The third Cowboy Junkies album saw the Timmins siblings using volume to their advantage
The now-37-years-and-running story of Cowboy Junkies is one of evolution.
However, like the pace of many of its most famous songs, the Toronto band’s movement has been mostly slow and steady. However, 1992’s Black Eyed Man was about as marked a makeover as you’d see from the three Timmins siblings–songwriter/guitarist Michael, singer Margo, and drummer Peter–plus bassist Alan Anton.
It’s hardly Dylan going electric–or as momentous as the Rolling Stones deciding to write their own songs or the Beastie Boys transitioning into whatever it is you’d call Paul’s Boutique (besides genius)–but the Cowboy Junkies shift into a harder, edgier rock sound on 1992’s Black Eyed Man is still a moment, especially for fans of the unique Toronto four-piece.
The change was very much deliberate. Songwriter Michael Timmins explicitly challenged himself to expand his musical sphere. As he told Michael Barclay of Exclaim in a 2000 interview, he wished to “break out of… not a rut, but out of what we had been for two years with this seven-piece band, and we wanted to experiment with more players, more textures.” As their music always explored and evoked the deeper, often darker crevices of the soul, he wanted to explore new structures, new signatures. Meanwhile, Margo hoped to push the boundaries of her stirringly soulful vocals.
Where the previous album, 1990’s mournful The Caution Horses, employed a tight group of musicians surrounding the four usual members (Michael, Margo, and Peter Timmins and Alan Anton), Black-Eyed Man brought in over 25 extra hands to “Oregon Hill” is a microcosm of the subtle change.
Following the gentle rocking of “Southern Rain,” the album’s second track starts off as classic whispered CJ country blues with a playful boogie-woogie piano riff. It adds a harmonica (nothing unusual there).
However, it builds and detours, even throwing in a funky, inebriated dixieland brass section, until we’re in distinctly new territory–more complex, edgier, but still quite catchy..
As with Cowboy Junkies in general, Black Eyed Man has aged exceptionally. While it feels timeless, at the time, the reviews were all over the place. David Browne at Entertainment Weekly gave it a C grade, calling it “pleasant but shapeless, and Timmins’ sister Margo still sings as if she had swallowed a bottle of sedatives.” That last part makes me wonder what album Browne listened to, but he did also make note of the growth and call it their “best album to date.” So you can plunk him in the simply-not-a-fan bucket.
However, Rolling Stone gave it four out of five stars. And while that may not seem rave, only two albums (R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People and Bruce Springsteen’s Lucky Town) earned more than four stars that year. Albeit, one of the album it ties with is Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Mack Daddy. Nothing really wrong with that, but it does put into perspective the odd, eclectic year 1992 was for music as many gears of what was beloved and/or popular were also changing.
In any case, the fans appreciated it. Black Eyed Man would become the Cowboy Junkies’ highest charting–and only top ten–album in Canada (and in the UK) and third straight to make the top half of Billboard’s Top 200. Three singles would make some sort of chart in their home country. The opening track, the aforementioned “Southern Rain,” was the biggest hit. Like the opening track, and also biggest hit, of their prior album, “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning,” references spending the day in bed. But where that track was a beautifully bitter elegy to the relief found within the sadness of a breakup, this one is somewhat of the inverse as a mostly hopeful collection of people uncover love and splendor amid stormy weather.
And therein lies another element of the shift in Michael Timmins’ songwriting. Timmins was fully in new love’s grip as 2022 (unless something bad happened since 2018) also marks the 30th anniversary of his marriage and he has freely admitted in interviews that his happiness did make it the act’s most jubilant record. Although, given that he marked the theme of the record as “love found, love lost, love betrayed,” that’s not to say that everything is peachy on the album–it’s all comparative.
Take “A Horse in the Country,” where Margo Timmins’ tender and quivering yet uncompromising vocals tell the bleak-but-perservering tale of a woman who married too young. While she wallows in misery, she finds solace in the simplicity of visiting the titular character twice a month. The gothic mystery “Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park” by far rocks the hardest, so it’s probably no coincidence that despite not being one of the three songs on the album to chart in Canada, it’s the only one to peek onto a U.S. chart (making it to 25 on Billboard’s Modern Rock round-up). Again, though, even as the band’s spirits rise, they still often land on the danker end of the spectrum.
Perhaps the most unabashedly positive track, and one of the most exhilarating, comes when Margo teams her voice with John Prine’s blissful gravel for “If You Were The Woman and I Was The Man.” The early rock balladry arrangement–you can practically feel the spotlight falling on boutonnieres and poodle skirts–mixes with lyrics that border on Prince-esque for a disarming charm. At its brightest, the Cowboy Junkies will always be somewhat unsettling, and that’s a large part of their charm. There will always be predators and demons beyond the next hill. Take comfort in the now while reveling and finding a particular thrill in the uncertainty and danger around the bend.
Michael Timmins has described the Black-Eyed Man as “nameless, faceless, haunted.” While it’s surely a construct to lend theme to the album, and Timmins has said as much, it’s hard not to notice the supremely “haunted” folk musician who dominated the whole final quarter of the LP.
The Cowboy Junkies were huge fans of American singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt and brought him on tour with them in 1990. Then in his mid-40s, Van Zandt suffered from bipolarism, depression, alcoholism and drug addiction throughout his life. But in between it all in a career that steered just left of stardom (although his song “Pancho & Lefty” was a country #1 in his lifetime), Van Zandt became one of the most respected songwriters and performers in the folk world. On the first day of 1997, just 52 years old, Van Zandt would succumb to his lifetime of hard-living. However, during his time on road with the Cowboy Junkies, he would appear to have found, at least, something.
The bond of the road was strong enough that Van Zandt penned “Cowboy Junkies Lament” about them and Timmins returned the favor with “Townes’ Blues.” Both songs are on the album back-to-back, followed by a cover of one of Van Zandt’s greatest creations “To Live is To Fly.” Margo Timmins’ voice takes the sweet, wistful song about the allure of the road into a soaring country rock, even pop, anthem. It’s story of even having to leave and explore beyond comfortable pastures–and to have to say goodbye to pasts, even people you are fond of–serves as a fitting close to an album that bids farewell to its past in order to forge new ground.
VIDEO: Cowboy Junkies “Southern Rain”