Sweethearts of the Rodeo
For their seventh studio album, the perennial staple of the Canadian folk festival circuit known as Blackie and the Rodeo Kings—a trio which is comprised of blues musician Colin Linden, folkie Stephen Fearing, and the grizzled Tom Wilson of ‘90s hard rock outfit Junkhouse—decided to take a novel approach, one that feels on the surface as a gimmick. They decided to rope in some big name female performers whose vocal styles would fit the roots rocking music that the group carefully constructs to be tornado-proof, and build an entire album of male-female duets. It took a meticulous five years of globe hopping into various studios to make, but the resulting product is Kings and Queens, which features a venerable who’s who of female performers from the country, rock, folk, and jazz worlds, and beyond.
It took a meticulous five years of globe hopping into various studios to construct, but the resulting product is Kings and Queens, which features a venerable who’s who of female performers from the country, rock, folk, and jazz worlds, and beyond. Linden, who spearheaded the project and is in demand as it is as a top-flight producer in Nashville, must have had quite the impressive Rolodex, as some of the biggest named women who can carry torch and twang appear on this document.
Here’s just a brief run-down of the jaw-dropping star talent this band, which is still something of an unknown proposition in their home country outside of blues and folk circles, was able to reign in: Emmylou Harris. Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny. Bruce Springsteen’s wife Patty Scialfa. Lucinda Williams. Canadian jazz chanteuse Holly Cole. Amy Helm, who is the daughter of the Band’s drummer Levon Helm. X vocalist Exene Cervenka. And what might be the album’s biggest coup de grâce, the band was able to bring in the reclusive and renowned Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara for a tune. Kings and Queens, thus, is a collection just bursting to the seams with pure talent, and is the group’s most ambitious statement to date.
Kings and Queens is a bit of a risky proposition for the band, because, while Fearing, Linden, and Wilson are capable vocalists in their own right, they have to hold their own against some of the biggest draws in roots-drenched music. A challenging and daunting task, to be sure. What’s more, 12 of the 14 songs here are original songs written specifically for this collection, so the songs themselves had to stand up to close scrutiny. (One of the covers is a cut by the late Canadian blues-country-folk musician Willie P. Bennett. The band took its name from one of his albums, and its first record was a tribute disc to him.)
Remarkably, the entire project holds up exceedingly well, and it’s damn near impossible to single out individual tracks as particular highlights: everything here is exceptionally consistent and rich in evoking a soulful or ragged sound. So that things wouldn’t get too boring, the band varies in its approach to utilizing their female talent: some songs are sung in harmony between the sexes, while others are carried by the male voice for a verse and the female the next, or vice-versa. As a result, Kings and Queens is a defining artistic statement that shakes up a component of the band’s sound, and adds additional resonance to their music.
Because the songwriting is so stellar, and all of the performers—men and women—really give it their all in this recording, I’m a bit reluctant to single out any particular song. In actual fact, I’m not even going to try to touch singling out anything with a ten-foot pole for fear of overshadowing the performances. Quite frankly, every track is commanding in its own right, to a greater or lesser degree, and there’s really something for everybody who is into roots-rock music.
If you’re looking for Buddy Holly-esque rave-ups, you got ‘em here. If you’re looking for alcohol-soaked bluesy swagger, same deal. If you’re looking for the quiet and plaintive, check that too. There is such a wide array and assortment of different styles to find on this record, that fans who appreciate their music to be pure and honest in the best country tradition will be absolutely delighted by Kings and Queens. There are songs of hurt and pain on this solid collection, as well as the tender and affirmative, which, taken as a whole, makes Kings and Queens a confident and assured compilation of roots-based music.
While there isn’t a bad track to be found on Kings and Queens, as the songwriting is all top-shelf, it does seem to go on for a fairly lengthy interval of time at almost an hour in length. What’s more, as you listen to the album, the performances start to almost become indistinguishable from each other, which I’m not sure is an issue with the use of women who happen to be rooted in a similar singing style, or just sheer sonic fatigue of listening to 14 variations on the same theme, one after another. This is especially true when you consider that four of the 14 songs carry on well past the five-minute post, so a little bit of pruning could have been in order.
However, that shouldn’t take away from the majesty of Kings and Queens, and the care and love that went into making this record obviously shows. Ideally, Kings and Queens, with its roster of star talent, should open up Blackie & the Rodeo Kings to a much wider, international audience. Fans of roots rock or alt-country should track this album down as it easily merits being a nearly essential addition to such record collections. Kings and Queens might feel like a gimmick, but the stellar songs and commanding performances make this a much more than a tick above the standard duet album. By shaking up the formula, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings have delivered an almost groundbreaking concoction of Canadian country music.
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