Blackie & The Rodeo Kings – Getting their kicks on Highway 6
To that list of storied musical roads — Route 66, Highway 61, Broadway — Blackie & the Rodeo Kings’ Tom Wilson wants to add Highway 6. It’s a less-heralded stretch of blacktop that knifes through southern Ontario and, according to Wilson, should properly cut an even bigger swath through cultural history.
“When I think of Highway 6, it’s tobacco fields and women in bikinis with tattoos and broken arms in casts, Wilson says. “If that doesn’t inspire great music, then nothing will.”
The road begins (or, depending on your perspective, ends) in Wilson’s beloved hometown of Hamilton, a blue-collar industrial center and, improbably, a diverse cultural hub. It was once the workshop of U2 producer Daniel Lanois and, for a time, his collaborator Brian Eno. The region has spawned the likes of fashion designer Lida Baday, New York Public Library architect John Lyle, SCTV alums Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas and Martin Short, Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, video director Floria Sigismondi, and Jason Jones of “The Daily Show”. Sarah Harmer is from neighboring Burlington. Rush drummer Neil Peart is from nearby Port Dalhousie.
Highway 6 shoots south out of Hamilton, skirts around the Six Nations Indian Reserve (where The Band’s Robbie Robertson spent his summers), dips its toe in Lake Erie at Port Dover, then pushes south and west. Keep heading in that direction and you’ll find yourself in an area which has historically been tobacco country and also served as breeding ground for The Band’s Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and, even further south and west, Garth Hudson.
“In Europe they ask us a lot about Americana and roots music,” says Wilson. “I realize after being asked about southern influences on our music, [Highway 6] is a part of Canada where, whatever British music and American music came on the radio, it got translated in a way that it never did before.
“[Europeans] talk about The Band and the influence of the southern States, but if you want to know how they got to play like that, go to Port Dover or Lake Simcoe or Hagersville on a Saturday night and you will hear guys playing like that. You go to Hamilton or St. Catharines or London [Ontario]. You don’t hear people playing like that in big cities.”
That geography would be on Wilson’s mind is perhaps understandable. Blackie & the Rodeo Kings is itself a product of intersecting regional flavors and three distinct musical personalities — Wilson, Stephen Fearing and Colin Linden. The three had met in various configurations over the years, but their tastes, both shared and disparate, never congealed into a full-on musical force before Blackie.
Wilson made his name fronting Hamilton’s Junkhouse, which, in the mid-’90s created a sound that could be described as Bachman Turner Overdrive performing lyrics by Charles Bukowski. Following 1997’s Fuzz, the band split; Wilson has released two solo albums (Planet Love in 2001, Dog Days in 2006), plus another in 2006 with producer/harmonica player Bob Lanois, The Shack Recordings Vol. 1.
Fearing was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, and grew up in Dublin, Ireland. He currently lives in Guelph, Ontario, and has a background in folk music. Across a twenty-year career, he has worked with the likes of Clive Gregson (who produced his 1989 set Blue Line) and Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin (who helmed 1994’s The Assassin’s Apprentice). His most recent solo outing is 2006’s Yellowjacket.
Linden spent his early years in White Plains, New York, and is currently based in Nashville, Tennessee, but is steeped in traditional blues. He spent his youth traveling around the United States and Canada, meeting and playing with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and Leon Redbone. Along the way, he has made eleven albums of his own, and has collaborated with the latter-day Band, Bruce Cockburn, T Bone Burnett (on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack), and many others.
Despite their varied backgrounds and solo projects, Blackie & the Rodeo Kings has emerged as the most appealing and rewarding venture any of them has pursued. Which is curious, considering the group began in the mid-’90s as an ad-hoc project to record a tribute album to Canadian singer-songwriter Willie P. Bennett, whose 1978 album provided the group’s name.
Blackie & the Rodeo Kings “started from a place unlike a lot of bands — it starts from a very unselfish point,” says Wilson. “We would never have gotten together if not for the love we have for Willie P. Bennett. We got together for music rather than, I don’t know, trading each other’s clothes onstage. The difference with this project was there was the love of this great songbook before us.”
And beyond that one-off tribute record, 1996’s High Or Hurtin’, Wilson is adamant there was no plan to turn B&RK into an ongoing thing. “God no, we’re idiots,” he chuckles. “We didn’t see anything ahead of us. If there is a big cliff at the end of this road, we aren’t looking at that. We’re looking at what makes us happy.
“We did see that the mission was accomplished at the end of that record. I walked away and went to make videos in Costa Rica with Junkhouse, for fuck’s sake. And the call came a couple of months later — ‘You guys wanna do some shows?’ We had never thought about that; we had never played together before. That’s a nice evolution.”
The casual meet-up vibe of High Or Hurtin’ was extended through 1999’s Kings Of Love, a double-disc set that mixed originals with other gems culled from the songbooks of Bennett, Fred Eaglesmith, Jules Shear, Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, John Martyn and David Wiffen. The sound of the band evolved, too, into a driving roots-rock amalgam that touches down somewhere between Rockpile and the Texas Tornados.
Starting a musical act out of devotion to the music of others had an unintended (but welcome) consequence, Wilson adds. “It raised the bar and it turned us into a band that is not allowed to say no to something creative,” he says. “That is how things evolved, rather than getting all wrinkly-browed about stuff. That give us the opportunity to respect each other and do whatever we want. That is what it comes down to.”
After a four-year hiatus, the Rodeo Kings stormed back with 2003’s BARK, and simultaneously acquired their most famous fan and their best shot to date at mainstream notoriety. As the iPod was beginning to assert itself, a reporter from The New York Times inquired as to what George W. Bush listened to while mountain biking. Alongside John Fogerty’s “Centerfield”, the Knack’s “My Sharona”, Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl”, and cuts by George Jones, Alan Jackson, Bryan Adams and Kenny Chesney, the leader of the free world was nodding his head to Blackie & the Rodeo Kings’ “Swinging From The Chains Of Love”. Cue a mini-media scramble to find out more about Blackie.
“It could have been a perverse springboard into the American media for us. There was some heavy-duty interest from those knuckle-and-chuckle radio shows, those Howard Stern-type shows,” Wilson says. “But we were smart enough to turn it all down. What are you going to say? ‘Everybody likes music, riiiiiight?’ I was scared. You don’t want people like that to know you exist. You wanna hide.”
If the group has been hiding, it has been hiding in plain sight recently. Their latest album, Let’s Frolic, came out stateside this summer on the True North label. A sequel record, Let’s Frolic Again, is also on the racks in some Canadian territories but probably won’t surface in the U.S. until next spring, Wilson says. Both albums were recorded in a single set of sessions at Bearsville in upstate New York, coincidentally once the home base of Blackie’s keyboardist, Richard Bell, who had played with The Band and Janis Joplin but succumbed to cancer this past June; the sessions would be among the last in Bell’s storied career. Living communally at Bearsville was a crucial part of the experience, which yielded close to 30 songs.
“Being away from home, waking up and feeding each other, cleaning up after each other, being responsible for each other, socializing — it is all a part of it,” Wilson says. “When dinner time breaks, it has a lot to do with the way we make records.”
If pushed to distinguish between Let’s Frolic and Let’s Frolic Again, Wilson figures the latter has more of an apres-session feel. “I think it is kind of if you finish your work and you’ve done a good job, you might go do something else,” he says. “School’s out; it is the game you play after school. The joint you go smoke after school. The atmosphere is a little different. You might be as productive and interesting, but coming from a different place.”
Let’s Frolic Again is also heavier on the covers, with the group this time essaying Porter Waggoner’s “Ole Slewfoot” and 1980s Canadian punk band Teenage Head’s “Something On My Mind”. “Part of the privilege of being an artist, or the joy of being in Blackie, is we do whatever we want to do,” Wilson says. “We don’t do anything to hurt ourselves, but we don’t consider what the strategy or marketing is, as much as what it means to get your ya-yas off making two records instead of one.”
There’s no plan for Blackie & the Rodeo Kings to slacken their pace. Wilson says a video of the group onstage in Bonn, Germany, may surface on DVD, and a live album (recorded at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Theatre) is awaiting release. He adds that the group is talking about its next album, perhaps to be called Kings & Queens, which would feature women singing duets with the band.
“The party is on and it is a different kind of party than I have ever gone to — the idea of having the opportunity to create,” Wilson says of the band’s prolific output. “In our youth, we throw away so much. We have so much time to spare, so many summers ahead of us. You don’t pay as much attention to your art and you take it as it comes. And then it starts to become a part of your life and something you respect more. The volume of work comes from the respect and love I have to do this.”