More than 25 years since Blackie & the Rodeo Kings formed for a one-off tribute record, the spirit and the camaraderie behind this roots-rock group of misfits remains the same.
There is no map telling Blackie where to go. Rather, whenever these three amigos — Colin Linden, Tom Wilson and Stephen Fearing — gather to create, magic happens; it is more about the process and having fun than about chasing hits or selling records.
“You just let the music take you where it’s going to go,” explained the Grammy Award-winning Linden over Zoom from his Nashville home. “Blackie has always been like a shield for us; it’s our refuge.” Added Fearing: “It’s family, with all the dynamics that brings into the conversation.”
Catching up with Wilson earlier that day at his Hamilton home, on his 63rd birthday over a cup of coffee, the artist painted a commissioned miniature paddle at the kitchen table. The birthday boy captured the raison d’être of the band of musical brothers best: “Blackie & the Rodeo Kings is something we go to when we are hungry … it’s something that is completely a labour of lust and as a result we have a great time doing it. If I was to liken ourselves to anybody we are like a hyperactive Grateful Dead and are the most Buddhist band in our genre!”
Blackie formed in 1996 when Linden, Fearing and Wilson came together over a mutual love of an unheralded Canadian singer-songwriter to record a one-off tribute album. “High or Hurtin’: The Songs of Willie P. Bennett” was released in 1996 on True North Records and the band’s moniker was appropriated from one of Bennett’s songs.
At the time, all three members had successful solo careers, so the idea this band might take on a life of its own was unfathomable. Rounding out Blackie’s sound in the studio and live is the long-time rhythm section of industry veterans Gary Craig on drums and John Dymond on bass.
A quarter of a century and 10 albums later (including a Juno Award in 2000 for “Kings of Love” in the Best Roots and Traditional Album Group category) these aging anarchists return on July 8 with “O Glory.”
The record features 13 contemplative songs that linger. The album showcases three talented songwriters growing older gracefully, still with something of substance to say. The resulting art is about best friends picking up where they last left off despite the distance that physically separates them.
“This record aims for a different nerve, spiritually and politically,” Linden said.
The nerve “O Glory” hits in all its glory and the accompanying obscurity captures the spirit of our times. A lot of that is due to the age of Blackies’ principal players, all either approaching or now in their early 60s and also their current states of mind. “As you get older, you feel less self-conscious about saying what you really feel,” Linden explained.
For Wilson, who possesses an acidic tongue that never minces words, his search to reclaim his identity and lost Mohawk heritage has been well documented in recent years, both in his memoir “Beautiful Scars” (2017) and the accompanying movie of the same name released earlier this year. It was inevitable this ongoing search for reconciliation and a desire to share the plight of his Indigenous brethren would find its way into “O Glory’s” songs.
“To me, this is Tom’s record,” said Fearing. “We all wrote and sung on it, but Tom’s recent journey discovering his Mohawk heritage definitely surrounds the record’s spirit from start to finish.” This is captured most beautifully in the song “Grand River.”
Fearing, who lives in Victoria, B.C., sings lead on one of the record’s most politically charged songs, “Far From the Middle,” inspired after touring with Adrian Sutherland right before the pandemic hit and learning how this first-time Juno nominee still lives in Ontario’s far north without safe drinking water.
During the first six to eight months of the pandemic, Linden was working on new material with T. Bone Burnett. These sessions with the Grammy-winning producer turned him on to new musicians and new musical styles that resonated, setting the tone for the direction of “O Glory.”
For example, the first song on the record (“Stop & Listen”) arrived as a direct result of Linden’s work with Burnett. It is an adaptation of a Sam Chatmon and the Mississippi Sheiks song Linden first learned when he was 14.
“In the wake of the George Floyd killing and everything that was going on in the U.S. with the Black Lives Matter movement, I felt what the Sheiks were singing about in their own way back in the 1930s was just as relevant today,” Linden said. “I played ‘Stop & Listen’ for our long-time manager, Allen Moy, and for Tom and they both agreed that from here was where the new Blackie record had to begin.”
Due to the pandemic, plans to gather for in-person sessions at Linden’s home studio (Pinhead Recorders), where they recorded “King of This Town” (2020), were not feasible. Instead, the band found a way to connect and collaborate virtually despite lockdowns and limitations.
Linden used Audiomovers, a ProTools plug-in, to record “O Glory” remotely. The songs were written piece by piece. Song sketches and ideas were shared electronically. Wilson would record a song demo on his phone and send it to Linden, who would listen and then add his take: write a bridge or a chorus or, at other times, take the song in a completely different direction.
“When Warner gave us the green light in 2021, I was so jazzed,” Linden recalled. “Tommy would send me a voice memo with a verse, or a verse and a chorus, and he was pitching strike after strike. The songs were so great I could not let a day end without finishing these songs and recording them … those songs are the backbone of this new record.”
“O Glory,” the band’s 11th studio record, follows “King of This Town,” the group’s first release on Warner Music Canada. At 54 minutes, the 13 well-crafted songs feature the trademark three-part harmony for which Blackie is known. Each member takes lead on several songs.
As our conversation closed, Wilson stressed that Blackie is not about chasing hits — or even misses. “We are here to inspire just a small dark corner of the people who decide they want to listen to our music and if that’s the job then ain’t no hit going to do that!” he said.
Reflecting on their quarter-century journey that shows no signs of ending soon, Linden simply said: “It’s been incredible! It’s exceeded our dreams in so many ways. We never thought we would do a gig let alone talk about staying together for more than 25 years.”
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