One of the most unique and enduring alternative rock bands of the '80s and '90s, the Cowboy Junkies embodied a sound that had its roots in traditional folk, blues, and country music but was performed with a placid, languid pace that belied the slow-burning passion of their performances. The honey-infused, ethereal whisper of lead singer Margo Timmins was matched by the spare but thoughtful accompaniment of guitarist Michael Timmins, bassist Alan Anton, and drummer Peter Timmins, and their most successful recordings played heavily on the dynamics between the performances, documented in a naturalistic and unobtrusive manner. The Cowboy Junkies experienced an international breakthrough with 1988's The Trinity Sessions, featuring their hit cover of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane," and their daring earned them an audience in alternative rock circles, while their embrace of a low-volume traditionalism would pave the way for the Americana movement and earned them the approval of noted singer/songwriters such as Guy Clark, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and Butch Hancock. The Trinity Sessions and 1990's The Caution Horses epitomized their trademark sound, and 1996's Lay It Down found them adding rock guitars to their formula. 1998's Miles from Our Home embraced a more polished production style without spoiling their formula, and their steady stream of albums released in the 2000s and 2010s (in particular 2006's Long Journey Home and 2018's All That Reckoning) were the work of a group working the boundaries of their style while finding new wrinkles in the music. The four-part Nomad Series issued between 2010 and 2012 saw them giving themselves permission to explore unexpected directions.
The Cowboy Junkies were founded by guitarist/songwriter Michael Timmins and bassist Alan Anton (born Alan Alizojvodic), who first played together in a Toronto-based band called the Hunger Project in 1979. They later moved to the U.K. and played with an avant-garde instrumental outfit called Germinal, but eventually grew weary of the group's style and returned to Toronto in 1984. They started jamming with Timmins' brother Peter on drums, and in 1985 they recruited a vocalist in sister Margo, at the time a social worker who'd never sung publicly before. Dubbing themselves the Cowboy Junkies simply because the name had a ring to it, they formed their own independent label, Latent, and released their debut album, Whites Off Earth Now!!, in 1986. Featuring only one original song, the album was recorded using only one microphone, and although it was initially available only in Canada, it helped them land a major-label deal with RCA. Their first widespread release was 1988's The Trinity Session, which was recorded inside Toronto's Church of the Holy Trinity in the span of one night — again using only one microphone. The Trinity Session became a cult hit, earning rave reviews from critics and substantial college radio airplay for tracks like "Misguided Angel" and their cover of "Sweet Jane."
Now an underground sensation, the Cowboy Junkies decided to concentrate more on Michael Timmins' original material for the bigger-budget follow-up, 1989's The Caution Horses. The album didn't cause quite as much of a stir, although it helped maintain their cult fan base. Released in 1992, the even more countrified Black Eyed Man found Timmins settling more comfortably into his songwriting voice, which set the stage for 1993's Pale Sun, Crescent Moon. Hailed as their finest effort since The Trinity Session, the record bore more influence from rock and blues, and returned the Junkies to critics' darling status. However, it also proved to be their final album of new material for RCA. As the band left for Geffen, RCA issued the two-disc live compilation 200 More Miles and the best-of Studio. Meanwhile, the Junkies debuted for Geffen in 1996 with Lay It Down, a relatively high-volume effort compared to their shimmering early work.
Following 1998's Miles from Our Home, the Cowboy Junkies parted ways with Geffen and revived their own Latent label. Their first release was the 2000 live album Waltz Across America, which was initially available only through the band's website. They followed it a year later with an album of all-new material, Open. One Soul Now followed in 2004. In 2005, the group released Early 21st Century Blues, a collection of covers — and two originals — that dealt with "war, violence, fear, greed, ignorance and loss." Recorded in just five days, it harked back to The Trinity Session. Later that year, the band were featured on the Beatles tribute album This Bird Has Flown, which was produced by Jim Sampas and featured various artists including the Donnas and Dar Williams.
Meanwhile, the band were busy collaborating with visual artist Enrique Martinez Celaya on a commemorative art book. Released in 2006, Cowboy Junkies XX was a retrospective piece intended to celebrate the band's 20th anniversary. It featured original watercolors by Celaya, handwritten song lyrics, and photographs gathered from the bandmembers' personal collections. In 2006, the group signed a deal with the Rounder-distributed Zoe Records, which issued 2006's Long Journey Home and 2007's At the End of Paths Taken, as well as another 2007 release, Trinity Revisited, in which they returned to Toronto's Church of the Holy Trinity to re-record the material from The Trinity Session, this time with guest artists Natalie Merchant, Vic Chesnutt, and Ryan Adams.
The band's next major project was an ambitious cycle of recordings they called the Nomad Series, an 18-month cycle that aimed to produce four albums built around common (but separate) narratives. Renmin Park: The Nomad Series, Vol. 1 was released in 2010. Following closely on its heels was 2011's Demons: The Nomad Series, Vol. 2, a covers album featuring songs originally written by the late Vic Chesnutt, the group's longtime friend and occasional tourmate. The third volume, Sing in My Meadow, released later in 2011, featured a live, garage rock sound, while the fourth, The Wilderness, which appeared early in 2012, featured new songs and completed the ambitious Nomad Series project. A box set featuring all four Nomad Series albums, plus a disc of extras, also came out that year. In 2013, the band presented a recording of Toronto poet Scott Garbe's The Kennedy Suite, a song cycle centered on the 1963 assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. While only one song on the set is fully credited to the Cowboy Junkies proper, the group's various members participated throughout and Michael Timmins is listed as co-producer.
In August 2015, Timmins announced another box set. Notes Falling Slow included remastered versions of three albums recorded during the first decade of the 21st century: Open, One Soul Now, and At the End of Paths Taken. It also featured a fourth disc of new recordings consisting of songs written for these three albums that were left unfinished until this project was assembled. The box was issued at the end of October 2015. Three years later, the band returned with All That Reckoning in July 2018, their first album of new material in six years. While the Cowboy Junkies were touring following All That Reckoning's release, Barbara Timmins — the mother of Michael, Margo, and Peter — died, and as the siblings dealt with the grief and anxiety that came with her passing, they began writing material that reflected their emotional struggles. Originally planned to be released as bonus material accompanying a vinyl reissue of All That Reckoning, Ghosts was given a stand-alone digital release in April 2020. ~ Steve Huey & Steve Leggett