Bringing together three of best and most prolific Canadian roots, folk and rock singer/songwriters under what can only be described as inspired serendipity, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings has carved out niche within the music industry that is as unique as it is compelling.
Comprised of blues master Colin Linden, folk phenom Stephen Fearing and rocker-poet Tom Wilson, the band has built up an incredibly loyal following of fans and fellow musicians throughout North America based on its wonderfully eclectic blend of covers and salt-of-the-earth original masterpieces.
On the heels of the release of their most recent album, Kings and Kings, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings will be touring Ontario later this fall, starting Oct. 20 at The Grand Theatre in Kingston, and wrapping up at the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall on Nov. 4. In between the band will hit Peterborough, Meaford, Belleville, London, Kitchener, Ajax, Creemore and Port Dover, with one date outside the province in Halifax sandwiched in on Nov. 2.
It’s an oft-told story that’s starting to verge on legend – how Blackie and the Rodeo Kings was never meant to be more than a one-off show to celebrate the life and legacy of the talented and influential Canadian songwriter Willie P. Bennett, who was a contemporary of Bruce Cockburn and Stan Rogers Wilson, Linden and Fearing were all friends and admirers of Bennett, with Linden actually playing in his band for a number of years. Sadly, Bennett died in 2008.
One tribute album in 1996, High or Hurtin’: The Songs of Willie P. Bennett has led to a now-21 year venture that has seen the trio tour the country back and forth innumerable times and release nine critically-acclaimed albums, including the most recent, Kings and Kings, which came out earlier this fall.
“Everything that’s happened to us has been a surprise and it’s all been good. We never thought we’d do a gig and then after we made the first record we realized that we enjoyed making the record so much we thought well, let’s do a gig. And then Bernie Finkelstein, who was our manager for a long time and put out our records through his True North label [until 2007] and was such a champion of the band, he said, ‘if I can get you some gigs would you go and play?’ And thought, yeah we’re having a good time, we might as well,” Linden said.
“And really one thing led to another that way. When we have made a record or when we have done a tour or any of that we have managed to kind of do it because we were into it. We always felt that no one ever pushed Blackie and the Rodeo Kings; it was always something that we wanted to do and that way I think the shoe has stayed on the right foot for most of the time we’ve been together, and that has been conducive to our music to make it better too.”
Ultimately, besides the friendship and camaraderie that has infused so many aspects of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ life, Linden said it’s the mutual love for playing great songs that is still the proverbial straw that stirs the drink for him, Fearing and Wilson. It started with the appreciation for playing the Bennett catalogue and has morphed to include playing a host of other tunes.
“Because this group was started because we loved Willie P. Bennett’s music it almost has, in my mind at least and maybe the other guys would feel differently, but I always felt that we were at our best when we were playing songs that we just loved sharing together. And that eventually extended into our own material,” Linden said.
“But there was this sense, and we still play a lot of Willie’s songs, you play these songs because you love them and there’s a certain thing that happens when you play a song where you don’t question whether it’s good or not – you just love it and you love singing it, you love playing it, and if it’s somebody else’s song, the way that we somethings overthink things or become self-conscious about them, that gets out of the way.
“And if you can kind of work in a few of your songs that seem to go with the songs you love of other people’s you can get your head out of your own psyche about those ones sometimes. We’ve found that it’s working really well that way and what ended up happening was when we played songs together, when we wrote together people seemed to respond so well. It was almost like our fans have the same love of music that we did and we really formed this common bond with them.”
Linden chuckled when he explained that it took the three members of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings longer to understand that there was something special happening between the three of them creatively than it did many others, especially Finkelstein and the fans.
“None of this was by design. It was almost like the fans began thinking of us as a ‘real band’ before we did. Which is so wild, but it’s true. It made us think that, wow, these people like what we do, so maybe we should keep doing it. But from that very first show we ever did there was something special, and I credit Bernie again for noticing it before we did. He said, ‘when you guys sing together, it’s really exciting, it’s kind of a cool sound the way you harmonize together,’ which is something we didn’t even plan on. It’s an interesting thing, when you sing with other people you kind of get out of your own head; you feel like you’re part of a chord – a cool sounding chord. It made us all feel good to sing together and eventually we recognized that it was something special,” he said.
Kings and Kings is the second half of a unique series of collaborations between the band and some of their favourite artists. An earlier album, Kings and Queens released in 2011, saw Fearing, Linden and Wilson recording alongside legendary female singer/songwriters such as Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, Cassandra Wilson and Pam Tillis. Kings and Kings follows a similar format but with male artists such as Bruce Cockburn, Buddy Miller, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell and Nick Lowe among others.
“For Kings and Queens several of the women were some of our really dear great friends who we just couldn’t imagine making the record without. Roseanne Cash was such a wonderful and vocal supporter of our band, as were Pam Tillis, Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris. And with Kings and Kings some are people who I have worked with so much over the years like Bruce Cockburn and Buddy Miller. There was such a long list for both albums they could easily have been triple albums. In some ways, in terms of getting collaborators, it’s a little bit easier to write male duets, just from a purely musical point of view. Getting male singers was a little more in our wheelhouse,” Linden, who has produced all the Blackie and the Rodeo Kings albums from his base in Nashville, where he has lived full time for more than 20 years.
“It was fantastic and really truly every time somebody said yes to participate it was a thrill, because people didn’t get asked unless we really loved them. And some were more unbelievable that others. Some other people on both records were good enough friends of mine that I see around anyhow, but others were more like total strangers and had a real aura about them. In cases like that it was more surprising and wonderful, but every one of those opportunities was a blessing for all three of us. Every one of them was someone who was extending such a great deal of faith in us and just love and good feeling – it was amazing.”
Linden has had a remarkable and diverse career with so many brushes with musical greatness that it deserves an article of its own. Born in Toronto, he became an in-demand sideman and session guitarist across a number of genres on the scene of the late 1970s and 1980s. Some of his most noteworthy projects include working with Cockburn for many years, as well as with T-Bone Burnett, Leon Redbone, Rita Chiarelli and an opportunity to tour as part of Bob Dylan’s band about a decade ago.
“I don’t know if I do any more [have a bucket list of artists he dreams of working with.] There are so many people that I would love to work with again. With those people who I love and who I’ve gotten to work with I always hope that somehow, somewhere I am still part of their lives and we can continue to make music. There are so many people whose bands I have been in, who I was just so honoured to play with that I would love to play with again. But most of the people that I really wanted to work with, I have worked with – and that just blows me away,” he said.
“To be honest with you, I answered that question the same way for nearly the first 40 years of my being a professional guitar player and the question I always answered was that I want to play with Bob Dylan. And then a few years ago [2006 and 2007] I got to play with Bob Dylan and I loved it. I feel like I don’t have the right to wish for anything else after that.”
This interview came just a few days after the tragic and sudden death of legendary American rocker Tom Petty. Linden said the passing hit all three members of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings hard, as it did for millions of fans, as well as legions of musicians and songwriters around the world.
“Tom Petty was a tremendous influence. There’s a tremendous amount of love and respect for not only his music, which I loved and which all of us loved, but for his integrity and his cutting through the bullshit of so much. I loved that guy and I loved his music and we’re all greatly saddened that he’s gone,” Linden said.
“I heard a lot about him because I have played with Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, who was with the band from day one, and I came to appreciate and admire Tom so much and the way those guys worked together as a band and what they meant to each other, it’s just one of the great little stories.”
It’s a story very much like the one of Linden, Fearing and Wilson have thus far written – one infused integrity, quality, and a deeply held appreciation for one another as artists and for the music they create. And it’s also a story that seems destined to feature many more chapters yet to come.
For more information about Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, their tour and Kings and Kings, visit http://www.blackieandtherodeokings.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.