Les Cowboys Fringants | The Canadian Encyclopedia

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Les Cowboys Fringants

Les Cowboys Fringants are widely considered the most influential and popular Quebec rock band of the 21st century. They are known for their alternative neo-traditional, folk- country and rock style, and for their eco-activism. The name roughly translates as the Frisky (or Dashing) Cowboys. The band has sold more than 1.3 million albums and won 19 Félix Awards, including six for Group of the Year (2003, 2004, 2011, 2020, 2021), three each for Alternative Album (2002, 2003, 2005) and Rock Album (2012, 2016, 2020), and one for Best-Selling Album of the Year (2020). The untimely death of lead singer Karl Tremblay in 2023, at the age of 47, was mourned as a national tragedy in Quebec, similar to the reaction to the death of the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie in English Canada.

Band Members

Singer Karl Tremblay and guitarist Montreal Pauzé first spoke in 1995, having met at a hockey training camp the year before. The name of their band — which roughly translates as the Frisky (or Dashing) Cowboys — was inspired by the country song contest that Tremblay and Pauzé entered as a duo at La Ripaille, a Western bar in the Montreal suburb of Repentigny. They recorded a dozen songs on cassette (12 Grandes Chansons) and finished second in the La Ripaille contest in 1996.

Classical violinist Marie-Annick Lépine — Pausé's colleague who would eventually play accordion, mandolin, banjo and piano with the band — joined them onstage. In 1997, the trio acquired a bassist (Lépine’s cousin, Jérôme Dupras), and a drummer, Dominique Lebeau. Steve Gagné replaced Lebeau in 2007, and in 2009, multi-instrumentalist Daniel Lacoste was hired to assist Lépine while Marc-André Brazeau took over on percussion. Guitarist Simon Landry participated in the group’s 2012 tours.

Early Days

In 1997, the band released 500 copies on tape of 12 Grandes Chansons. By 1998, their next album Sur mon canapé sold 1,000 copies through word of mouth and received airplay on college radio stations. By 1999, the band acquired additional fans through non-commercial stations, won a local contest, and placed second at the fifth edition of the Francouvertes contest in Montreal. However, they were still required to self-produce their third album, Motel Capri (2000). The album was licensed by l'Empire Kerozen and had commercial distribution. The band performed at the Francofolies de Montréal in 2000, along with such Quebec luminaries as Jean-Pierre Ferland, Laurence Jalbert, Claude Dubois, Michel Rivard and Nanette Workman.


Success at Home and Abroad

Les Cowboys Fringants rose from obscurity with their fourth album, Break syndical, released to critical acclaim in 2002. In 2003, they produced the DVD Les Cowboys Fringants Centre Bell. Commercial radio stations began to play their songs, especially “Toune d'automne,” due to popular demand. After a concert with the legendary Plume Latraverse at Jarry Park in Montreal, the band released a live album, Attache ta tuque! In spring 2004, the band performed in France and began to develop a European following. The album La Grand-Messe followed, with tours across Canada and France.

Les Cowboys Fringants scored another hit with “Les Étoiles filantes” in 2005, and the same year they started a foundation for nature conservation. In addition to themes on ecology, the group's songs covered such topics as Quebec history (and independence), social issues, and family relationships. Two more albums followed: L'Expédition (2008) and Sur un air de déjà vu (2009). The first yielded three radio hits: “Entre deux taxis,” “Tant qu'on aura de l'amour” and “La tête haute.” In 2009, the band performed in Paris, Lyon, Geneva, Toulouse, Caen, Lille, Le Mans, Brussels, Strasbourg, Reims and Nantes. In 2010, they attended the Printemps de Bourges and the Francofolies de La Rochelle festivals. In 2011, they were guests at the Paléo festival in Switzerland.

Over the course of their career, Les Cowboys Fringants became well known for their socially conscious lyrics. Tremblay was also well known for his interest in environmental issues. According to the band, they have planted about as many trees as they have sold albums.

The band has won 19 Félix Awards, including six for Group of the Year (2003, 2004, 2011, 2020, 2021), three each for Alternative Album (2002, 2003, 2005) and Rock Album (2012, 2016, 2020), and one for Best-Selling Album of the Year (2020). By 2023, the band had sold over 1.3 million albums worldwide. The band was also nominated for three Juno Awards: two for Francophone Album of the Year (2003 and 2021) and one for the Fan Choice award (2021). Over the course of Tremblay’s life, the band issued 11 studio albums, with the most recent — Les nuits de Repentigny — in 2021, while Tremblay was undergoing cancer treatment.

Illness and Death of Karl Tremblay

In January 2020, Tremblay underwent hernia surgery, during which time he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The news of his illness was not immediately made public. Tremblay announced he was undergoing chemotherapy treatments in 2022.

Despite the diagnosis, he and the band continued touring and performing as much as his illness would permit. This included performing in front of 90,000 fans on the Plains of Abraham in 2023 during the Festival d’été de Québec, Quebec City’s massive summer music festival. The 2023 edition of the festival was actually extended by one day to allow Les Cowboys Fringants to perform, as their initial performance was cancelled due to inclement weather.

Fans travelled from across Quebec to the town of Saint-Tite in September 2023 to see what would be the band’s final show. Saint-Tite holds an annual country-western festival and rodeo each September, and the band referenced the town in one of its songs. The band’s music was also included in a musical comedy production called Pub Royal, performances of which were occurring at Montreal’s Théâtre Maisonneuve at the time of Tremblay’s death.

News of Tremblay’s death came as a shock in Quebec, given his relatively young age. Statements were issued by Quebec premier François Legault and by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Flags were lowered to half-mast to honour Tremblay and the band he led for 28 years. Upon the news of his demise, fans held impromptu vigils in several cities across Quebec, including a large public gathering at Montreal’s monument to Sir George-Étienne Cartier. He was further honoured at a Montreal Canadiens game shortly after his death. On 24 November, the Quebec government announced that a national funeral would be held for Tremblay at the Bell Centre in Montreal on 28 November.


Honours

Les Cowboys Fringants have won 19 Félix Awards from the Gala de l'ADISQ. They have also won the “Lanaudière sur tous les tons” festival award (1999) and the Prix Miroir for French-Language Song (Festival d'Été de Québec, 2003). Tremblay and the other members of Les Cowboys Fringants received the Medal of Honour of the National Assembly from Nathalie Roy, president of the National Assembly of Quebec, in May 2023.

Félix Awards

  • Alternative Album (Break Syndical) (2002)
  • Alternative Album (Attache ta Tuque!) (2003)
  • Group of the Year (2003)
  • Show of the Year (2003)
  • Group of the Year (2004)
  • Popular Song (“Les étoiles filantes”) (2005)
  • Alternative Album (La Grand-Messe) (2005)
  • Music Video of the Year (Plus Rien) (2006)
  • Contemporary Folk Album (Au Grand Théâtre de Québec) (2008)
  • Group of the Year (2011)
  • Rock Album (Que du Vent) (2012)
  • Rock Album (Octobre) (2016)
  • Pop Series (shared with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra) (2018)
  • Group of the Year (2020)
  • Song of the Year (“L’Amérique pleure”) (2020)
  • Rock Album of the Year (Les Antipodes) (2020)
  • Best-Selling Album of the Year (Les Antipodes) (2020)
  • Music Video of the Year (“L’Amérique pleure”) (2020)
  • Group of the Year (2021)
  • Group of the Year (2023)