I have called Blackie and the Rodeo Kings the best roots music band working today.
There is nothing about the new record, “Kings and Kings” to change my mind about that judgment.
This year is the twentieth anniversary of the release of their first record, “High or Hurtin”, a record which was originally intended as a one off tribute to a great Canadian songwriter by the name of Willie P Bennett. All the songs on the album were Willie’s, and the man himself sang and played on a few of the cuts.
What the Rodeo Kings discovered in the process of recording and touring their tribute to Willie P was that they made sense as a musical collective … a trio of very diverse writers and musicians who seemed to find not only common ground, but new sides of themselves in the partnership.
Over those 20 years, B&RK have released just seven albums of new material. The thing is, over those 20 years Stephen Fearing, Colin Linden and Tom Wilson have all been busy with other facets of their musical lives.
Fearing has released solo albums and two records with his some time duo partner, Andy White. One of their co-writes appears on “Kings and Kings”.
Tom Wilson has released three albums with his acid-folk collective “Lee Harvey Osmond”, as well as working on his graphic art.
And what about Colin Linden? Well, Colin is an in-demand producer in Nashville, an in-demand side man for artists such as Bob Dylan, the guitar coach for the actors on the show ‘Nashville’, and a solo artist in his own right.
Since the last Blackie album dropped in 2014, we have been graced with a Stephen Fearing solo record, a Fearing & White album, the most recent recording from Lee Harvey Osmond and a solo disc from Colin Linden.
So you can see that these are busy guys.
Something like a year and a half ago, they decided it was time to get together in Nashville to begin recording what would become the new record, “Kings and Kings”, a sort of sequel, if you will, to their 2011 album, “Kings and Queens”, which featured the three Rodeo Kings performing duets with something of a female whose who of the Americana music scene.
In a four day session originally intended to get four or five solid bed tracks for the new record, Stephen, Colin and Tom, along with their staggeringly great rhythm section of Gary Craig and John Dymond managed to capture all twelve songs for the album. They don’t always work together, but when they do they work hard!
“Kings and Kings” is a perfect representation of what Blackie and the Rodeo Kings have become over the years. B&RK is a place where the members come together from time to time, bringing with them the musical growth and changes that have come upon them while working on their individual careers. They bring these diverse experiences, along with their diverse styles, and consistently manage to build them into a consistent whole, never sacrificing each artist’s individuality in the process.
On the new record, we find Tom Wilson performing a duet with City and Colour, on a tune called “Beautiful Scars”. “Beautiful Scars” is also the title of the most recent Lee Harvey Osmond record, and this song could easily have fit as the title track of that record, but here it is on a Blackie record.
Similarly, we find Fearing performing, with Raul Melo of The Mavericks, a track titled “High Wire” which in tone and content could easily have come from Stephen’s most recent album, “Between Hurricanes.” Those two tenor voices, singing and harmonizing together, is special indeed.
Colin Linden brings along his musical partner on the “Nashville” TV show, the great Buddy Miller, for a barroom country honk, “Playing by Heart”, that finds the two perfectly blending their voices and their guitars, like twin sons of different mothers.
“Kings and Kings” kicks off with another thread from the recent past. For a while now, Fearing’s Twitter profile has included the phrase `those who live by the song, die by the road`. It’s pithy as hell, and true in so many ways, I had wondered where this came from. The album’s opening track, a real country kicker with Rodney Crowell contributing mightily, provides the answer. The song is called “Live By The Song”, and it’s hard to imagine a better duet for a couple of veteran road warrior songwriters like Stephen and Rodney, or a better lead track for the album.
In total, “Kings and Kings” is evenly balanced among the three singer/songwriters with Stephen taking the lead on duets with Rodney Crowell (“Live By The Song”), Raul Melo (“High Wire”), and Keb Mo (“Long Walk to Freedom”) and providing backing vocals for the great Nick Lowe on the Fearing/White composition, “Secret of a Long Lasting Love”.
Colin brings along his old boss Bruce Cockburn, with an absolutely gorgeous rendering of a bilingual tune called “A Woman Gets More Beautiful”, in addition to his duets with Buddy Miller (“Playing by Heart”) and Eric Church (“Bury My Heart”) and the inevitable Willie P Bennett song on the record.
On Kings and Queens, Colin sang Willie’s ballad “Step Away” with the great Emmylou Harris. This time around, he has chosen another ballad from Willie P’s catalogue, “That Lonesome Feeling” and he sings it with Vince Gill. Kings and Kings indeed!
As always, Tom Wilson takes the outside track and combines with the most unexpected of partners, to produce a trio of perfect B&RK gems. The aforementioned duet with City and Colour on “Beautiful Scars”; a stunning performance on “Bitter and Low” with a guy from Oakland who calls himself “Fantastic Negrito” and who sings incredible high harmonies on top of Tom’s brilliant low end leads; and a meditation on the down hill struggle faced by his hometown, Hamilton, Ontario, which could as easily be about so many other towns and cities in North America. On “Land of the Living”, Jason Isbell is the guest ‘King’, and it is a perfect, if unexpected match. The song would fit perfectly on one of Jason’s records as well.
Favourite tracks for this reviewer would include “Live by the Song” from Fearing and Crowell, “Land of the Living” from Wilson and Isbell, and “That Lonesome Feeling” from Linden and Gill.
But ask me again tomorrow, and I might give you a completely different answer, depending on my mood. All of the songs, including Colin Linden’s outro to the project, “Where The River Rolls”, performed with the “Men of Nashville”, are jewels; Great songs, from great writers, performed with brilliantly chosen duet partners.
Here’s the track they released as the teaser for the album: “Beautiful Scars”.
“Kings and Kings” will be our Feature Album of the Week on FolkNRoots Radio, for the week beginning Saturday, October 8. First full play through will be Saturday afternoon beginning at 4 pm EDT.
You can check the schedules on our web site at www.folknrootsradio.com to find out other times when you can hear this great record from, for my money, the best damned roots music band, working today!