Attached to Songs

Don't ask Margo Timmins the name of the Cowboy Junkies' fill-in drummer

Juggling the duties of world-famous rock singer and mother of a 3-year-old sometimes can be a challenge, says Margo Timmins. Especially when it comes to touring with the Cowboy Junkies, for which she is lead vocalist.

"When I'm not on the road, I am totally here with him," says Timmins, who is 45. "Raising kids is a full-time job. In the past, the band would call, and I would just pack my bags and go. Now, there's a cast of hundreds involved in the whole tour, not to mention finding someone to take care of my son."

"The other guys in the band all have kids, but it's not the same for them. It's different when you're a mother leaving behind your child," she says.

Although her son has traveled with the band before, Timmins recently left him behind for a short tour that will bring the Cowboy Junkies to Tucson for a gig Tuesday, Feb. 21, at the Rialto Theatre.

"Mommy's talking on the phone," Timmins can be overheard telling him a few days before the tour's beginning. She's calling from her parents' house in Toronto, so Grandpa and Grandma can watch her son while she talks.

The Cowboy Junkies are touring to promote last year's Early 21st Century Blues, which is the band's 16th album, including live sets, collections of B-sides and radio performances.

Containing just two originals, the new album primarily shows off the Junkies' uncanny collective ability to record unique and stunning covers of material other than their own.

As far back as the 1980s, this habit yielded amazing interpretations of numbers such as Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper," Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" and Neil Young's "Powderfinger," among others.

"We do two types of albums," Timmins says. "We do what we call our 'studio' albums, and those take a long time to do; there is usually a lot of money invested in them, and they usually are contracted out to a record company for distribution. And usually, they are 80 percent original songs"

One Soul Now, released in 2004, is one of those "studio" albums, she says, adding that the group is in the process of recording another such CD, most likely to be released in early 2007.

"In between those, we put out albums that are primarily meant for our fans, and we sell them at our Web site, at shows and maybe through a little retail distribution. And if the record companies want to pick them up, they can."

The covers-heavy Early 21st Century Blues is what Timmins calls an "in-between" album. "I don't think these are lesser albums, or that we put less work into them. They just have a different flavor."

Early 21st Century Blues contains traditional folk tunes as well as songs by such artists as Springsteen, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, John Lennon and Richie Havens. The album's highlight is its version of U2's "One," which Timmins delivers with sadness, sensuality and a deep sense of spirituality.

"I think that certain songs, if they're a great song, they can be performed in many different ways and still survive it, you know? I mean 'Sweet Jane' has been played in so many different ways--even Lou Reed has played it in many different ways."

She feels that when the Cowboy Junkies perform their own interpretations of other artists' songs, it's a sign of respect.

"Before we're musicians, we're fans of all these people. So when we take somebody's song, sure, you could do it the way they did it and not bring something new to the song. But that would be disrespectful. I mean, how are we going to do it like Dylan better than he did it like Dylan?"

A rock band playing valid covers is a difficult balancing act, not unlike an actor portraying an iconic stage character, such as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

"I mean, the song has already been done; sometimes, it's already been done a lot. For you to take it on, you have to be very careful to bring enough of yourself to it, but also not to trip it up so people don't recognize it. People are attached to these songs; they know them inside and out sometimes."

The Cowboy Junkies, however, are hardly a covers band. Their original songs, mostly written by guitarist Michael Timmins (Margo's brother) are more often than not memorable, sometimes devastating, exercises in Gothic Americana (even if the band's members are Canadian).

The low-key arrangements and Margo's haunting, warm voice bring out the richness inherent in his storytelling talents, from early tunes such as "Misguided Angel" and "Black Eyed Man" to recent material such as "Stars of Our Stars," "One Soul Now," and "Why This One."

The two Timmins originals on Early 21st Century Blues were written during the One Soul Now sessions, but just didn't fit on that album, Margo Timmons says.

Both songs have literary origins. "December Skies" was inspired by Timothy Findley's novel The Wars, while Lord Alfred Tennyson's poem "The Passing of Arthur" provided the inspiration for "This World Dreams Of."

Additionally, Timmons says her brother Michael wrote "December Skies" during the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "Mike, like most writers, was trying to cope with what the hell was going on in the world and all that came after that day."

Set in Canada during World War I, both The Wars and "December Skies" address the hypocrisy of sending a country's best and brightest young men off to die in war.

"We were actually touring down in Texas when (Sept. 11) happened, and there was a lot of patriotic talk of war going around. Being from Canada, we weren't really allowed by some people to have an opinion. We had to be careful what we said, you know?"

Throughout their 21-year history, the Cowboy Junkies have maintained the same roster. In addition to Margo Timmins, the band includes two of her brothers, guitarist-songwriter Michael and drummer Peter, as well as longtime family friend Alan Anton on bass.

The lineup will be slightly altered throughout the current tour. Peter Timmins is temporarily sidelined with a bad back, his sister reports.

"It's one of those disc things, so getting on and off of tour buses and airplanes right now wouldn't be good for him.

"We've been rehearsing a new drummer. His name is Randall; he's very good, and I can't remember if I know his last name," she chuckles, slightly embarrassed. "I should find out."