A lot of people seem drawn to americana for the folksy melodies and the sumptuous vocal harmonies, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But, if you like your americana music a little darker and to have a little bite, then you really should know about Blackie & The Rodeo Kings. Hailing, as so many good americana bands do these days, from Canada, Blackie & The Rodeo Kings are Tom Wilson, formerly of Canadian rock band Junkhouse, singer/songwriter Stephen Fearing, and producer/guitarist Colin Linden. The band formed as a tribute to one of their favourite artists, Canadian folk music singer and songwriter, Willie P. Bennett, and the name is taken from his album, “Blackie & The Rodeo King”. The original intention was to record an album of Bennett’s songs as a tribute to him and to bring his writing back into prominence in Canadian music circles. The album, “High or Hurtin’: The Songs of Willie P. Bennett” was well received by both the critics and the public and what had been conceived as a one off side project to promote a liked and respected artist turned into a full-time band.
Of course, I’m making the assumption here that most of you don’t know about this band and I could be completely wrong about that. They’ve been going since 1996 and have released 10 studio albums to date, the most recent being 2022’s “O Glory”. They’ve received numerous Juno Award nominations and won the Juno for Best Roots & Traditional Album in 2000 for “Kings of Love”. They’ve recorded with, among others, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Roseanne Cash, Eric Church, Rodney Crowell, Jason Isbell and Buddy Miller. Yet, for all their seemingly high profile, they don’t appear on the radar for many. I didn’t discover them until about four years ago, when a friend with similar music tastes brought them to my attention. Even here, in the hallowed halls of Americana UK, there’s scant mention of them and usually only with reference to Stephen Fearing, who has been reviewed here, both for his solo recordings and live work. Perhaps that’s why they don’t get the attention they deserve, outside of their native Canada. The wider world seems to know them more for their individual projects than for their work together. They all have successful careers in their own disciplines but, for me, it’s when they come together as a band that they really shine, in a rather dark and slightly spooky way. In fact, it’s almost as if they use Blackie & The Rodeo Kings as a means to explore their darker side. Stephen Fearing, under his own name, writes and performs some beautiful, folk-oriented songs that have more than a little of the troubadour feel about them and he’s as fine a finger picker of a steel string acoustic as you could hope to find. Colin Linden is a blues man, raised on the music of Howlin’ Wolf and Taj Mahal and plays a mean slide guitar, and Tom Wilson is a rocker who started out in psychobilly/R&B band, the Florida Razors before moving on to Junkhouse, a funk rock band who were rarely out of the Canadian singles charts in the 1990s. Individually there is little about any of these three that prepares you for the music of Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, though all are very enjoyable artists in their own right.
Blackie & The Rodeo Kings are well worth checking out. If I were to suggest a starting point it would be their third album, “Bark”, released in 2003. It includes songs from all three members of the band, writing alone or in collaboration with others, along with a Willie P Bennett song, ‘Willie’s Diamond Joe’, and a cover of Bruce Cockburn’s ‘Tie Me At the Crossroads’. This album is a great introduction to the band and, from here, I’d probably go to their Juno Award winning “Kings of Love”, followed by their excellent 2011 duets album, “Kings and Queens”. By that point you should be well and truly hooked and will go on to discover the rest by yourself – then you can tell someone else about Canada’s unsung supergroup!