Creating cross-continent harmonies kept roots band busy
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Blackie and the Rodeo Kings are back on their horses after the COVID-19 pandemic gave them a rough ride.
The Canadian roots music trio — Tom Wilson, Colin Linden and Stephen Fearing — was one of countless groups that put out records in the opening weeks of 2020 only to have them overshadowed by coronavirus tragedies and the months-long shutdown of the entertainment industry.
So instead of touring to promote the Jan. 24, 2020, release of Kings of This Town, Wilson, Linden and Fearing rode back to their respective homes and waited for the time when they could perform again.
That time in Winnipeg is on Wednesday when they play the Burton Cummings Theatre, and they’ll have a new album, O Glory, to show off and perform.
It hasn’t been an easy gallop for the Rodeo Kings, though. They had to seek approval from their record label, Warner Brothers, to release the new record, which eventually came out in July.
“I told them that if we make another record, I’ll make sure it’s not just Volume 2 of King of This Town. It’ll be a good companion piece to it,” says Linden, 62, who was just 15 when Winnipeg Folk Festival founder Mitch Podolak added him to the 1975 lineup of the event.
The next obstacle to clear was their disparate locations: Wilson lives in Toronto, Linden in Nashville, Tenn., and Fearing in Victoria, B.C., which put the onus on Linden, a Grammy Award-winning producer and highly sought-after session guitarist, to bring their harmonies together despite being thousands of miles apart.
“It’s never been a band of convenience,” Linden says. “We did the record remotely and it made me feel like my wife and I were the only people in the world who actually knew it existed because we made it in isolation.”
The old-dog trio embraced the new pandemic tricks of the trade, especially Linden, who produced nine albums during the pandemic.
“It was like a lifeline for me. Probably two or three days a week, Tom Wilson would send me a little snippet of a song, maybe a verse and a chorus, maybe two verses, and it was so exciting to get that from him that I wouldn’t let the sun go down until I had finished the song and done a recording of it,” he says.
“It was like us fielding the transmissions from our friends. When Stephen got done with it, it was complete.”
One of Wilson’s snippets that arrived in an email became Grand River, influenced by his newly discovered Indigenous background.
Wilson, the 62-year-old Junkhouse and Lee Harvey Osmond singer-songwriter, didn’t learn until he was in his 50s that he was adopted from a Mohawk family, and a cousin who was close to him was actually his birth mother, revelations he described in his 2017 memoir Beautiful Scars and a 2022 documentary.
“He’s gotten a lot more aware of the issues that are front-and-centre in (Indigenous) communities, When it’s on your mind and it’s in your heart, it comes out in your music,” Linden says, adding he could feel the urgency and emotions Wilson brought in those early verses, and it spurred him to add his emotional intelligence to the final product.
“He sent me the first two verses and immediately I felt like he threw me a strike and I had to swing at it. We finished the song immediately afterwards; it was so powerful. He sent it to me one morning and we finished it by dinnertime.”
Other contentious issues, such as the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police in 2020, were on Linden’s mind and came out in O Glory, which has a more political focus than previous Blackie and the Rodeo Kings records.
At first glance, the tricky part of producing the record would be bringing together the harmonies of three people from different parts of the continent and synchronizing them with the rhythm section of bassist Gary Craig and drummer John Dymond.
But combining three vocal tracks from afar is not much different than mixing them when the singers are in the same studio at the same time, Linden says.
The thrill of creating those harmonies did pull everyone together.
“Stephen Fearing is a beautiful singer and Tom and I are more ragged in our approach, but when we sing together it makes us feel better,” he says. “We kind of got into the idea of doing songs like a ragged-ass Everly Brothers, where we sang the whole song together, from beginning to end.”
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.