By Keith Sharp
Blackie And The Rodeo Kings may lack the hype machine of a U2 album launch or the social media power of a Taylor Swift release but to be able to debut their latest opus `King Of This Town’ on stage at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium (former home of the Grand Ole Opry) was no mean feat for Messers Tom Wilson, Colin Linden and Stephen Fearing.
On the phone from his native Hamilton Ontario, Wilson was enthused about the critical reaction the trio’s latest release received from a string of dates around the Nashville area. The band launches a mini-four – date tour of Ontario February 20 at the Peterborough Music Hall followed by a Feb 21st date at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall, Feb 22nd at Huntsville’s Algonquin Theatre and Feb 23rd at Meaford’s Music Hall before announcing a more extensive national itinerary later this year.
This album has been picked up by Warner Music Canada to mark the 25th anniversary of the trio’s inception which goes back to 1986 when Wilson received a phone call from Linden suggesting that the pair team up with Fearing to record a tribute album to legendary songwriter Willie P Bennett.
“They knew I was a true lover of Bennett’s music so we jokingly called ourselves a Willie P Bennett cover band, we even named ourselves “Blackie And The Rodeo Kings after one of his album titles and called our debut album High And Hurtin after one of his songs,” Wilson reflected. “It was supposed to be a one-off record but then Bernie Finkelstein, who had released that debut on his True North Records, started to get calls about us playing festivals in places like Winnipeg and Lethbridge so the thought dawned on us, “Hey we might be a band after all”.
This demand resulted in the recording of their second album; “Kings Of Love in 1999, which won them a Juno Award for best Roots Rock album, and cemented a commitment to keep this project alive.
More of a superstar amalgamation than an actual functioning band, Wilson has forged an illustrious career in other bands such as Junkhouse, The Florida Razors and Lee Harvey Osmond, Linden is an accomplished blues guitarist who has recorded 13 albums while touring with the likes of David Wilcox, Bruce Cockburn and even spent 11 dates touring with Bob Dylan in July and August 2013. Fearing, meanwhile has been a prolific solo performer in his own right, recording 15 solo albums.
Reflecting back on the band’s legacy, Wilson gives full credit to True North Records’ president Bernie Finklestein who had the foresight to see the potential of The Blackie And The Rodeo Kings project.
“The world would never have heard of Bruce Cockburn had it not been for Bernie Finklestein,” Wilson informed. “He is a kindred spirit to Blackie And The Rodeo Kings. He encouraged the concept of artists doing what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it, he gave the likes of Cockburn, Dan Hill and Murray McLauchlan total freedom of expression. He worked hard for Blackie And The Rodeo Kings and we worked hard for him.”
Over the past 25 years, Blackie And The Rodeo Kings have released a total of 10 studio albums including a couple of noticeable releases that featured an all-star cast of top-flight performers. One release titled `Kings And Queens’ in 2011 featured a collaboration with major female admirers such as Emmy Lou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Rosanna Cash and Meg Tillis and Cassandra Wilson.
“We were in a train boxcar travelling across Canada, writing songs when Colin came up with the Kings And Queens idea,” reflected Wilson. “So he has the Nashville connections and he rounded up all of these female fans of ours and we came up with 16 or 17 songs for the album.”
This all-star format proved so popular that Blackie And The Rodeo Kings did it again in 2017 with their ‘Kings And Kings’ release which featured collaborations with the likes of Eric Church, Dallas Green, Bruce Cockburn, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill and Nick Lowe.
Inspiration for the band’s current King Of This Town release was the realization seven years ago that Wilson was a full-blooded Mohawk who had been brought up by his great aunt and uncle, thinking that actual mother was his cousin. “Here I am thinking that I’m a strapping Irishman when all the time, I have this Mohawk heritage.”
Wilson drew on this revelation in writing Beautiful Scars, a best selling memoir that will be turned into a play in 2021 and the rights have also been snapped up for a full-length feature movie.
Songs like “Cool 100” and “Medicine Hat” also invoke his Mohawk heritage but the album’s 11 songs feature an equal contribution by all three members. “Colin wrote “North Star” about a childhood incident. I first met him at Gage Park in Hamilton in 1976. We were both going to Home County Folk Festival in London Ontario, Colin took a bus from Windsor to London to attend and he told me, “last night I slept under the Victoria Park bandshell so I could be on time for the start of the festival.”
“We were kids who had no money, we just had the desire to swallow as much music as we could,” Wilson reiterated.
With so much creativity between the trio, there’s always an abundance of material but Wilson, Linden and Fearing have a rational method of determining what tracks make the final album.
“Every so often we wake up out of our coffins and begin to collaborate,” reflected Wilson. “In the end, it boils down to what makes sense for Blackie And The Rodeo Kings to be singing about. It’s not like it’s got to be comparable to two albums ago or our first album. We just sit down sing and perform the songs and see what works and what makes sense in the moment. It’s not like we have to repeat previous hit singles because we haven’t had any. But we haven’t had any misses either!”
All three share lead vocals and harmonies on each other’s song with Wilson voicing full praise for this collaborator’s efforts. “That Stephen Fearing is a prick! He comes up with songs like “Grace, I don’t know what that song is about but it resonates with me in a deeper place than the others.”
With a second book in the works from Wilson and a major North American tour about to be announced under the direction of Warner Music Canada, Blackie And The Rodeo Kings continues a distinctive legacy which they have maintained for a quarter of a century.
“It’s funny but when we play around Southern Ontario we are known as a Hamilton band but that’s because of me,” Wilson explained. “But when we play anywhere else we are known as a Nashville band. Either way, it can be put down to dumb luck. It’s been about running into people who share the same stage, the same musical tastes, the same kitchen table and in the end that’s what it comes down to. Our legacy for the past 25 years has been about keeping the true spirit of our love for Willie P Bennett alive.”