In the pop music of here-today-gone-tomorrow, there are few bands that have an unwavering air of both legitimacy and longevity. Even fewer have siblings as bandmates while retaining that same character. Oasis is disastrously attempting it again, the Corrs are trying desperately to hang on here in the United States and the Hansens, thank goodness, have long gone back down that path most of us wish they never would have traveled up in the first place.
In addition to that genuine nature and tight family bond, Cowboy Junkies have utilized those underpinnings while avoiding the surface trappings of the music industry to continue to record a distinctive type of music that seems to grow more pertinent as the years continue their unceasing clocking.
It was back in 1985 that the Cowboy Junkies first formed—multiple siblings from the Timmins family augmented by some life-long friends. Three years later, the group self-released its second album, Trinity Sessions—a recording appropriately produced live in a church, all for around a measly $250. It was at this point that the brooding musical masters were recognized by larger labels and subsequently began to leak out into a wider audience, all the while amassing ample amounts of critical acclaim.
Echoed strongly by their immense and weighty repertoire, both Michael Timmins—who is responsible for the majority of the writing and guitar work—and spiritually-earthy vocalist sister Margo, say that the creation of the music was always first and foremost. Their songs, rather than the group itself, have been the focus of their staying power. And although the music is certainly set apart from the contemporary flood of Top 40 sounds by an embedded heartfelt inner sentiment, having a rhythm section consisting of brother Peter on drums and longtime friend and collaborator Alan Anton on bass can’t hurt the stamina and solidarity, either.
Now, 10 albums later, with the core members still intact, the quartet has returned to a more homegrown production with Open, once again ushering in a buzz reminiscent of that now-legendary second recording session—in many ways simply by harkening back to all-too-familiar territory. Instead of heading to one of the major labels that have released and distributed its albums in the past, Cowboy Junkies did the entire recording themselves and then shopped the final result to a smaller, more suitable label, Rounder Records.
With Open, the band has forged deeper into the brooding waters they have become synonymous with through the years, yet ultimately generating a sound somehow heavier and edgier than their past few releases. Lyrically, Margo’s distinctive subtleties tread familiar ground in those weighty issues laden with the darkest dark of despair—life, death and trials of love. As noted, nothing particularly new, although a new twist on those themes does rest in the exploration of realms more related to the aging group’s new experiences and concerns—having to literally stare death in the face, coming to grips with the brutal disappointments dealt by a short life lived.
This ability to write music derived honestly from their inner selves while simultaneously speaking to a more universal inner truth points directly to why the Cowboy Junkies have survived all these years. They aren’t trying too hard to capture anything outside—like all good artists, they are simply expressing.
What is notably different with the creation of the album is that instead of recording in a studio and then touring the record, as had become their trend throughout the years, this time they decided to reverse the order; touring the tracks, perfecting the intricacies and then taking a more laid-back, comfortable sound into the studio to record. Being released early this summer is a DVD/CD combo, Open Road, that is a multimedia documentation of that entire creation process. With hours of live footage, photo stills and dialogue, as well as a bonus CD of live recordings, this package is the perfect follow-up for such a critical release—a prime testament to a stable group that explores some of life’s most unstable attributes with a respect and beauty uncommon in the field of popular alt-rock.