Cowboy Junkies

Their second album, The Trinity Session, was recorded in 1987 at Toronto's Church of the Holy Trinity, again using the Calrec Ambisonic microphone. Produced by Moore for $250, the album helped the group obtain a contract with RCA (1989) and sold more than 1.5 million copies internationally.

Cowboy Junkies
Michael Timmins (left), Margo Timmins, Alan Anton and Peter Timmins (right) (courtesy Geffen Records Inc)

Cowboy Junkies

Cowboy Junkies. The Cowboy Junkies pop group was formed in 1985 in Toronto by brothers Michael (songwriter, guitarist, b 21 Apr 1959, Montreal) and Peter Timmins (drummer, b 29 Oct 1965, Montreal), their sister Margo (vocalist, b 27 June 1961, Montreal), and Alan Anton (bassist, b Alan Alizojvodic, b 22 June 1959, Montreal). Michael Timmins and Alan Anton previously played together in the punk-influenced Hunger Project (Toronto, London) and the experimental band Germinal (London), the latter recording Din for Timmins's own Latent label in 1984. The Junkies first performed publicly in Toronto's Queen Street West clubs, including the Beverley Tavern (site of their debut) and the Rivoli. Using a $9,000 Calrec Ambisonic microphone, Canadian producer Peter Moore recorded their blues-inspired debut album Whites Off Earth in the Timmins family garage. Following the album's release in 1986 they toured the southern US, where country music began to influence their work. 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."

Their second album, The Trinity Session, was recorded in 1987 at Toronto's Church of the Holy Trinity, again using the Calrec Ambisonic microphone. Produced by Moore for $250, the album helped the group obtain a contract with RCA (1989) and sold more than 1.5 million copies internationally. Recorded in one 14-hour session, the album (except for the first a capella tune recorded by Margo a few days later) featured five Michael Timmins originals and a variety of songs previously made famous by other recording artists such as Hank Williams's 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry,' Patsy Cline's 'Walking After Midnight' and a version of Lou Reed's 'Sweet Jane' (Velvet Underground). The Junkies' melancholic mixture of blues, country, folk, rock and jazz styles brought them both a cult following and critical notice in the US. The Trinity Session was praised by reviewers and received extensive radio and video airplay, especially on university and college campuses. The Los Angeles Times voted the recording one of the ten best albums of 1988.

The Trinity Session illustrated Michael Timmins's masterful songwriting and guitar playing but the most identifiable feature of the Cowboy Junkies sound was Margo Timmins's voice. During their early career the Junkies rehearsed in a tiny, urban garage and kept their volume low. Margo also sang quietly and began to realize her soft voice was very effective, and 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) and consequently his songs, including The Trinity Session's 'Misguided Angel' and 'To Love Is to Bury,' utilized this juxtaposition of strong, introspective lyrics with Margo's soft voice.

The group toured the US, Europe, Australia and Japan in 1989 and then, due to The Trinity Session's success, recorded The Caution Horses (1990), which included the Canadian hits 'Sun Comes Up,' 'It's Tuesday Morning,' 'Cause Cheap Is How I Feel,' and 'Rock and Bird.' In 1990 legendary singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt toured with the Junkies and his song 'Cowboy Junkies Lament' was featured on the Junkies' 1992 album Black Eyed Man as well as on his own 1995 disc No Deeper Blue.

In both 1990 and 1991 the Junkies were nominated for Group of the Year at the Juno Awards. In the early 1990s Margo Timmins, who had become the band's 'voice' and front person, was embraced by the fashion industry. She was named "one of the fifty most beautiful people in the world" by People Magazine and was photographed by American award-winning photographer Herb Ritts (1952-2002) for a Gap clothing advertisement campaign.

By 1992 the Junkies' style had evolved; they increased their volume, tempo and instrumentation on the album Black Eyed Man. After they recorded Pale Sun, Crescent Moon in 1993 the group asked to be released from their RCA (BMG Music Canada Inc) contract. In 1995, RCA issued 200 More Miles, a collection of live performances.

1996 up to Present

In 1996 the Junkies signed with the Geffen label (MCA Records Canada) and released Lay It Down which featured the single 'A Common Disaster.' The album was co-produced by John Keane (who had previously worked with the rock groups R.E.M. and the Indigo Girls) and sold over 600,000 copies.

As a tribute after the death of Van Zandt in 1997, Michael wrote 'Townes' Blues' (Black Eyed Man) and 'Blue Guitar' (Miles from Our Home) which borrowed lyrics from an unpublished Van Zandt song. Their 1998 album Miles from Our Home was produced by John Leckie, and recorded at EMI's legendary Abbey Road studio. Following its release, the PolyGram Universal merger transpired (renamed Universal Music Group) and 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 it 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 (Canada) and (US) to operate their online sales.

As they continued to tour, Rarities, B-Sides and Slow, Sad Songs (1999) and the live album Waltz Across America (2000) were released through their website. The two albums were so successful that Universal offered the Junkies a distribution deal. Released in 2001, the Juno-nominated Open (2001) featured a darker sound and this CD was quickly followed by the BMG/RCA release of Best of Cowboy Junkies (2001). In 2002, Open Road was released and this two-disc set (1 DVD, 1CD) provided a detailed account of one of the Junkies' tours across North America and Europe. The two recordings that followed, Radio One Sessions (2002) (SFRSCD109) and In the Time Before Llamas (2003) featured classic material that was originally developed for BBC radio during the 1990s and the Platinum & Gold Collection, released in 2003, presented vintage Cowboy Junkie material.

In 2004 they returned to their roots and 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, which described the writing, recording and production for One Soul Now.

The Cowboy Junkies have toured North America, Europe, Japan and Australia and in 2001 alone they performed at 108 different venues in 15 countries. Extensive North American and European tours followed album releases in 2002 and 2004.

The Cowboy Junkies have included many guest musicians on their recordings and concert tours including Kim Deschamps (steel guitarist, Blue Rodeo), Jaro Czerwinec (accordionist), Jeff Bird (violin, harmonica, organ, 8-string bass, percussion and mandolin), Karin Bergquist (singer and acoustic guitar), Ken Myhr (singer and acoustic guitar), David Houghton (percussion), John Prine (singer), Linford Detweiler (organist), Dave Allen (fiddle), and Richard Bell (piano and organ).

Margo Timmins married Toronto music industry lawyer Graham Henderson. 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 (CRIA).

Soundtrack Appearances

Cowboy Junkies songs have appeared on several compilation, tribute and soundtrack albums.

Pump Up the Volume (1990)

Prelude to a Kiss (1992)

The River Wild (1994)

Natural Born Killers (1994)

The Truth about Cats and Dogs (1996)

Hotel De Love (1997)

Tarantino Connection (1997)

Homegrown (1998)

Niagara, Niagara (1998)

Lost and Delirious (2001, no commercial soundtrack released).

Compilations and tributes

Outlaws & Heroes vol. 2 (MuchMusic) (1990)

Deadicated: A Tribute to the Grateful Dead (1991)

Borrowed Tunes: a Tribute to Neil Young (1994)

The Best of Mountain Stage vol. 7 (1995)

Lilith Fair vol. 2 (1998)

30 Hour Famine (1998)

Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons (1999)

Fallen Angels (2000)

Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt (2001)

Uncut Hard Rain vol. 2: A Tribute to Bob Dylan (2002)

MapleMusic One (2002)

Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot (2003)

Por Vida: A Tribute to Alejandro Escovedo (2004).


One Soul Now. 2004. MapleMusic Recordings MRCD 6420

Platinum & Gold Collection. 2003. BMG Heritage 82876 55163 2

In the Time Before Llamas. 2003. Strange Fruit SFRSCD 125

Open Road. 2002. Universal Music/Latent 01143-1030-2 (CD/DVD)

Radio One Sessions. 2002. Strange Fruit SFRSCD109

Best of Cowboy Junkies. 2001. BMG/RCA 07863 68052-2

Open. 2001. Universal Music/ Latent 400140552

Waltz Across America. 2000. Latent LATEX 13 (CD)

Rarities, B Sides and Slow, Sad Waltzes. 1999. Latent TND 190

Miles From Our Home. 1998. Geffen GEFD-25201

Lay It Down. 1996. Geffen GEFD-24952

200 More Miles. 1995. RCA 07863 66780-2

Pale Sun Crescent Moon. 1993. RCA 74321-16808-2

Black Eyed Man. 1992. RCA/BMG 07863-61049-2

The Caution Horses. 1990. RCA/BMG RCA/BMG 2058 (cassette/CD)

The Trinity Session. 1988. Latent LATEX-5/RCA 8568

Whites Off Earth Now. 1986. Latent LATEX-4

Further Reading

  • DeCurtis, Anthony. 'The Trinity Session,' Rolling Stone, 9 Feb 1989

    Stoute, Lenny. 'The agony and the ecstacy,' Network, Feb-Mar 1990

    Stern, Perry. 'Back in the saddle,' Music Express, 145, Mar 1990

    Reynolds, Bill. 'Riding high in the big time, their new album throws Caution to the wind with move from folk to pop,' Toronto Metropolis, 15 Mar 1990

    Macfarlane, David. 'When the Cowboy Junkies play, mourning becomes electric,' SatN, Oct 1991

    The Record, 17 Feb 1992

    Jennings, Nicholas. 'Let a little sunshine in,' HMV, Feb 1992

    McLean, Steve. 'Stripped down Junkies,' The Record, 29 Nov 1993

    Leblanc, Larry. 'Cowboy Junkies get back to basics,' Billboard, 20 Jan, 1996

    Hubbard, Stephen. 'Purified Vision,' Network, Spring 1996

    Rayner, Ben. 'Junkies go extra mile,' Toronto Star, 30 Aug 1999

    Dufour, Valérie. 'La liberté retrouvée des Cowboy Junkies,' Le Devoir, 21 mai 2000

    Sterdan, Darryl. 'Junkies go back to their roots,' Winnipeg Sun, 11 May 2001

    Varty, Alexander. 'Open for Business,' Words & Music, Summer 2001

    The Canadian Press. 'Cowboy Junkies urge CD boycott,' Ottawa Citizen, 19 Aug 2001

    Armstrong, Denis. 'Junkies get up close and personal,' Ottawa Sun, 6 Feb 2003

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