For their seventh album as Blackie and the Rodeo Kings (originally conceived as a one-off project to celebrate the songs of the country troubadour Willie P. Bennett), Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing and Tom Wilson broadened the club, recruiting an all-star cast of female singers for the inspired, rootsy new duets album Kings and Queens. The Canadian producer and musician Linden, based in Nashville, talks about the songs and the singers.
If I Can't Have You, with Lucinda Williams
Tom wrote this with Colin James. When they write something that Colin deems a little too country for him to sing, it's perfect for Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. Lucinda is such a pro backup singer - she's such a stylist. She does her own thing, but she's also cognizant of fitting in with the tonality of her singing partner. She did that with Tom.
Another Free Woman, with singer-fiddler Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek
It's a song rooted in murder ballads; we've recorded a few of them before. I first met Sara Watkins at a John Prine show in Vancouver. The first thing she said to me was "so, what's your racket?" So I thought to myself that she'd be the right kind of gal for playing on a Blackie and the Rodeo Kings album. If you listen closely, she stops herself a couple of times, hitting a little note on the fiddle to see if it was the right thing to play. I kept all of that. It added to the idea that the song was being performed at the same time it was being written.
Got You Covered, with Rosanne Cash
Rosanne's a real supporter of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and I knew she was a fan of Ron Sexsmith. Ron came in with an idea for Got You Covered and we wrote it in a hotel room in Austin, Texas in a matter of a couple of hours. He's brilliant - a pretty easy guy to write with. It's like riding in a Cadillac, writing with that guy.
I'm Still Loving You, with Amy Helm
I always thought that we should do that song Life by Sly and the Family Stone. I look at that band in a way similar to the Band, in that all the players are individuals and they all have something to contribute. I've always thought that kind of interesting-personality-meets-chaos was something appropriate to our band, and I knew that Amy would do a beautiful, sultry version of singing the duet verse low. She and Tom sang it like they'd been singing together their whole lives.
Golden Sorrows, with Cassandra Wilson
This one reminds me of one of those classic Glen Campbell ballads or a Billy Sherrill-produced ballad from the early seventies. I've worked with Cassandra before, and I knew what is exciting to her was to step out of her own wheelhouse. So I thought this was better than a jazzy or bluesy song. The melody is so beautiful. I thought it was suited to someone who could sing low. She has such a deep, sonorous voice, and it matched really well with Stephen's.
Shelter Me Lord, with Patti Scialfa (wife of Bruce Springsteen)
I didn't know Patti. Frankly I still don't know her. I cold-called Bruce Springsteen's management. It tells you a little bit about Bruce Springsteen and his management. They treated me with tremendous respect, without having any idea who I was. Patti's vocals were the only ones I didn't record myself. We sent her the track and she sent us back several different, completely realized performances, plus that beautiful five-part harmony at the end. She did an amazing job.
My Town Has Moved Away, with Pam Tillis
The main skill you need to have when writing a song with Pam Tillis is knowing how to make tea and knowing how to move your chair back about a foot, so the spirit can come through. Everybody knows how great a singer she is, but she's an absolutely natural and incredibly gifted writer.
How Come You Treat Me So Bad, with Janiva Magness
It's something that everyone's wanted to say to somebody else at some point in their lives. This was the first track we cut, but it was the last one we finished. It was such a complete song, that finding a companion to sing on it, who would be a real team player and who could add the right kind of intensity and sing it an octave above Tom, would be important. Janiva is such a good musician. She came in and knocked it out of the park.
Step Away, with Emmylou Harris
I wanted a Willie P. Bennett song on the record, and I couldn't imagine a better honour to bestow on someone we love as much as Willie than to have Emmylou Harris sing on one of his songs. I don't think there's ever been a better singer on the planet; I'm so glad she said yes.
Heart a Mine, with Mary Margaret O'Hara
This reminds me of a reel-to-reel tape machine that has no take-up reel. It's almost like it exists just for that moment. Mary is such an in-the-moment person, and I think the song is kind of about that as well. There's something wistful about it. It's sort of like "catch me as I'm going by."
Brave, with Holly Cole
Tom and Colin James wrote this. Colin had recorded it, but with a different title, More Than You Needed. The first time Stephen sang it, I felt like when you sing a cover that you love, it brings something out in your vocals. It liberates you - you sing it because you love it, as opposed to wanting to express something. It's a subtle difference. It's one of my favourite vocals that Stephen's ever done, and Holly brought something really beautiful to it as well.
Made of Love, by Exene Cervenka
Tom, myself and Gary Nicholson wrote this in Nashville. We heard it as an early Everly Brothers type of close harmony, but it was hard to find somebody who was a good match for Tom, who's a great rock 'n' roll singer. Exene is really her own person, in the way that Tom is. And they sang it together like two peas in a pod
Love Lay Me Down, with Sam Phillips
You always need for someone to give you comfort. It's kind of a corny thing to talk about, but it really is like that. That's where this song comes from. Sam is an incredibly compassionate person, and she has a kind of tenderness and selfless energy when she sings. I felt she really understood the song.
Black Sheep, with Serena Ryder
Black Sheep is a tremendously personal song for Stephen. The challenge was to turn it into a duet that would bring it to a different level and make a definitive version of it that way. It seemed though that there was an opportunity for someone to be a narrator or co-conspirator through the song. Serena brought a passionate but also direct and steely reading of it. It was challenging, but she understood exactly what the song was supposed to be.