Called by some ‘Canada’s answer to The Travelling Wilburys,’ Blackie & The Rodeo Kings was conceived in 1996 as a sideline project while its members, Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing, and Tom Wilson were enjoying some off-time from their regular gigs.
Born in Toronto, Linden’s career was as storied as the artists he’d worked with to that point as a songwriter, producer, and sessions player, including Bruce Cockburn, The Band, Robert Plant, and Leon Redbone, among many others. Fearing is a Vancouver-born singer/songwriter who had released several albums as a folk troubador prior to being christened a Rodeo King. By that point, Wilson, a native of Hamilton, had enjoyed a string of top 40 hits as the frontman for Junkhouse, and like Linden and Fearing, had been nominated for several awards, although only Linden had received a Juno.
They signed with True North Records, and the success each already enjoyed provided them the luxury of pretty much doing what they wanted. All three had appeared on each others’ albums prior to them getting together with the intention of simply releasing an album dedicated to the music of Willie P Bennett, an Ontario icon who’d strongly influenced all three’s careers. And in fact, the group’s name was taken from the 1978 Bennett album of the same name.
HIGH OR HURTIN’: THE SONGS OF WILLIE P BENNETT was released in May 1996, and featured cameos from the likes of Bruce Cockburn, Richard Bell, and Willie Bennett himself. Critics raved at the interpretations of the Bennett classics like the ballad “Faces” and “Job Disorder,” all which held true to the originals while still bringing them into the modern age. “Lace & Pretty Flowers” became the group’s first single, but only managed to reach #94 on the Canadian chart. It did however fare better than the follow-up, “White Line,” which failed to chart. Still, the band was recognized for its efforts with a Juno nomination in ’97 for Best Group Roots & Traditional Album.
After some one-off gigs in smaller venues around Ontario and Quebec, everyone went back to their day jobs, but with Junkhouse now all but put to rest, it gave Wilson opportunity to join again when they hooked up before the end of the decade for KINGS OF LOVE. Again, the trio paid homage to Bennett with several covers of his songs, including the first single, “Lucky One,” which stalled at #82. But the double album set also gave plenty of room for them to record their own versions of other artists’ materials, including the second single, Colin Cripps’ “Lean On Your Peers,” which broke the top 20, Bruce Cockburn‘s “You Don’t Have To Play The Horses,” and Murray McLauchlan‘s “As Lonely As You.” Linden also penned three of the tunes on his own or as a co-writer, and Fearing’s “Vigil” and “Nickels and Dimes” also made the cut. This time around when it came time for Juno Award nominatins, the band was not only named again, but this time took home the prize for Best Group Roots & Traditional Album.
They decided to record more of their own material the next time they got together, for 2004’s BARK album. From the honky tonk jive of the lead-off single “Swinging from the Chains of Love” and the folksy “Born To Be A Traveller,” to the rocking second single, “Water and Gasoline” and “Jackie Washington,” and the smooth boogie of the spoken-word “Stoned,” the album was hailed by the critics and was also a commercial success. It also featured their now trademark covers, including Bennette’s “Willie’s Diamond Joe” and a revved up version of Cockburn’s “Tie Me At The Crossroads.” Two more singles were released over the course of the next year – “Had Enough of You Today” and “You’re So Easy To Love,” earning the group another nomination at the 2005 Juno Awards in the Roots Album category. Their popularity even stretched to former President George W Bush, who The New York Times said had their music on his iPod.
They headed to Woodstock, NY and Bearsville Studio to make a new album in ’06, in what would ultimately become the last full recording session there. Joined by musical friends Malcolm Burn (ex of Boys Brigade), Garth Hudson of The Band fame, and John Whynot, it only took two weeks to record enough material for more than two full albums. The list of 28 tracks was whiddled down in half, and LET’S FROLIC was in the stores by that fall, and showed a progression in styles and sound, with all the songs being originals.
Earthy harmonies in the three singles – “That’s What I Like,” “The Fool Who Can’t Forget” (featuring a cameo by Pam Tillis) and “Buried in Your Heart” were indicative of the album. Other noteable cuts included “I Give It Up Everyday,” complete with a Memphis soul groove, and the psychadelic atmosphered “Loving Cup.” And along with the band’s mainstay rhythm section of bassist Johnny Dymond, drummer Gary Craig, and Richard Bell on keyboards, it fuelled a series of short tours that took the band throughout Canada and the southern US.
They found themselves on the Juno nomination list for the fourth straight year the next spring, while finishing up work on their follow-up, LET’S FROLIC AGAIN. Out-takes from the previous album, no singles were released, and unlike its predecessor, it featured a handful of covers, including Murray McLauchlan‘s “Down By The Henry Moore,” Teenage Head‘s “Something On My Mind,” and a pair from the trio’s mutual idol, Willie P Bennett – “Sometimes It Comes So Easy” and “Red Red Robin.”
Along with their greatest hits, the 2008 compilation SWINGING FROM THE CHAINS OF LOVE also included several new tracks – their renditions of The Man In Black’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and The Band‘s “The Caves of Jericho” and “Vale of Tears.”
They returned three years later with their latest offering, KINGS AND QUEENS. With the single “Got You Covered” featuring Roseanne Cash, it was argued by some as their pinnacle album. Each of the 14 tracks in fact featured a duet with some of their favourite female artists, each lending their individual charismas to the songs. Cassandra Wilson lent her haunting vocals to “Golden Sorrows,” while Pam Tillis returned to lend a hand in writing and singing “My Town Has Moved Away” with Linden, an ode to the ghost towns of yesterday. Lucinda Williams guests on the Colin James-penned “If I Can’t Have You” (one of the tracks written by James). In addition, the inclusion of Emmylou Harris seemed natural when the band dug into their roots again by covering Willie P Bennett’s “Step Away.”
More concert dates ensued over the next year and a half, but as per usual with the band, the venues were smaller and more intimate.