The fabled Canadian roots-rockers, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, are a virtual institution in their home country, where they’ve been crafting bracing, catchy, introspective music for nearly two decades. Yet they’ve managed to maintain a relatively low profile in the United States. That situation seems likely to change with the U.S. release of the band’s eighth album, South.
South represents a fresh creative step for Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, while embodying the qualities of rootsy musical uplift and quirky lyrical depth that have long distinguished the ensemble’s varied output. The album’s largely acoustic yet reliably punchy arrangements showcase the three songwriters’ multiple strengths, while their organically energetic performances maintain the vibrant chemistry that’s kept Blackie a consistently vital and distinctive musical force.
“We’re very sensitive men,” notes Tom Wilson, who with longtime compatriots Stephen Fearing and Colin Linden comprises Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ singer-songwriter-guitarist triumvirate. “And when we’re not sensitive, we’re loud.”
Fearing, Linden and Wilson were already seasoned veterans of the Canadian music scene when they first forged their collaboration in 1996 in Hamilton, Ontario. The group was initially assembled as a one-off side project to record High or Hurtin’: The Songs of Willie P. Bennett, a tribute to the Canadian folk artist whose 1978 LP Blackie and the Rodeo King inspired the combo’s name.
Despite the original plan, the new unit quickly took on a life of its own, spawning such memorable albums as Kings of Love (1999), which won a Juno Award for Best Roots and Traditional Album, Bark (2003), Let’s Frolic (2006), Let’s Frolic Again (2007), the compilation Swinging From the Chains of Love (2009) and Kings and Queens (2011).
Meanwhile, the three have maintained their individual careers outside of Blackie. Fearing is a widely respected solo artist, and is half of the duo Fearing and White with noted Irish artist Andy White. Wilson has worked solo, as well as leading the bands Junkhouse and Lee Harvey Osmond. Linden, who relocated to Nashville in 1996, has released several solo albums and recently played guitar in Bob Dylan’s touring band. As guitarist, songwriter and/or producer, he’s also worked with the likes of The Band, Ray Bonneville, T-Bone Burnett, Bruce Cockburn, Amos Garrett, Emmylou Harris, Colin James, Keb’ Mo’, Diana Krall, Leon Redbone, Chris Thomas King and Lucinda Williams.
South represents both a consolidation of the qualities that have already endeared Blackie and the Rodeo Kings to fans, and a bold departure from the band’s established sound. The project first began to take shape while the group was touring the Canadian festival circuit in support of its last album Kings and Queens. On several occasions, inclement weather caused Fearing, Linden and Wilson to retreat to the shelter of the merch tent, where they would stage loose acoustic sets. These impromptu performances soon began to take on a sound and groove that was distinct from the five-piece electric sets for which Blackie was already renowned.
The experience of stripping down their sound had such a rejuvenating effect on the three frontmen that they decided to capture that vibe on record. They had initially planned to record a low-key all-acoustic vinyl-only release, with one original and one cover from each singer. But when they brought the material to Linden’s Nashville studio, they found their originals to be more exciting than the covers, and before long they’d accumulated an album’s worth of new original tunes. They then added the band’s longtime rhythm section of bassist Johnny Dymond and drummer Gary Craig to the sessions, and the material evolved yet again. By the time they were finished recording, the only element of the original plan that remained was the absence of electric guitars. Instead, Linden applied his production prowess to give the songs a vivid sonic depth that enhances the songs’ melodic and emotional resonance.
Titled in honor of the sessions’ Nashville location, South features Blackie’s most infectious and expressive batch of compositions to date. Linden’s autobiographical title track reflects poignantly on how he followed in his parents’ footsteps by moving his family from Canada to America. Wilson also took a crack at writing a title song for the album, but got turned around and instead penned the rousing album-opener “North.” The band’s capacity for insightful introspection is demonstrated on Fearing’s affecting “Everything I Am,” and on the heartbreaking Fearing/Wilson co-write “I’d Have To Be a Stone.” The album closes, appropriately enough, with its only cover, “Drifting Snow,” by the aforementioned Bennett, who inadvertently inspired Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ birth back in the day.
“Tom named this album South,” Linden notes. “The title was rooted in the idea that he and Stephen had come down to my house in Nashville to record, and the mythology of being Canadian musicians venturing from the cold, cold winters and short night to the land of plenty — plenty of wine and barbecue.”
“The way we sound when we’re sitting around in Colin’s kitchen and in dressing rooms playing music is how we wanted these songs presented,” Wilson says. “There’s a different musical conversation that takes place when you’re stripped to the wood and skins and strings, with the comfort and confidence of the moment when the world stops outside your kitchen window.”
If Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing and Tom Wilson have learned anything in the past 17 years, it’s that Blackie and the Rodeo Kings is a journey, not a destination. Their original plan to make one album and then go their separate ways has given way to an enduring musical rapport that’s grown deeper — and more integral to their lives — than they could have ever imagined.
“Blackie is there because we want it there, and when we don’t want it there it will be gone,” Wilson states. “Blackie enhances our lives, and gives us the kick in the ass that we need to rave on. And sometimes dinner gets burned, so it’s good to have three great cooks watching the oven.”
For Fearing, The Rodeo Kings are brothers, "We all come from crazy homes and this band is the family that we created for ourselves. It's a chance to step outside of the solo spotlight and climb aboard an ensemble that puts musicality and soulfulness above everything. I know that no-matter what happens, those characters have got my back."
“We love each other, and we love playing together,” Linden observes. “That’s the main and most important thing. And Blackie’s not the only thing we do, so every time we get together, it’s an event, and even when I do other things, I bring the spirits of my pals with me. Sometimes getting together is a challenge to organize, but that just makes you savor the time you have together more.”
Linden is looking forward to getting on the road and bringing South to old and new fans on both sides of the border.
“The prospect of playing for new people is exciting, and we want to play whenever and wherever we can,” he says, “I like the idea of being the oldest new band around. It makes me feel like the great older blues artists I knew as a kid, when they were getting rediscovered.”
Linden also opines that, despite being a stylistic departure, South is as good a place as any for new converts to discover Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.
“Each of our records has its own character, but we’re unable to be anything other than what we are,” he says. “So they’re all good intros to us, for better or worse.”
“South is where we’re at right now,” Wilson adds. “Who we were is not important. Who we’ll be is unknown. America needs Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. They are starving for us and they don’t even know it . . . yet.”
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