Summer Serenades: Cowboy Junkies celebrate 35 years by reckoning with their ghosts

Local fans of the Cowboy Junkies are going to see a well-rested band this month.

The Canadian quartet is scheduled to bring the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Summer Serenades series to a close on July 28 at Prince’s Island. It will be their first live performance since March 2020 and, as guitarist-principal songwriter Michael Timmins points out, the four members have hardly seen one another since that time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is the longest hiatus from being a unit that we’ve had, for sure,” Timmins says over the phone from Toronto. “I think there was one time we took a year off when we felt we were reaching a point of burnout on the road. But during that period, we spent time in the studio. We were still working. We were still a band. We were still playing our instruments together.”

Timmins says the band is approaching the resumption of playing live “with trepidation” and only accepted the Calgary date after discussions with his sister and singer Margo; his brother and drummer Peter; and his lifelong friend and bassist Alan Anton. 

“We’re excited but we’re also really anxious about it,” Timmins admits. “I think it will be a nice setting (to play); more of a relaxed setting with a smaller crowd. It will be a little less intense, I guess. But even getting there — getting on an airplane — is going to be weird. But you have to jump in at some point.”

With the band sidelined, Timmins remained busy in his home studio over the past 17 months with other projects, including two digital-only albums: Townies (an audioplay), a collaboration with Andy Maize of the Skydiggers, issued last year; and Improvisations from the Between Time, a two-hour solo album comprised of four lengthy guitar tracks, released this past May. Of the latter, Timmins quips: “It’s supremely non-commercial and is only going to appeal to a small handful of freaks.”

This year also saw the belated release on vinyl of the Cowboy Junkies’s latest record, Ghosts. The eight-track, 30-minute album was first made available on streaming sites in March 2020 but is now part of a limited-edition, two-LP package — paired with 2018’s All That Reckoning — available through the band’s website.

Ghosts includes four leftover tracks from the All That Reckoning sessions, which are collected on Side B. The first side contains songs Timmins started writing a month after the September 2018 death of Barbara Timmins, mother of Michael, Margo, Peter and their three other siblings. Haunting and spectral, these songs might be the most anguished — and certainly the most transparently personal — in the Cowboy Junkies canon. 

“(Songwriting) was my way of dealing with it and it became a form of expression for all of us. This was something we needed to do,” says Timmins. “There are a lot of songs out there that I have written that Margo, Pete and Al would know what they’re about, but we don’t let people know the inspiration behind them. This one, it was important. We wanted to bring context.”

Once completed, the band learned manufacturing issues caused by the emerging pandemic would significantly delay the release of Ghosts in a physical format.

“We didn’t want to delay the release of the music because it is timely,” Timmins says. “It’s an expression of now. It’s the most present record we’ve ever done. I just thought it was important to get it out there. That was the most important thing. The delivery system? Whatever. But I also wanted to make sure it was eventually released in the form that we wanted, which is vinyl.”

Don’t expect to hear anything from Ghosts this month on Prince’s Island, however.

“We’ve never played the (Ghosts) songs live, so we’re not going to attempt them in this situation,” Timmins says. “This is our first show in a year and a half. It will be Cowboy Junkies greatest hits.”

TheSCENE points out 2021 represents the band’s 35th year; in fact, the interview is being conducted on the same date (June 28) that the Cowboy Junkies recorded their debut, Whites Off Earth Now, in 1986.

“I didn’t realize that — and it was just as steaming hot that day as it is here today. We were melting in our little un-airconditioned garage,” says Timmins, adding his adult son is, at that moment, wearing a Whites Off Earth Now T-shirt.

Brothers Davies, Gallagher and Robinson might scoff at the question, but have sibling bonds helped keep the Junkies together and active in the studio and on the road, without one lineup change, without one breakup or reunion tour, for three-and-a-half decades?

“There are six (Timmins) kids in all and any other combination of the six kids wouldn’t have worked — but this combination does,” Timmins says. “There’s something about how we slot into our roles in the band and our roles in the family quite perfectly. Any stresses or disagreements, we’ve been able to solve and resolve them. Even Alan. I’ve known him longer than I’ve known my brother Pete. Alan is kind of a brother as well. There’s quite the bond between the four of us.”

Cowboy Junkies perform July 28 at Prince’s IslandPark as part of the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Summer Serenades.