writing and recording more than we have in years, our studio (The Clubhouse) feels more and more like home, the band now has 25 years under the hood and is sounding so darn good.”
The second album in “The Nomad Series,” to be released this month, will be a collection of Vic Chesnutt songs. The Athens, Ga.-based singer-songwriter was a friend and frequent collaborator who died in 2009 at age 45.
The final two albums are still “nebulous” at this point, but Anton hints that there will be psychedelic influences.
As for “Renmin Park,” he says that “(Michael) went to China for three months with his two adopted kids from there,” and the songs reflect what he returned with. “We knew he was going to come back with songs ... but what he came back with wasn’t really the normal thing.”
Rather than fully formed songs, Michael Timmins had returned with tape loops and fragmented recordings. Individually and together, group members began working on fleshing out the material.
“Amazingly,” Anton said, “it fell together fairly quickly and ended up sounding like Junkies.”