Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Rodeo Kings and Queens

When they formed Blackie and the Rodeo Kings in 1996, principals Colin Linden, Tom Wilson and Stephen Fearing were basically only thinking about making a one-shot tribute album to Canadian Folk Music Legend Willie P. Bennett, a musician they all viewed with reverence. But their effort soon took on a life of its own.
After a while the group—which takes its name from Bennett’s 1978 album Blackie and the Rodeo King—were playing live dates.
Eventually there was a second album, a double. Then a third album. Then a fourth. Along with them came awards and nominations for awards, including the Juno they received for their 1999 effort, Kings of Love. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ music even found its way to the IPod of U.S. President George W. Bush.

Fast-forward to the present, when the critically-acclaimed Canadian folk/rock/blues/country group has released Kings and Queens, its seventh album. Three years in the making, Kings and Queens features 14 songs that Linden, a guitarist known for his work with the Band; Wilson, former lead singer of the 1990’s rock group Junkhouse and Fearing, who has collaborated with high profile producers such as Steve Berlin of Los Lobos; recorded with several iconic “queens” of music, all but three American.
The high profile list includes Rosanne Cash, Exene Cervenka, Holly Cole, Emmylou Harris, Amy Helm, Janiva Magness, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Sam Phillips, Serena Ryder, Pam Tillis, Sara Watkins, Lucinda Williams, Cassandra Wilson and Patti Scialfa. The songs run the gamut from pop-chart contenders (“I’m Still Loving You” with Helm) to bluesy slow burners (“Shelter Me” with Scialfa) to country ballads (“My Town Has Moved Away” withTillis) to driving Tom Petty-style rockers (“How Come You Treat Me So Bad” with Magness) to lazy country wind-twisters (“Step Away” with Harris). There are songs where band members and guests individually duet up and others where everyone sings together in what Linden calls a “wild roving gang sound.”

Maybe because of its high infusion of American starpower, the album is gaining more of a foothold in the United States than previous Blackie efforts, says Linden, a Toronto native who now lives in Nashville. The band currently has dates in several U.S. cities, including here in the D.C. area where it will play Jammin Java in Vienna, Virginia on Friday, November 18. For those of you who will be in the D.C. area then, Jammin Java is located at 227 Maple Avenue East, Vienna, Virginia. The phone number is 703-255-1566 and Jammin Java’s website can be reached at
Beldon’s Blues Point had a chance to talk to Linden about the group, the new album, and many topics in-between, including his friendship with the late keyboardist Richard Bell, who was known for his work with Janis Joplin. Linden started by talking about the group’s origins, which evolved from a night in which two of its founders co-incidentally came upon the same idea:
Linden: It was a wild bit of synchronicity. It was 15 years ago and I had been producing records for a number of years. I was an artist on Sony at the time. And my wife and I were sitting around our table and one of the things that was sort of the rage at the time was tribute albums and I was looking for a project to do for our company which we had just started. And I was thinking wouldn’t it be great to do a tribute album to our dear friend Willie P. Bennett, who’s such a great songwriter? Nobody knows, people don’t know how great he is. And his songs are fantastic. Wouldn’t it be great to do a tribute album to Willie? But maybe make it like it was a tribute band with just other singers and me. So instead of having 12 different artists do it, it’d just be like a common production and two or three different singers and it could be a really stylized great project. Okay. We’re talking about this. I take a break and walk over to my computer—this is in the early days of the Internet—and I get an e-mail from Stephen Fearing, who is a friend of mine, but I don’t really know him very well. Stephen says in his email “Wouldn’t it be great to get together and do a project of Willie P. Bennett songs sometime?” Very same day. Same moment. So it was unbelievable synchronicity. So I immediately called Stephen back and said “You’re not going to believe this,” but Janice and I were just talking about the very same thing.”
BBP: Wow
Linden: And it was amazing, and that night (guitarist/singer) John Hiatt was playing in town and we both went to the concert and I said “Look Stephen, we’ve got to get together and talk about this. This is too weird. We’ve got to do this.” And he was enthused about it. So we sat down and talked and we both thought of our mutual friend Tom Wilson, who at the time was the leader of one of Canada’s biggest rock and roll bands called Junkhouse and was having a bunch of hit records in Canada, but he was also a real big fan, an old friend of Willie’s. So we suggested the idea to him and he said “Anything you want, I’m there.” So three weeks—it actually wasn’t three weeks later—well, five weeks later we were in the studio making our first album, which we thought was going to be our only album. But we had such a great time in the studio, and the guys who ran our record company—who had agreed to put it out, our good friend Bernie Finkelstein—was so enthused about the band, he said, “Would you guys be able to do a few show if I booked them?” Well, we did eight months worth of touring, got nominated for a Juno award in Canada, and fell in love with each other. And said “We gotta do this again. We gotta do another album.” So we did a follow-up album, it ended up being a double album, had six Willie P. songs, six songs of our own, or seven songs of our own, or something like that, and then a few songs of other writers who we really admired. And we ended up having a hit in Canada! And we felt “Oh man, we gotta do this again.” So a couple of years later we get together again and we make an album called Bark (the title could be viewed as initials for the group, (B)lackie (A)nd the (R)odeo (K)ings) and we have an even bigger hit. So it turns into kind of an ongoing side project that has had sort of a wonderful life of its own ever since. Which brings us to Kings and Queens, which is the most ambitious project we’ve tried to do.
BBP: Yeah, tell me what you were trying to do with that. I understand that it took three years to put that album together?
Linden: Yep. It was a little longer from inception to release. We got the idea for the record in 2006. At the end of 2006 we were playing on train across Canada with the Cowboy Junkies and rehearsing for a show which we were the host band of and I was musical director for that was celebrating the thirty year anniversary of Last Waltz (a concert by the Band held in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day, 1976). And it was so much fun kind of working towards a project together instead of just doing our own songs. It felt really good, it felt really healthy for us to be kind of working in a collaborative way. And you know we had a number of different really vocal and really positive supporters who were female artists who were so great to us: Pam Tillis being one, Rosanne Cash being one, and we kind of thought, I thought, “Man wouldn’t it be great for us to do an album where on every song we had a different female artist joining us?” And the guys said, “Yeah, that’d be really cool.” And then 15 minutes later I thought, I blurted out “Let’s call it Kings and Queens.” And we all thought it was a cool idea. And then—it was really time to do another record—but we were kind of, in the back of our minds, getting ready for that to be a big, major project for us to do. In the meantime I got called for 2008 to play guitar with Emmylou Harris, which was a wonderful thing. So the plans got put on hold for a while while I did that, and you know we all continued and made other solo albums the way we always do between Blackie albums. But we stuck with the idea and I made a few calls and sent out a few e-mails, first of all to Pam and Rosanne, because I thought they were really the reason that we were willing to do it, and when they both said immediately “yes,” it gave me some confidence. And then I got a hold of Amy (Helm), who was very, very supportive of our band and was wonderful to work with when I was in her band; and I got a hold of Lucinda Williams—I had produced a number of tracks for Lucinda when she was living in Nashville and we were still very, very good friends. And I got a hold of Cassandra Wilson; I played on the album that T-Bone Burnett produced for her called Thunderbird, I played guitar on some of that and I really hit it off with Cassandra. And of course I was friends with Sam Phillips for many years, and I just think that she’s such an incredible artist and I was friends with Amy Helm—I did a ton of work with the Band in the early 90’s, especially late 80’s, early 90’s—and so I was familiar with Amy (Amy Helm’s father Levon Helm was a drummer for the Band) from when she was a teen-ager. So we had kind of a group of people who we asked quickly and all said “yes.” So it gave me the confidence to think that it actually could happen.
BBP: Now a number of these singers that you’re working with here are American. Are you hoping that this album has more of a penetration into the American market? Was that one of the aims of...
Linden: Yes it wasn’t really. I mean it was an aim but there are three great Canadian women on it too. Serena Ryder, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Holly Cole..it wasn’t specifically that we were…we actually, we weren’t specifically saying “Let’s get a bunch of American women on it.” But a lot of the gals who I had worked with already and who I was friends with and who were fans of the band and who said “yes" to it happened to be American. And so it wasn’t really done that way by design, although it has helped. We’ve certainly made much bigger inroads with this record than any other record we’ve done.
BBP: Was it hard…I mean, you’re talking about a number of busy schedules including your own..was it hard kind of coordinating all of this? Getting all these people, getting them to the studio in a timely fashion to get this out?
Linden: Well. In the one hand it was, but on the other hand I was just real patient with it. We all were real patient with it. And we just wanted it to be real, we wanted it to be the best record it possibly could be. We didn’t want to settle for anything on it. We wanted it to be fantastic. Just the very, very best record it possibly could be. So that was kind of what was on our minds about it and we just didn’t want to compromise at all. Remember the material that we had for this record was stuff, it wasn’t all by design for it. Some of it was just what we had, you know the songs that we felt were the strongest songs of us. So once we got the first number of tunes cast with the first group of gals who said “yeah,” then at that point we were dealing with a body of material that was kind of a finite body of material and it became more about saying “Hey who would be great on this song, and who would be great on that song.” So the rest of it got kind of—we worked it out based on the material that we had.
BBP: Oh. Okay. Now I understand that Janiva Magness is on one song?
Linden: JAN-i-va. JAN-i-va Magness.
BBP: I’m bad with pronouncing names sometimes. I’m sorry…
Linden: No problem…
BBP: …But what prompted you to bring her on board?
Linden: I produced two of her albums. I produced Bury Him at the Crossroads and I produced Do I Move You and I think Janiva’s a star. I think she’s really just a spectacular singer, wonderful artist, and I wanted her to be a blues player on the record because I’m a blues player, first and foremost. And I just knew Janiva would knock it out of the park, and she did.
BBP: Right. Now I understand that the song she does is called “How Come You Treat Me So Bad,” sort of a Tom Petty-type song? How did you come to use her style to make that song what it is?
Linden: Well, you know it’s an interesting thing with that one because it was kind of complete without having an extra vocalist on it because Stephen and Tom sing the whole thing throughout. I mean I chime in on the bridges, but mostly its Stephen and Tom. And it was a bit of a head-scratcher to figure out “Okay, how to make this relevant for this record?” But the song was so great, so I kind of thought if we approached it like the four of us—you know the three guys in the band and whoever our guest was going to be—it would be like a gang. And Tom sings in a real low voice, so I wanted to have someone who could sing an octave above Tom, and we would make like a harmony sandwich, just knock it out of the park with this sort of wild roving gang sound and I knew Janiva could relate to it conceptually and I knew she could deliver vocally, and she did. It wasn’t an obvious duet though, if that’s what you’re mentioning. Absolutely, that’s true.
BBP: Yeah. Well I was thinking that. I’m sure you were picking certain singers, as you said, to conform to certain songs that you were doing. You were aiming for a certain effect, and not necessarily a duet, but that you thought that a particular person’s qualities would contribute to what you had in mind with a particular song, I guess is what I’m thinking here. In terms of working with the other singers were there other moments that stand out?

Linden: I love all of them. I love all of them, I have to say. And it’s not just me saying it, but we didn’t kind of do it all in one shot. We did it piece by piece. Before we asked somebody to be on it, we were, you know, we were very excited by the prospect of having them be on it. So really everyone turned out great as far as I was concerned; I was really, really happy with it. I was blown away with Patti Scialfa on the record, I have to say. Because she is someone who, I had never even met her. And you know she didn’t know the band or anything like that, it was a complete cold call. And she was just so wonderful. She was just an absolute wonderful woman; she’s the only one who I didn’t actually record myself. I sent her the track and her engineer and she recorded it, and the only word that I got back, she did two completely different fully realized versions of her duet plus a five-part harmony at the end. The only thing that she said, the only instructions that she gave me when they sent the file back was: if there’s anything else you want me to try, to let me know and I’ll do it. So I’m just thrilled and really honored.
BBP: Wow. That’s amazing. Tell me a little about the song that she did for you, though.
Linden: “Shelter Me Lord” is one of the two covers that are on the record. And I thought I wanted once again there to be that kind of component to the album, because that’s more my style. And it’s a
Buddy and Julie Miller song and I love what they do so much. Buddy recorded it with the fantastic McCrary Sisters singing on it, and I kind of thought it would be a great thing for Blackie and the Rodeo Kings to bring in, especially if we wanted to get a gospel-ish singer to sing on it, and you know there were a couple of people I had in mind. And when we had the chance to get Patti to be on the record she asked if we could send a few songs and I guess there were maybe two or three we had left at that point, and that was one of them, and I just said “Whichever one of these you feel like singing, go ahead and sing.” And that was the one that she picked.
BBP: Wow. What a story. Tell me a little bit about the tour. And what are your goals for it?
Linden: Well really it’s mostly just to get the word out in America more than anything else. We’re doing some really fantastic shows and we’ve done some really fantastic shows in Canada, which is great. We’re a little bit like a three-ring circus where all of the rings are in different places. I live in Nashville, Stephen Fearing lives in Halifax, Tom Wilson lives in Hamilton, Ontario, so we’re all over the map. So it’s always kind of a challenge for us to get together. But we really want people to hear this record and these are unusual times, so we just want to play in the places where they feel like they want to hear Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. We just want to dig in the best we can, you know, and hang on.
BBP: Now I understand that President Bush had one of your songs on his IPod?
Linden: Well, for starters, it was kind of one of those things that you think to yourself “Well, six years after it happened, someone’s going to be asking about this, because it’s kind of an unusual occurrence, and in that way it was really cool." You know my feeling about it? That we make music from our hearts, and with all of the love in our hearts and I’m not kidding when I say this. And we don’t try to be prejudiced towards anyone...if people react to our music and it makes their day brighter, it makes them happier, it makes them feel good, enriches their lives in some way, then it makes me happy to know that it would do that. Especially if it’s somebody who’s in the position of having influence on other people’s lives; boy oh boy I hope that somehow or other it can make that a positive thing. Because we need that these days. Is that an okay answer?
BBP: Hey, whatever answer you come up with. I was just curious..
Linden: I wish I could be a little more eloquent about it, to be honest with you. Suffice it to say that we—and here’s the other thing. When you’re a roots band that’s based in Canada, having anybody outside of Canada listen to your music is gratifying (laughs).
BBP: Yeah, I can see that…
Linden: Actually, having anybody period listen to your music is gratifying..
BBP: That’s true. Anything that you do, having anybody pay attention to it is gratifying! I certainly understand that. Did you ever talk to George Bush about it, or any of his people?
Linden: Oh no. No. Not a word. The whole story came to us completely by chance. It was when he was coming back from the Pope’s funeral, one of the reporters noticed he had an IPod. And the question was asked, what’s on the President’s IPod, what’s on IPod-one? So he listed the songs that were on it and there we were. He had some good stuff too. I mean John Hiatt was on it, Joni Mitchell, it was interesting.
BBP: Yeah, well I guess that must have been really a shock to find out that the President of the United States..I mean you talk about gratification and having people listening to what you do, I mean that must have really been a real rush to hear that the president is listening to what you’re doing. Doesn’t matter what your politics are…
Linden: It was kind of a wild thing. It was a little surrealistic, truth be told. But then again, such is life, isn’t it?
BBP: Tell me a little about some of the personnel changes…how has the band changed over 15 years?
Linden: One gigantic change, one unfathomable and never-recoverable change, which is that for the first many years of our band until June 15, 2007 when he passed away, we had the greatest keyboard player in the world playing with us, who was Richard Bell, who was my best friend.
BBP: From Janis Joplin…
Linden: Yep. And Richard played with me for 18 years, and when Blackie started up he was part of that too. So it was—it’s still weird going into the studio without him. I mean he’s there in spirit and we talk about him all of the time and we try to adhere to his standards of irreverence and try to adhere to his standard of unabashed joy in playing music. I don’t think any of us will ever get to the point where we’re at his level as a musician, although we’re all trying. It meant a lot to me that on the record the two keyboard players that we had were two guys who were great friends of his—that he would have approved of—one of them being John Whynot who is my other closest friend, who has recorded and engineered most of our records…he played piano on the record and Kenny Pearson played organ on the record. Ken was the organ player in Janis Joplin’s band when Richard was the piano player and they stayed close friends for the last 38 years of their lives. So I kind of felt like Richard’s spirit was there.
BBP: Oh yeah, it sounds like it was. How’d you get to know him? You said you and he were best friends. How did that happen? How did that friendship evolve?
Linden: Well, first of all I saw him play when I was ten years old at the Capital Theatre, with Janis Joplin. I saw him and Kenny, front row center, August 9, 1970..I think it was the ninth, maybe it was the fifth. I think actually it was August the 5, 1970. And it was just before I left New York and came back to Toronto where I was born and so it was a fantastic show, a totally memorable show. In the late 80’s I had become good friends with Rick Danko (a member of the Band), and Levon Helm and Garth Hudson (the Band’s organist, keyboardist and saxophonist) and was working with them and Jimmy Weider, who played guitar for them, and Jimmy was very close friends with Richard. Richard had been living in the south for about 16 years but he actually was from Toronto originally too, and Richard had decided, his mom was…getting older and he wanted to take care of her and he had a sister and four nephews and he really wanted to be around for their growing up. So he decided he would move back to Toronto, and I had met him once through the guys in the Band just a few months before and he said “I think I’m moving back to Toronto, can I give you a call?” So he called as soon as he moved back and my wife and I adopted him. And from then on we referred to him as our 45-year-old son, with every age it got a little more but..our 45-year-old adopted son, he just became a part of our lives and a part of our family and we started playing together immediately and around that time I was doing a lot of solo work and I brought Richard in on it and we played as a duo. We played with the Band together, when I got a call to put a band together for Bruce Cockburn, I got Richard and John Diamond—who still plays in my band—to be in that band. You know, he was like a secret weapon. I would bring him to a session and he would blow everybody away and come home. (laughs) And he was such a great person, it would immediately raise the bar on the quality of music for all of us. He was the greatest musician I ever played with and the most soulful…he was my best friend.
BBP: How did he pass away?
Linden: He had multiple myeloma which is bone marrow cancer.
BBP: Okay….
Linden: Which is a very, very treacherous form of cancer. He had it for 11 months and he fought like a champ.
BBP: What flavor did he add to Blackie and the Rodeo Kings?
Linden: The thing about Richard is Richard could play with Bruce Cockburn, he could play with Judy Collins, he could play with John Sebastian or Peter Yarrow. He could play with the Band or he could play with Muddy Waters or blues performers, and Richard—no matter what he was doing—he had the panache and the attack and directness of a blues player. And, no matter what he was doing—you know he could be playing a country song with somebody—there was just something about it that oozed soul. And he went for it, he was fearless in terms of what he would go for, in terms of pushing his own plan. And he was 100 percent artist and a 100 percent from the heart, all the time. So it brings an attitude. When you play with somebody like that it makes you fearless yourself, that you can go for it, that you can really play with everything you have and if you make a mistake, it doesn’t matter. You just go for it with the pure love of music and let it come through you, and he was a master. He had an incredible depth of understanding about arrangements in the classical sense, sonic, sonic power of what he was doing. (He) understood completely where he fit into things; brilliant arranger and had a huge harmonic knowledge and…just an incredibly deep musician.
BBP: That’s amazing. Tell me a little bit about Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. How would you classify your group? Is it more country? More blues? Kind of a mixture? More roots?
Linden: I think we think of it as a roots-based band, because we all have different roots, but they’re all traced into the same roots that turned into rock-and-roll, in some way or other: country, blues, folk music, you know. And we…kind of come at it because we’ve been front men for such a long time. We come at it in a certain way, none of us are kind of afraid to sort of go for it or jump into the spotlight and step on each other’s toes a little bit. We have a great admiration for each others’ writing, each others’ performing ability, and there’s just a certain thing that you get when you know that, if somebody came and hit you over the head with a shovel when you were playing, the other two guys would be able to take it and do pretty good without you. I think we all feel that. And that’s a better way of classifying our music than saying it’s this style or that style. You know what I mean? You know it’s more of the spirit of it, of the thing, than anything else. And we get that from Willie too, by the way. We get that from Willie D. Because that’s how Willie was. Willie very sadly left us in February of 2008, but his spirit permeates our band in every note. And basically, when it comes down to it, we’re still a Willie P. Bennett tribute band. That’s the most important thing.
BBP: That’s amazing. What will we see at Jammin Java? How are you going to entertain the troops here?
Linden: Well, we’re going to play stuff from Kings and Queens. We’re going to play stuff from probably all of our different records. And we’re going to probably do something we’ve never done before—we don’t what it is at this point—but usually we end up stumbling onto something that we’ve never done before. And it usually ends up being fun. We’ll probably make some mistakes, have a couple of train wrecks, laugh our heads off, and hopefully play some soulful spontaneous rockin’ music that will make people feel really good. That’s what we’re aiming for.
BBP: I’m sure you’re going to hit your mark. Definitely…
Linden: (laughing) Well some people say our bar is pretty low…
BBP: No, I wouldn’t say that. You guys are playing together too long for that. No, it sounds like it’s going to be a good time.

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