A selection of Cowboy Junkies songs that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mix tapes and playlists.
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State Trooper The Cowboy Junkies’ first album, Whites Off Earth Now! is a collection of well-chosen blues and rock covers, with only one original song on the record. The band recorded this in a garage with essentially one microphone. The drums were muffled with a mattress and Margo Timmons’ vocals were fed through a PA in order to allow it to compete with the electric bass and guitar. This version of the song from Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album is, if possible, even more stark and haunting than the version Springsteen recorded with nothing but an acoustic guitar. Michael Timmons’ guitar seems influenced by the Velvet Underground, but the guitarist was also listening to Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane at the time.
200 More Miles On their breakthrough Trinity Sessions album the band laid bare a more explicit connection to American country music that had not been apparent on their debut. Adding steel guitar, accordion, and harmonica to their laconic yet detailed songs made more sense of their hushed style. This song about spending too much time on the road rings true in a way that many such songs don’t. The group’s country roots are also clear from the lyrics, which reference seeing Patsy Cline’s cigarette lighter and Hank Williams’ hand-scrawled lyrics at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
Powderfinger In his Trouser Press writeup of the Cowboy Junkies albums, Greg Kot dismisses this Neil Young cover from The Caution Horses as being the group’s first failure in a series of successful cover versions, but I disagree strongly. For one thing, the band played it live a lot during this time period and it always amazed me that the song fit into their set so well that it might easily have been one of their own songs. Margo’s voice is the perfect vehicle for this brief scene that is one of Young’s most perfectly poetic lyrics.
Oregon Hill I’m a big fan of Black Eyed Man, the group’s 1992 album that features some of Michael Timmons’ most memorable songs as well as a feeling that the group had really discovered themselves and the sound that they wanted to present. Oregon Hill is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Richmond, Virginia, and Michael wrote the song while in Richmond. “Most of this song was written in Oregon Hill on Pine Street in the house of my, at that time, future wife, who is a VCU alumnus,” wrote Michael in a letter in which he responded to a request to make the original handwritten lyrics a permanent loan to the VCU library. In typically oblique Timmons style, it’s a song about a convict who escapes from prison to see his lover, Suzy, on Oregon Hill. He knows he’ll be back in prison by Monday morning, but doesn’t care. There’s also a cool horn section over the bridge that reminds me of The Band’s horn interlude on “Chest Fever.”
Murder, Tonight, In the Trailer Park–Live This song is also from Black Eyed Man (a dark album to be sure) but I really like the way the group cuts loose on this live version–it was clear live that Michael was very influenced by Lou Reed’s guitar work with the Velvet Underground, but it’s much less obvious on most of the band’s studio recordings up to this time. There are lines in the song that just lay there perfectly, coiled and ready to strike: “Crosstown at the Watertown/George Evans is sitting tall and tight/Buying drinks for all the regulars/Bragging about how them bones/Danced for him tonight…” Is George Evans the killer? Maybe, maybe not. We don’t get the answers, just the late-night vibe, the cop car lights, and the fear.
Just Want to See Lay It Down was more explicitly a rock record as Cowboy Junkies pared down to recording as a foursome. Michael Timmons’ songs here have a Leonard Cohen simplicity about them, but they betray their complexity and structure. We have two people, Tommy and an unnamed person, getting ready to go to the funeral of a friend. Tommy meditates on the various ways one might die, finding none satisfactory. The other interludes are sung by the other person–admonishment not to be late, a memory of the wake, and an invitation to sleep away the sorrow. Musically it’s dark and tough, but the melody on the interludes is sweet and melancholy, and Margo’s voice is perfect.
Five Room Love Story This track was first released on Rarities, B-Sides and Slow, Sad Waltzes when the group split from Geffen Records and started to release their own music. It’s a slow, sad waltz about a man who spends six years turning the walls of the apartment in which he shared a lifetime with his recently deceased wife into a shrine, a monument to his grief and his love. And it’s a true story. You can’t listen to this one with a dry eye, at least I hope not for your sake. Spencer Evans’ piano contributes a country/gospel feel to the drumless background and old friends Jaro Czerwinec (accordion) and Jeff Bird (mandolin) add to the warmth of the arrangement.
I Saw Your Shoes This seems like a bit of a throwaway, another track from Rarities and B-Sides, but its bouncing off the walls energy is unusual for the Cowboy Junkies and they do it well.
Dragging Hooks (River Song Trilogy Pt. III) There are three parts to this across a couple of Junkies albums. The first, “River Waltz”, actually appears on Rarities and B-Sides. Here the river is a caregiver and a protector, and it provides a sanctuary for the narrator and his family to live and thrive in. The second part, “Bea’s Song” is about a woman who is figuratively drowning as her life (and possibly depression) threaten to swallow her whole. She looks to her husband for support but realizes that he isn’t going to help her. In this track, we see the river as a repository of secrets, a watery graveyard from which we must be extracted. “There’s a man who’s lost his wife/Said she’d be home by eight/But that was well on three weeks ago/Now he’s walking those banks searching for clues to her fate.” Is it Bea, wife from Part II? Did she commit suicide? Is it the man who struck a deal with the river in “River Waltz?” Maybe. The story comes full circle no matter what.
Close My Eyes This was the closing track from Open, the first Junkies album of new material since going independent. It’s a song of grace, a song of surrender, a song of laying down a burden, any burden. “I want to walk away/like Judas from the table/Turn my back/And walk away” sings Margo over soulful piano and organ backing by Linford Detweiler. In the end, it ascends to the heavens as a prayer or invocation, building strength as Margo digs into what is almost a Patti Smith trance. The Cowboy Junkies walked away from major label contracts but they have since continued to release a lot of great music on their own, and that music deserves its own list.