One Track Mind: Cowboy Junkies, "Wrong Piano" (2011)

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by Nick DeRiso

First off, this doesn’t start off with any piano, but also not the churchy wistfulness of the Cowboy Junkies’ 1987 breakthrough The Trinity Session. Instead, there is a gnarled electric guitar from Michael Timmins, a mashed-down organ and an updated worldliness in Margo Timmons’ familiar alto. They’re exploring the dark places, and there are many, inside the lyrics of the late collaborator Vic Chesnutt. And the Cowboy Junkies are doing it with their sleeves rolled up.

Chesnutt was a brilliant writer who, years after being left partially paralyzed by a car accident, committed suicide on Christmas Day 2009. He passed on the eve of planned sessions with the band, leaving them to pay tribute to their departed friend. The Cowboy Junkies do so with masterful finesse, and no small amount of grace — deftly echoing the confusion, the emotion and the nervy honesty found in Chesnutt’s works — but also with a forceful grit. There’s none of the spooky fragility that has so often made them so intriguing. Instead, you’re shaken awake by this sense of hard-won experience, something deeper and more confident in “Wrong Piano,” echoing the stammering bravery that Chesnutt showed in perfectly mapping out the crossroads between confusion and blind rage: “I must have played the wrong piano,” Margo Timmons sings, “’cause it left me with, I don’t know what. So don’t talk to me about mistakes.”

Demons, for which this song is the opener, continues with 10 more Chesnutt tracks — all the while neatly sidestepping the maudlin trappings often associated with such tributes. The Cowboy Junkies charge out with a piercing folk-rock attitude. It’s not haunted, so much as bracing. Nobody breaks their gaze, even when descending into the miseries of Chesnutt’s final days — and that starts here, on “Wrong Piano,” where they add deeper complexity to a song that was already both blunt and beautiful.

The terrific Demons, issued in January on the Cowboy Junkies’ Latent Recordings, is the second in a quartet of recordings that began with last year’s well-received Renmin Park. The band has dubbed this four-volume effort The Nomad Series. (Volumes 3 and 4 reportedly have the working titles of Sing In My Meadow and The Wilderness, respectively.) Cowboy Junkies is rounded out by drummer Peter Timmins and bassist Alan Anton.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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