The Connective/Collective Spirit of Cowboy Junkies

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by G.W. Mercure

Cowboy Junkies resides at the intersection where interpreting other artists’ music meets the rock-inflected roots music that today is called “Americana.” And they’ve been there for some time. That their current album, Songs from The Recollection, is their first full-length recording of other acts’ music is a bit of a surprise.

“They asked us to do this Dylan cover for Uncut magazine. It was a Dylan’s-80th-birthday tribute that they were putting together, and they asked us to do a song for that and we did,” says the band’s bass player and founding member Alan Anton. “And that sort of triggered it. We said, ‘Why don’t we put together a record of our favorite stuff?’”

Cover songs are not unfamiliar territory for Cowboy Junkies. Their first single was a cover: Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane.”That recording, from their 1989 debut album The Trinity Session, reached number five on the U.S. modern rock charts. That was followed by “Blue Moon Revisited,” which bears original verses but the familiar chorus from Lorenz Hart’s much-interpreted classic. The Trinity Session and its cult-hit follow-ups Caution Horses and Black Eyed Man did as much or more than any album of the era to lay the rails for the Americana train.

“They used to call it alt-country, I guess, in the ‘90s,” says Anton. “We didn’t think that we started anything. We were following people like Lyle Lovett who were doing that. We saw those guys as just taking roots music and putting their own spin on it, and that’s what guided us. Our idea was to do records mostly of other people’s songs, just interpreted by us. We didn’t really feel like we were doing anything new, but I guess that, sound-wise, what happened, especially with Trinity Session, is that it caught people’s ears and it sounded a lot different from everybody else’s stuff and we got tagged as alt-country.”

Thirty-odd years and more than a dozen albums later, the band that wanted to make records of other folks’ songs has finally done it. The album achieves practically everything a good covers album should achieve: well performed and well recorded; draws on the deep cuts rather than strictly hits; uses a diverse range of songs and songwriters, from Gram Parsons to The Cure; and perhaps even creates a definitive version of a new classic (Dylan’s phenomenal “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself To You,” from 2021’s Rough and Rowdy Ways).

“We just started to look for or feel for stuff that was important to our musical education, so we immediately went to our classic rock favorites,” Anton says, referring to tunes by The Rolling Stones and Neil Young. But it’s not all classic rock. “The David Bowie thing was really odd for us,” he says, referring to Bowie’s “Five Years.”

“We never thought we could do a David Bowie song, but we had just done it recently and it somehow clicked for us. So that was a real sort of kickoff with that.” The Bowie selection led to other popular music avenues on which one wouldn’t expect to find Cowboy Junkies: The Cure, as mentioned, and Vic Chesnutt. “There is a connective thing as always for us: how we feel about the song and how we think that we honored it.”

It’s connective and, in a way, collective. The album’s title, Songs of the Recollection, evokes cultural traditions. Members of Cowboy Junkies likely grew up with something like “Songs of the Great Depression,” maybe found somewhere an anthology of “Songs of the Reconstruction.” And it is that, but it’s also, for them, a more personal epoch that they’ve given a clever, even mnemonic name to.

“It was also a play on the words ‘record collection,’” says Anton. “We grew up with music and vinyl and trading vinyl and all that stuff…Handling vinyl forever. We all had huge collections and traded and lugged them around to friends’ houses to listen to music—sort of the only way to do it back then, so it’s really a memory for all of us.”

It’s a recent memory, as well. “We love doing covers and we’ve had lots of them over the years on records, but we do them live, too,” he says. “So we just sat down and made a list of stuff that we had that we liked and stuff that we wanted to record.” As the band leans on newer recording projects early in live sets, you’re likely to hear some of that Recollection when the band takes the stage for Payomet this week.

“We have a pretty big catalog, so we try to cover a lot. We have about 50 songs that we can do on any given night, and we just sit down before a show and choose a bunch of them.”

As for Cowboy Junkies’ Americana legacy, it seems like the tradition is the legacy.

“You’ve got a lot of younger kids that are doing what we did, basically, and just taking that Americana or roots music or country blues or whatever, folk, and putting their spin on it,” says Anton. “And I think that’s kind of a staple of the American musical tradition.”

Cowboy Junkies perform at Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Rd., North Truro, on Saturday, September 24 at 7 p.m. For tickets ($38 – $68) and information, call 508.349.2929 or visit payomet.org.