Although it didn’t originally have anything to do with their sound, the Cowboy Junkies’ name wound up seeming pretty accurate - their music was grounded in traditional country, blues, and folk, yet drifted along in a sleepy, narcotic haze that clearly bore the stamp of the Velvet Underground. The vast majority of their songs were spare and quiet, taken at lethargic tempos and filled with languid guitars and detached, ethereal vocals courtesy of Margo Timmins. Over the late ‘80s and ‘90s, the group recorded a succession of critically acclaimed albums that found favor in the alternative rock community.
The Cowboy Junkies were founded by guitarist/songwriter Michael Timmins and bassist Alan Anton (born Alan Alizojvodic), who first played together in a Toronto-based band called the Hunger Project in 1979. They later moved to the United Kingdom and played with an avant-garde instrumental outfit called Germinal, but eventually grew weary of the group’s style and returned to Toronto in 1984. They started jamming with Timmins’ brother Peter on drums, and in 1985 they recruited a vocalist in sister Margo, at the time a social worker who’d never sung publicly before.
Dubbing themselves the Cowboy Junkies simply because the name had a ring to it, they formed their own independent label, Lament, and released their debut album, Whites Off Earth Now!!, in 1986. Featuring only one original song, the album was recorded using only one microphone, and although it was initially available only in Canada, it helped them land a major-label deal with RCA. Their first widespread release was 1988’s The Trinity Session, which was recorded inside Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity in the span of one night - again using only one microphone. The Trinity Session became a cult hit, earning rave reviews from critics and substantial college radio airplay for tracks like “Misguided Angel” and their cover of “Sweet Jane”.
Now an underground sensation, the Cowboy Junkies decided to concentrate more on Michael Timmins’ original material for the bigger-budget follow-up, 1989’s The Caution Horses. The album didn’t cause quite as much of a stir, although it helped maintain their cult fan base. Released in 1992, the even more countrified Black Eyed Man found Timmins settling more comfortably into his songwriting voice, which set the stage for 1993’s Pale Sun, Crescent Moon. Hailed as their finest effort since The Trinity Session, the record bore more influence from rock and blues, and returned the Junkies to critics’ darling status. However, it also proved to be their final album of new material for RCA. As the band left for Geffen, RCA issued the two-disc live compilation 200 More Miles and the best-of Studio. Meanwhile, the Junkies debuted for Geffen in 1996 with Lay It Down, a relatively high-volume effort compared to their shimmering early work.
Following 1998’s Miles from Our Home, the Cowboy Junkies parted ways with Geffen and revived their own Latent label. Their first release was the 2000 live album Waltz Across America, which was initially available only through the band’s website. They followed it a year later with an album of all-new material, Open. One Soul Now followed in 2004. In 2005, the group released Early 21st Century Blues, a collection of covers - and two originals - that dealt with “war, violence, fear, greed, ignorance and loss.” Recorded in just five days, it harked back to The Trinity Session. Later that year, the band was featured on the Beatles tribute album This Bird Has Flown, which was produced by Jim Sampas and featured various artists including the Donnas and Dar Williams.
Meanwhile, the band was busy collaborating with visual artist Enrique Martinez Celaya on a commemorative art book. Released in 2006, Cowboy Junkies XX was a retrospective piece intended to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary. It featured original watercolors by Celaya, handwritten song lyrics, and photographs gathered from the bandmembers’ personal collections. The band released a new album called At the End of Paths Taken in the spring of 2007. Renmin Park, the first volume in the band’s Nomad Series, was released in 2010; the Nomad Series projected an 18-month cycle producing four albums built around common (but separate) narratives.
Demons (2011) is the second album in the four-volume Nomad Series on Cowboy Junkies own Latent Recordings. A collection of songs by the late Vic Chesnutt, Demons is described by frontman Michael Timmins as a labor of love that explores Chesnutt’s deep and much overlooked catalogue. The Demons album follows the critically acclaimed first volume of the series, Renmin Park, which The Boston Herald called their most ambitious album yet.
The band approached Chesnutt’s music with the same sense of adventure that Chesnutt approached his own recordings. Timmins says, “We let happy accidents happen and tried to invest his songs with the same spirit in which they were written, but at the same time adding our own Northern spin. Exploring his songs and delving deeper and deeper into them has been an intense, moving and joyous experience. I don t think Vic would have wanted it any other way.”
Michael Timmins shares, “I began work on many of the songs that found their way onto The Wilderness in late 2007 and early 2008, months before my family and I took off for China, the trip that would inspire Renmin Park, the album that would kick off The Nomad Series. Some friends of mine had graciously given me the use of their writers’ retreat, an old crumbling cottage perched high upon the Niagara Escarpment about one hour north of Toronto. I spent several days a month, over the course of that winter, huddled by the enormous woodstove, watching the snow drift and the birds come into the feeders, plunking away on my J200, trying to figure out what direction our next album should take. Some of these songs made it as far as the concert stage, and throughout the spring and summer of 2008 we performed them on tour. But, I could never get a handle on the collection of songs that was beginning to emerge. They never felt part of a single ‘piece;’ I couldn’t figure out what tied them all together and therefore, had no direction to chase them. Without a direction it seemed pointless to try and form them into a defined collection of songs. But then my trip to China intervened and with that came a whole set of new ideas and the preliminary concept for the Nomad Series. From the outset it was determined that many of the songs that we had been working on before China would be set aside until Volume 4. We figured that with the luxury of time and distance we would be able to get some perspective on these songs and so, we put them away.
The title, The Wilderness (2012), in some odd way seemed to define what these songs were actually ‘about’: fragility, emptiness, loneliness, beauty, chance, loss, desperation, the delicate balancing act that makes up a life. They are about being lost in the wilderness of age, the wilderness of parenthood, in the wilderness of just trying to find meaning and substance, happiness and truth in one’s day to day life. They are about standing alone in middle of it all, breathing in the cold still air and wondering.”