Cowboy Junkies
The Trinity Session
RCA

The Cowboy Junkies emerged in Toronto in 1985.  Bassist Alan Anton and guitarist and chief songrwiter Michael Timmins had been friends since kindergarten, and had been in a band in London, Germinal, that the NME once branded one of the most exciting new bands.  When that project went kaputski, they landed back home in Toronto, rented a house, insulated the garage, and invited Timmins’ younger brother, Peter, to come play drums.  Then the Timmins lads asked their sister, Margo, to join them on vocals.  She was unsure, planning on going to graduate school; she never wanted to be in a band.  But her big brother, Michael, encouraged her, having realised that the music he was laying down with Brother Peter and Anton needed a feminine voice.  And it just so happened that Margo had this dusky, dreamy, sexy voice.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The Trinity Session is a rather legendary album in Canadian rock’n’roll circles.  The album was largely laid down in a single take in Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity, with all four of the Junkies around a single microphone, on Friday, 27 November 1987.  This is, in all senses of the word, a live album.  And, my god, what an album.  The exception to this is album opener, ‘Mining for Gold.’

It was released by Latent Records in early 1988, before RCA released it internationally on 15 November 1988.  The Trinity Session was actually their second album, their first, Whites off the Earth Now!!, came out in 1986, and the Timminses and Anton report that the music on this album came as a result of their touring of the Deep South.

The story of the recording of The Trinity Session is part of its legend, as the band and producer Peter Moore managed to convince the guardians of the venerable downtown Toronto church that he was actually recording a Christmas radio special by a group called the Timmins Family Singers.  The liner notes say that it was recorded live to a two-track recorder, but Moore has since said that it was a single track with a single microphone.

Recording began in the morning of 27 November 1987, with the band and Moore beginning with the more basic music and vocals, as they experimented with the sound, where to place the mic, etc, to get the right sound.  Only as the day went on did they introduce more complex arrangements.  And, of course, they were playing electric guitars and bass, and those are instruments whose power and sound comes from distortion, which itself comes from volume.  So, they needed a means to let Margo Timmins’ vocals compete with the music, so she sang into a PA system they found in the church.  And through this trial and error that day, they found their sound.  The legend is that they hit the sound just as the guest musicians began to show up, as they had a group of their friends stop by, including the third Timmins brother, John, who had been in the band but quit before they recorded their first album.  It is the guest musicians who flesh out the band’s sound, including with John Timmins adding a second guitar and backing vocals (his is the male voice that backs Margo Timmins at times through the album), but they also added slide guitar, pedal steel guitar, fiddles, mandolins, accordion and harmonica.  And because the album was recorded live, there was obviously no possibility for over-dubs, hence the guest musicians.

‘Mining for Gold,’ the first track, begins with the hiss of the microphone and the tape before Margo Timmins’ sings the traditional song, though, this track was actually recorded two days later with producer Peter Moore, at Roy Thomson Hall, home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  It slides directly into the second single from the album, ‘Misguided Angel,’ written by Margo and Michael Timmins.  This has always been a difficult song for me to listen to, given the violence of the misguided angel of the song, directed at the woman, who is voiced by Margo Timmins.  The video was haunting, with dusky shots, and the misguided angel himself in the boxing ring, warming up for a fight.  All these years later, I find I still have to only half-listen to the lyrics, as they struck too close to home in 1989, having grown up in a violent home, and having watched that violence directed at my mother.

This album struck me hard, very hard, in 1988-89, when I was first acquainted with it. This was not the kind of the music I listened to as an angry teenage boy.  I was more into heavy shit, I was into angry shit.  I was into smashing my head on the punk rock.  But, I also had a sensitive side, and this was one of the albums that penetrated that side of me, along with the Hothouse Flowers’ People, and a few others.  There was something about the way the Timmins boys and Anton played their instruments, not just in the mellow, bluesiness, but in the easy flow of three guys who had known each other for a long, long time.  And then there was Margo Timmins.  She was one of the first musicians I had a crush on, she was beautiful, her voice was both angelic and sexy.

Music can be a powerful thing, like all art, it can transport us to another place.  And this was what The Trinity Session did for my teenaged self.  On headphones, especially at night, I felt as if I was in that church with the Junkies, and this was the calm in the storm that was my home life.  It was music that made it seem like everything was going to be alright.  Because, in actual reality, it never felt that way.

Even now, all these years later, when I listen to this album, I can see my frightened teenaged self, I can feel his fear.  This music suffocated my teenage angst and rage.  It did turn out alright, of course.  But I didn’t know that then.

The originals on the album were written by Margo and Michael Timmins, except for two songs, which Michael Timmins wrote alone, and the originals evoke the same feeling as the covers.  To a large degree, I am realizing as I listen to this album for this review, it is Alan Anton’s bass that leads the Cowboy Junkies on this album.  It directs the music, it provides the blueprint.  It drives the rhythm, it directs Peter Timmins’ drums.  It also lays the groundwork for Michael Timmins to play guitar.  His guitar is echoey and full of reverb, it floats around and over the bass and drums, and it dances with Margo Timmins’ vocals. I am not sure there is such a beautifully constructed album in all the annals of rock music.

It is their cover of Hank Williams’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ that always and still gets me.  The The ended up covering this song on their 1995 Hank Williams cover album, Hanky Panky. And, if you are into The The, you know Matt Johnson made that song, and all the other Williams’ songs, his own.  But Alan Anton and Timmins siblings did it first.  Anton’s slinky bass strolls through the track, it is unhurried, it is wandering in the moonlight, Margo Timmins delivers her vocals in a dreamy, ethereal way, and yet in a manner so convincing, you believe she is that lonesome.  Michael Timmins’ guitar flits around the track, and Peter Timmins’ brush stroke drums give us a slow, gentle, easy beat.  Kim Deschamps stopped by to play some pedal steel guitar on this track, taking it to the end.  The fact this song is in no hurry to get anywhere makes it so arresting.

This song is followed up by the original ‘To Love is to Bury,’ which has a sad fiddle and pedal steel guitar over top Peter Timmins’ brush strokes, and Anton’s bass leading us around.  Margo Timmins sings a flip version of the traditional folk and rock song about killing your woman.  Here, Margo Timmins buried her man:

I buried him down by the river
’cause that’s where he liked to be
And every night when the moon is high
I go there and weep openly
He and I were married
By this river ‘neath this willow tree.
And with God and friends witnessing it
He pledged his life to me
To me he was Earth
And I rooted in his soil
I to he was Sky vast and free
Of the burdens from which he toiled.
Then one night a terrible fight
Words spoken better left unsaid
With his wedding vows ringing in my ears
He gave his life to me
They say to love is to bury
Those demons from which we all hide
But tonight by this river ‘neath this willow tree
Becoming one of Earth and Sky.
And yet, delivered in the inimitable style of the Cowboy Junkies, you don’t notice this unless you actually stop to listen to the song.

 

‘200 Miles’ starts off slow with Peter Timmins’ gentle drums and Michael Timmins’ guitar before Anton’s bass and Margo Timmins’ vocals arrive.  The song is about the tour through the Deep South that led to the sound of this album, and Michel Timmins wrote the kind of song that Hank Williams himself would’ve been proud of.  This has always been one of my favourite tracks on the album.

 

But it is, of course, ‘Sweet Jane’ that this album is most famous, as the Junkies took on one of Lou Reed’s best known Velvet Underground songs.  Frankly, I don’t like VU’s version of this song, it moves too fast, and Lou Reed just didn’t have the right voice or delivery for it.  He always sounded to me dismissive of Jane, he sounded like he was mocking her as much as anything.  But in the hands of the Cowboy Junkies, this song comes alive.  Beginning with Anton’s bass and Peter Timmin’s clockwork drums, Michel Timmins plays along with the bass to start with, and Margo Timmins, well, this is one of her greatest vocal performances.  She is all control and distance through the song, narrating the story of scoring drugs with Sweet Jane down in the alley and on the corner and thinking of ways to get back home.  The band is all restraint and control as well, as the drums and bass drive this beautiful rhythm, they slow the song right down.  And they own it.  But then, as Margo Timmins gets to the chorus-y part, where she sings
Heavenly wine and roses
Seems to whisper to her when he smiles
Heavenly wine and roses
Seems to whisper to her when she smiles
Then the song opens up for a round of her singing nothing more than La-na-la-la, but it almost feels cathartic in the context of this song and the album, and it only lasts for a few bars before the Junkies then pull it back together and the song ends.

 

The album rides out gently, with Michael Timmins’ original ‘Postcard Blues’ and then the song made famous by Patsy Cline, ‘Walking After Midnight.’  But once more, the Cowboy Junkies own this song. It is no longer Cline’s, it is theirs.
It was a few years later, in the early 90s, when I finally got to see the Cowboy Junkies live, somewhere between their albums Black-Eyed Man (1992) and Pale Sun, Crescent Moon (1993) in their hometown of Toronto.  I don’t think I had been that excited for a gig before in my life.  I don’t remember where they played, but by this time, they were on the biggest bands in Canada during a time of a particular boon in Canadian rock music (The Tragically Hip, of course, but also Blue Rodeo, 54/40, and a whole host of others), so it wasn’t a small room, but I got myself down in front, and they did not disappoint.  Margo Timmins was legendary for her stage fright, so she took special care to make the stage of her own, with flowers and scarves and the like.  It was a long show, it was a slow-burning show, and it was one of the greatest gigs I ever saw. I don’t even remember who was with me.
The Cowboy Junkies are still around, they have released 16 studio albums, the most recent being All That Reckoning, in 2018.   It is amazing to think that, according to Wikipedia, they haven’t even charted an album since they did Trinity Revisited in 2007, and that only got as high as 94 in Our Home and Native Land.  It seems to me that there should be a Royal Commission into this, and I find myself questioning my fellow Canadians’ taste in music, frankly.