Blackie and the Rodeo Kings are ever-nearing a legendary position in the Canadian roots music canon. Not a small feat for a group of solo musicians who got together for a one-off project 16 years ago. That project — a tribute to oft-overlooked but highly regarded Canadian songwriter Willie P. Bennett — still echoes throughout the band’s work to this day, but manages to avoid being a hindrance to their musical growth.
On their newest outing, Kings and Queens, the band teams up with some of the finest female vocalists to have stomped a cowboy boot on a North American stage. Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash and Serena Ryder are just some of the many talented people that appear on this disc, their distinct voices giving every song magic while the common thread of the original band provides the grounding necessary to give this record a classic, cohesive feel.
We caught up with vocalist/guitarist Tom Wilson as the band prepares for its big Canadian Music Week showcase tonight at Massey Hall to talk about the record and what to expect this evening.
Can we start by talking about the new record? Kings and Queens was an idea we came up with six years ago. I mean, really, officially from the minute the idea came up it took us six years to make the record. That’s unusual for Blackie and the Rodeo Kings because we usually make records in about five days, y’know? So six years made us a little anxious. But I think we did something that we’re going to hold really high for the rest of our lives. For as long as we’re playing music, this is going to be a real high point.
Why did it take so long to complete?
Well, the idea came along really innocently. [Vocalist and guitarist] Colin Linden said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we did an album of duets?” So, that’s literally how it came together. And about five minutes later he said, “Well, since we’re the Rodeo Kings we should do it with queens and we could call the album Kings and Queens,” and we all thought that was a really great idea. Then there were a few phone calls made by Colin to women who were fans of ours or who had sung with us. The first calls were to Rosanne Cash and Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams and Pam Tillis, and once we had those girls on board we all said yes immediately. We were kind of committed to making it. So what was involved was finding the material, writing the songs, making it all right, then getting the girls to record it with us. So it took a while to execute.
Did you write these songs with specific singers in mind or did you match it up later?
Some of them, like “If I Can’t Have You,” I wrote with Colin James and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if Lucinda Williams recorded this song?” We actually sat down to record because Colin’s a big Lucinda fan, so we tried to write a song that would be reminiscent of what she does and it just ended up that she did a duet with me on it.
Was there anyone on the record that you were just like “Wow, I can’t believe I get to work with this person?”
Well, a life in music is really frustrating, it’s really hard, but the magical moments are really magical. And I have to say that there’s no one on that record who didn’t blow my mind. It’s funny because I’ve been fans of a lot of those girls; Patti Scialfa I’ve been listening to for years with Bruce Springsteen and she’s an unbelievable singer and a great talent. But the girl that really rings my bell is Serena Ryder. She’s just so talented and so wonderful and such a team player. She’s a great band member, she knows how to respect the songs the same way we do; we speak the same language.
And was there anyone you wanted to work with but it just didn’t pan out? Wanda Jackson didn’t work out, but that was because she was making a record at the time with Jack White. That was one. We would have loved to have had Anne Murray sing with us, but she was busy. I think she was writing a book. As a working musician myself I know that when I have spare time I really cherish it. I cherish the time with my family. So people who said ‘no’ we completely respected because, y’know, they’re coming off the road, they’re coming off of other projects; they work really hard. We were on the hunt for 14 queens and we got them and we love every one of those women.
It seems to me that you guys write a lot, or at least collaborate with a lot of other musicians — Ron Sexsmith comes to mind. What is it that reaching outside of the band provides you with?
I think that whether you’re playing music with a band, which is a small community that you build, or whether you build a creative community that involves writers like Ron Sexsmith or Colin James, it’s kind of like sleeping around: it’s a lot of fun and sometimes the results stick.
Is there anything that you took away from this project that you weren’t expecting?
I found out that hearing some of my songs sung by some of the women on that album — y’know, seeing my melodies and the words that I came up with — that’s pretty mind blowing to me. It’s always mind blowing when someone covers your songs, especially when you’re doing duets with them.
So will we be able to see any of the queens get up with you guys at your Massey Hall show?
We have four Queens and two special guests that we just can’t announce yet. It’s going to be a fun night, with six guests getting on stage with us. It’s going to be a wonderful evening.
Blackie and the Rodeo Kings are:
Stephen Fearing — guitars and vocals
Tom Wilson — guitars and vocals
Colin Linden — guitars and vocals