Background & Early Recordings
The Cowboy Junkies were formed in Toronto in 1985 by siblings Michael Timmins (songwriter, guitarist), Peter Timmins (drummer) and Margo Timmins (singer), along with Alan Anton (bassist). The Timmins siblings are the great-grandchildren of mining magnate Noah Timmins. The town of Timmins, Ontario, is named after him.
Michael and Alan met in kindergarten in Montreal and have been friends since the age of five. They were also friends with Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor, who grew up in the same neighbourhood. Michael and Alan previously played together in the punk-influenced band Hunger Project and the experimental band Germinal. The latter group recorded Din for Michael Timmins’s own label, Latent, in 1984.
The Cowboy Junkies first performed publicly in Toronto’s Queen Street West clubs, including the Beverley Tavern (site of their debut) and the Rivoli. The famously shy Margo Timmins, who was working as a secretary at the time, had never sung in public before.
Using a $9,000 Calrec ambisonic microphone, Canadian producer Peter Moore recorded their blues-inspired debut album Whites Off Earth Now!! in the Timmins family garage. Following the album’s release in 1986, they toured the US South. Country music began to influence their work. As Michael Timmins recalled, “we started listening to Hank Williams... there’s so much heart and soul in good country music. And the lyrics are so simple and direct.”
The Trinity Session (1988)
The band’s second album, The Trinity Session, was recorded on 27 November 1987 at Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity. They again used the Calrec ambisonic microphone. The album was produced by Moore for $250 and recorded in one 14-hour session (except for the opening a capella track, recorded by Margo a few days later). The record features five Michael Timmins originals and a variety of songs by other artists. These include Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and a version of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.”
One of the fans who frequented the Junkies’ Toronto shows was a young entertainment lawyer named Graham Henderson. He played a key role in helping the band secure a record label distribution deal for The Trinity Session. As Michael Timmins told Exclaim! in 2000, “We met with him, and he said, ‘Give me 20 tapes and we'll see what happens.’ We thought, ‘Sure buddy, whatever. Here’s 20 tapes, good luck!’ It was his initiative that did that, and then we started getting calls back.” Henderson and Margo also began dating. They were married in 1988 and have one adopted son together. (Henderson served as vice-president of business affairs and e-commerce at Universal Music Canada until 2000, when he was named president of the Canadian Recording Industry Association).
The Trinity Session was released on Michael’s Latent label in early 1988. The band was then signed by RCA (BMG Music Canada Inc.), which released the album worldwide later that year. “Sweet Jane” became a sleeper hit in the US, reaching No. 5 on the Billboard alternative rock chart. The Velvet Underground's Lou Reed called the Junkies’ version of the song “the best and most authentic version I have ever heard.” Billboard’s William Goodman called it, “hushed, tender, angelic and simply gorgeous. It’s where the heart overtakes the mind.” Michael’s original composition “Misguided Angel” also became a signature song for the band. It was a Top 40 hit in Canada.
The Trinity Session was praised by reviewers and received extensive radio and video airplay, especially on university and college campuses. It reached No. 26 on the Billboard 200 album chart and No. 28 on the Canadian album chart. It also charted well in New Zealand and Australia. The band’s melancholic mixture of blues, country, folk and rock brought them both a cult following and critical notice in the US. Many publications, including The Los Angeles Times, named the record one of the 10 best albums of 1988. It sold more than 1.5 million copies internationally. It was certified platinum in the US and double platinum in Canada.
The Trinity Session illustrated Michael Timmins’s masterful songwriting, but the most identifiable feature of the Cowboy Junkies sound was Margo Timmins’s voice. During their early career, the Junkies rehearsed in a small, urban garage and kept their volume low. Margo also sang quietly and began to realize her soft voice was very effective. It became a signature sound for the group. The images in Michael Timmins’s songs contained “a juxtaposition of elements” (The Record, 29 Nov 1993). Songs such as “Misguided Angel” (the recording of which was the first time the band played the song together) and “To Love Is to Bury" utilized this juxtaposition of strong, introspective lyrics with Margo’s soft, soulful voice.
The group toured the US, Europe, Australia and Japan in 1989. They then followed The Trinity Session with The Caution Horses (1990). The album features a more fleshed-out country-folk sound, courtesy of the addition of guest musicians Kim Deschamps (steel pedal guitar, also a member of Blue Rodeo), Jaro Czerwinec (accordion) and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird (violin, harmonica, organ, 8-string bass, percussion, mandolin). The Caution Horses yielded the Canadian hits “Sun Comes Up (It’s Tuesday Morning),” “Cause Cheap Is How I Feel,” and “Rock and Bird.” “Sun Comes Up (It’s Tuesday Morning)” won the MuchMusic Video Award for Best Video in 1990. The album was certified platinum in Canada.
The Cowboy Junkies were nominated for Group of the Year Juno Awards in both 1990 and 1991. In the early 1990s, Margo Timmins, who had reluctantly become the band’s front person, was embraced by the fashion industry. She was named “one of the fifty most beautiful people in the world” by People Magazine. She was also photographed by award-winning American photographer Herb Ritts for a Gap clothing ad campaign.
In 1990, legendary singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, a key influence on Michael’s songwriting, toured with the band. His song “Cowboy Junkies Lament” was featured on the Junkies’ 1992 album Black Eyed Man and on his own album No Deeper Blue (1994). Black Eyed Man also includes a duet between Margo and country star John Prine on the track “If You Were the Woman and I Was the Man.” The album features guest musicians Ken Myhr (lead guitar), David Houghton (percussion) and Dave Allen (fiddle).
By 1992, the Junkies’ style had evolved. They increased their volume, tempo and instrumentation on Black Eyed Man, which solidified their country-folk sound. However, their next album, Pale Sun, Crescent Moon (1993), had a harder edge and was more in the vein of alternative rock. It yielded the uncharacteristically upbeat single “Anniversary Song,” which was a Top 10 hit in Canada. Black Eyed Man and Pale Sun, Crescent Moon were both certified gold in Canada.
After they recorded Pale Sun, Crescent Moon, the group bought themselves out of their contract with RCA (BMG Music Canada Inc.). In 1995, RCA issued 200 More Miles, a collection of live performances.
In 1996, the Junkies signed with the Geffen label (MCA Records Canada) and released Lay It Down. It featured the Top 20 single “A Common Disaster” and the Top 10 hit “Angel Mine.” The latter may be considered a sequel to their earlier hit “Misguided Angel.” The album was co-produced by John Keane (R.E.M., Indigo Girls). It features a return to their more stripped-down sound, with appearances by guest musicians kept to a minimum. Lay It Down sold more than 600,000 copies internationally and was certified gold in Canada.
As a tribute to Townes Van Zandt after his death in 1997, Michael wrote “Townes’ Blues” (Black Eyed Man) and “Blue Guitar” (Miles from Our Home). Both these songs borrowed lyrics from an unpublished Van Zandt song.
The Junkies’ 1998 album Miles from Our Home was produced by the prolific English producer John Leckie (George Harrison, Pink Floyd, The Stone Roses, Grapes of Wrath, Radiohead) and mixed at EMI's legendary Abbey Road studio. Following its release, the PolyGram Universal merger transpired (renamed Universal Music Group). As a result, the band’s Geffen agreement collapsed.
Although the Junkies had little label support, they embarked on a Miles from Our Home tour. The tour was a success and made the group more aware of their large American fan base. They resurrected their independent label, Latent Records, redesigned their website and negotiated agreements with MapleMusic.com (Canada) and Amazon.com (US) to operate their online sales.
As they continued to tour, the Junkies released Rarities, B-Sides and Slow, Sad Songs (1999) and the live album Waltz Across America (2000) through their website. The two albums were so successful that Universal offered the band a distribution deal.
Released in 2001, Open features a darker sound. It earned a Juno Award nomination for Best Pop Album. Open was quickly followed by the BMG/RCA release, Best of Cowboy Junkies (2001).
In 2001, the band performed at 108 venues in 15 countries. Open Road (2002), a two-disc set, provided a detailed account of one of their tours across North America and Europe. The two recordings that followed, Radio One Sessions (2002) and In the Time Before Llamas (2003), feature classic material that was originally developed for BBC Radio in the 1990s. The Platinum & Gold Collection, released in 2003, presents vintage Cowboy Junkies material. Extensive North American and European tours followed album releases in 2002 and 2004.
In 2004, the band returned to their roots. Without the help of a producer or engineer, they recorded the album One Soul Now. This title reflected the state of the band; after 20 years, the Junkies were performing as one cohesive unit. One Soul Now was sold with a CD-ROM titled Anatomy of an Album. It described the writing, recording and production for One Soul Now.
The band’s next album, Early 21st Century Blues (2005), was the first since Whites Off Earth Now!! to include more covers than original songs. Two Michael Timmins compositions are joined by covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, George Harrison and U2, among others. Released at the height of the Iraq War, the record has a decidedly antiwar theme. It also features the eldest Timmins sibling, John, on guitar and banjo.
At the End of Paths Taken (2007) saw the band return to all original material, but with songs that differ greatly in tone and style. Exclaim! magazine’s Jason Schneider noted the album’s focus on the theme of “slowly unravelling family ties.” He called the album the band’s “most consistently engaging recording since 1996’s Lay It Down.”
In 2007, the Junkies released Trinity Revisited, a remake of their breakthrough second album The Trinity Session. Like the original, it was recorded at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto. It features guest artists Natalie Merchant, Vic Chesnutt and Ryan Adams.
Trinity Revisited was followed over the next several years by four albums that comprised the Nomad Series. Renmin Park (2010) was inspired by a trip Michael Timmins and his family took to China, where two of his adopted children were born. Demons (2011) consists entirely of songs by Vic Chesnutt. It was recorded as a tribute album following his death in late 2009. Sing in My Meadow (2011) and The Wilderness (2012) rounded out the series, which was followed by The Kennedy Suite (2013), a various artists concept album about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It featured collaborations with artists such as Sarah Harmer, Hawksley Workman and the Skydiggers’ Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson.
All That Reckoning (2018), the Junkies’ first studio album in five years, is about, in Michael’s words, “empty hearts, empty nests, lost paths, lost lives, and all the reckoning that brings about the end of things, and the beginnings of something else.” It proved to be one of the band’s most political albums, and one of its best-reviewed. Exclaim! magazine’s Daniel Sylvester called it “simple, passionate and visceral,” while Uncut’s Michael Bonner wrote that it “sounds like the record the Cowboy Junkies have been building up to their entire career.”
In 2015, The Trinity Session was honoured with the Polaris Heritage Prize as the best Canadian album of the 1980s. (See also: Polaris Music Prize.) In 2016, Margo Timmins was made a Member of the Order of Ontario. The band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame on 27 October 2019.
- Best Video (“Sun Comes Up (It’s Tuesday Morning)”) MuchMusic Video Awards (1990)
- Inductees, Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame (2015)
- Member (Margo Timmins), Order of Ontario (2016)
- Inductees, Canadian Music Hall of Fame (2019)
- Whites Off Earth Now!! (1986)
- The Trinity Session (1988)
- The Caution Horses (1990)
- Black Eyed Man (1992)
- Pale Sun Crescent Moon (1993)
- 200 More Miles (1995)
- Lay It Down (1996)
- Miles From Our Home (1998)
- Rarities, B Sides and Slow, Sad Waltzes (1999)
- Waltz Across America (2000)
- Open (2001)
- Best of Cowboy Junkies (2001)
- Radio One Sessions (2002)
- Open Road (2002)
- In the Time Before Llamas (2003)
- Platinum & Gold Collection (2003)
- One Soul Now (2004)
- Early 21st Century Blues (2005)
- Long Journey Home (2006)
- At the End of Paths Taken (2007)
- Trinity Revisited (2008)
- Renmin Park (2010)
- Demons (2011)
- Sing in My Meadow (2011)
- The Wilderness (2012)
- Notes Falling Slow (2015)
- All That Reckoning (2018)