They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with covers of his or her songs. Let someone else do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
There are few bands with such a way with covers as the Cowboy Junkies, that in no small part to the icy warmth of singer, Margo Timmins, an astonishing 60 this month. She was born in Montreal, 1/27/61, and I have long been a fan, maybe not from the very start, but certainly once ‘Trinity Sessions’ threw down the gauntlet, quietly and emphatically. Birmingham Town Hall, in the English midlands, used to be a dreadful venue, any sounds not completely muffled being left free to echo around the pillars, hopeless for any band with any degree of amplification. It has since had a refurb, and has lost, thankfully, that legacy, but the Junkies were perfection there then, every pin dropping with perfect clarity, the most important pin being that of Timmins, an ethereal shimmer filling the gap between the controlled calm of the instrumentation.
In the subsequent years the band, Timmins and her two brothers, Michael on guitar and Peter on drums, along with family friend Alan Anton playing bass, have strayed little from that template. Initially supplemented by the instrumentation of Jeff Bird and others, adding mandolin, harmonica, dobro, steel and fiddle, latterly it would become the core quartet, as blues became as much an influence as country had been before. The band had been started by Michael, a record-hungry youth who had been in bands since high school. Margo had never sung in public before he goaded her to add vocals, and she initially sang facing away from the stage, such was her crippling shyness, echoing the experiences of Michael Stipe and Jim Morrison, two other equally iconic vocalists.
Over a 35-plus-year career, the Cowboy Junkies have produced 18 studio albums, six live albums, and seven compilations, with innumerably more material courtesy their website. (Sadly it seems that much of that rare and archive material in currently unavailable.) Covers have always been a feature; most of their records containing one or two, and they’re staples on tribute projects, to artists as varied as Gram Parsons and Blind Willie Johnson. In 2009, Timmins also found the time to release an all-cover solo album, enticingly entitled Margo’s Corner: The Ty Tyrfu Sessions, Volume 1. She has also added her froideur to any number of other artists, as a backing or additional singer, usually to fellow Canadians.
Let’s drill down into some of the best examples of her transformative skills, starting with perhaps the best known and, arguably, the best example.
Cowboy Junkies – Sweet Jane (The Velvet underground cover)
Standout track from The Trinity Sessions, goosebumps rising just at the thought of it. Lou Reed himself cited this slow and stripped-back version as his favorite, and it remains a constant in their repertoire. For contrast with the Trinity Sessions iteration, here is a live version from Liverpool, in 2013, which adds the extended intro from the later Trinity Sessions Revisited project, which saw the Junkies and friends remaking the album 19 years after its 1988 release.
Cowboy Junkies – Powderfinger (Neil Young cover)
Again, completely stealing the song from its author, the melancholy oozing out in a way Shakey could never quite find in any of his own renditions. The template of slowly strummed guitar, mandolin, and accordion slipping in and out in the trademark Junkies format is just glorious. From The Caution Horses, their third release and their second platinum release in Canada.
Cowboy Junkies – My Father’s House (Bruce Springsteen cover)
Ignore the background interruptions, this example of Margo singing (nearly) unaccompanied, comes from a soundcheck, and is jaw-dropping in the purity of her voice, even as and when the band and the sound crew dip in at the end. To be found, uncredited, on the highly recommended 1999 Rarities, b-Sides and Slow, Slow Waltzes. Praise be someone had the tape running.
Bruce Cockburn feat. Margo Timmins – Blueberry Hill (Fats Domino cover)
A beguiling duet version of the classic song, this shows also what a decent harmony singer Timmins can provide, something she has provided for Leo Kottke, Jules Shear, Robert Earl Keen and more, as well as with associated band and label mates, Skydiggers. This comes from Cockburn’s acclaimed Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu, released in 1999.
Margo Timmins – Walkin’ On A Wire (Richard & Linda Thompson cover)
It takes a brave singer indeed to tackle another of music’s icy voices, there being some similarity, if Linda Thompson is a little steelier of timbre. Eschewing the guitars of the original, and indeed the sound of the Junkies, this keyboard version is a stunner. The rest of the album, from Timmons’ sole solo venture, features songs written by Lucinda Williams, Yusuf/Cat Stevens and Leonard Cohen, as well as a brace by Bob Dylan (three if you include a George Harrison co-write), Bruce Cockburn, Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles. It would be great to see it get a re-release, hint hint.
Cowboy Junkies – Baby, Please Don’t Go (Joe Williams cover
Here’s a dive back to the often overlooked debut CJ release, Whites Off Earth Now!!, with this spiky and intriguing version. This is near entirely a record of blues covers, plus the first foray into the Springsteen songbook, which argues that the blues were actually the first love of the band. Less ornate than the later style, this contrasts the shards of Michael Timmins’ guitar with the measured keen of his younger sister.
Cowboy Junkies – Flirted With You All My Life (Vic Chesnutt cover)
Finally, a song from an album dedicated to one singer-songwriter, the late Vic Chesnutt, Demons: the Nomad Series, Vol. 2. Mindful that the phrase a quiet storm can be a cliché, there is no other way I can describe this performance. Released in 2011, it was the last time they committed a cover song to disc, but live performances continue to offer surprises, and, once we are safe from the virus, I guess the road will be where they are heading.
So, happy birthday, Margo, enjoy your milestone and relish the journey. And I haven’t even mentioned the Cure, Townes, U2 or the Dead, scratching only the surface of her ability to take hold of a song and make it her own and of the band. Many happy returns!!