Willie P. Bennett – Squirrel of the Rodeo
“Oh man, it’s amazing, it’s opened up new neural pathways in my brain!” That’s what Willie P. Bennett had to say about Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, the tribute band that had just released a CD titled High Or Hurtin’, culled from his songbook. I met him at the Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ontario, in 1996 just after the CD came out; he was there to join his own tribute band for a one-off performance.
Blackie & The Rodeo Kings are producer/blues artist Colin Linden, pop/folk performer Stephen Fearing, and biker heartthrob/multimedia raconteur Tom Wilson of the rock band Junkhouse. Coming from their respective fields of musical mastery, they have the collective spirit necessary to attack the Bennett songbook with aplomb and dexterity. “I’ve been playing Willie’s ‘Music In Your Eyes’ for twenty years and I can guarantee I’ll be playing until I’m dead,” Linden says. “It’s such a fantastic song.”
I first heard about Bennett when a band called Varis Tombley started playing an amphetamine-fueled version of his song “Blackie & The Rodeo King” in the summer of 1988. Later it turned out that a co-worker of mine was a friend of Bennett, so I asked my colleague if he could buy some records from Bennett for me. He came back and told me that Bennett didn’t even have copies of his own records, and that if I could find some, Willie would buy them from me.
Bennett’s first record, Tryin’ To Start Out Clean, was released in 1975. On the back he’s pictured beside a now strangely prophetic road sign that reads “Rough Road For Miles.” There’s a bang-up lyrical rewrite of “Diamond Joe” on it, as well as his classic “Country Squall,” in which he tries to antagonize himself into an early death (“If I’d been born sometime else/This could be a different day/But like the rise and fall of a country squall/I’m getting ready to fade away”).
Nowadays, Bennett stays busy touring with Fred Eaglesmith as a member of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s backing band, the Flying Squirrels. Eaglesmith told me he considers Bennett’s 1977 LP Hobo’s Taunt one of the best albums ever made. Bennett’s beautiful baritone falls so low here, you wonder what engineer Daniel Lanois (!) was thinking when he suggested Bennett sing the song “Come On Train” while flat on his back on the studio floor.
The LP Blackie And The Rodeo King followed in 1979, and it’s the title track that stands out here, the story of a tragically beautiful couple he met on a Greyhound bus — Blackie, a junkie trying to kick, and The Rodeo King, who was too drunk for horsemanship. There’s been a couple of CDs since then — The Lucky Ones and Take My Own Advice — but most fans will tell you it’d hard to top these three from the ’70’s. All are out of print, but a compilation is available.