On Dec. 30, 2003, Les Cowboys Fringants performed in Montreal’s Bell Centre for the first time, with 20,000 fans erupting when singer Karl Tremblay joined the other band members onstage.
Wearing khaki shorts, a dark short-sleeved shirt, and a tie, the young singer gave a handshake to his long-time friend, songwriter and guitarist Jean-François Pauzé, and stood at the microphone, taking it all in with a mischievous smile.
The Cowboys had come a long way, starting out on a lark but finding critical acclaim and popular success with their fourth album, Break syndical (2002).
They began the set with energetic tunes, Mr. Tremblay tossing his shoulder-length hair. The charismatic front man then led the crowd like a group of friends, inviting them to sing long passages of Toune d’automne (from Break syndical), a ballad about the return of a sister from a trip in Western Canada. Fans happily obliged, not missing a beat of the Cowboys’ first radio hit.
Nearly 20 years later, at the Festival d’été de Québec in July, about 90,000 people helped Mr. Tremblay sing Sur mon épaule (from Les antipodes, 2019), a tender letter from a man comforting his partner.
Now gray-bearded, tired from cancer treatments and sitting onstage wearing his signature black shirt and bright tie, Mr. Tremblay was visibly moved as the crowd hugged him with its collective voice, singing: “mets ta tête sur mon épaule, pour que mon amour te frôle, toi qui en a tant besoin … .” (Translation: put your head on my shoulder, so that my love touches you, you who need it so much.)
Before the singer roared: “Ensemble, on a peur de RIEN!” (Together we fear NOTHING!)
Mr. Tremblay, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in January, 2020, died in Terrebonne, Que., on Nov. 15, at age 47. He leaves his partner and fellow band member, Marie-Annick Lépine, and their two young daughters, Simone and Pauline Tremblay.
He was the voice of a band but also, more importantly, of a whole people. For a quarter century, he sang of the struggles of working-class Quebeckers and decried inequalities and environmental destruction (Shooters, from Que du vent, 2011; Plus rien, from La grand-messe, 2004). Above all, he articulated the anxieties and aspirations of a nation and its ever-unfulfilled independence project (Lettre à Lévesque, from La grand-messe; En berne, from Break syndical).
Between their late ‘90s debut and this year’s triumph at the Festival d’été, Les Cowboys Fringants enjoyed unparalleled, enduring appeal in Quebec, transcending generations and social classes. In 2022, they were the province’s most listened-to homegrown artists on streaming platforms, far ahead of Céline Dion and several younger musicians. They often toured in Europe, where the French gleefully sang along with the joual lyrics.
Quebec Premier François Legault offered Mr. Tremblay’s family a state funeral, and two towns with close ties to the Cowboys (Repentigny and L’Assomption) announced they would rename public spaces after him.
“We were never as proud to be Quebeckers as in a Cowboys Fringants show,” said La Presse music reporter and critic Dominic Tardif, even though many of the band’s songs “list dozens of reasons not to be proud at all.”
Paradoxes are ubiquitous in the ensemble’s repertoire, alternating between militant and festive tracks. La manifestation (from Break syndical) describes the futility of protests but nonetheless has become a fixture of any demonstration in la belle province.
The Cowboys also struck a chord when touching on themes like nostalgia (Les étoiles filantes, from La grand-messe), suicide (Mon chum Rémi, from Break syndical) and, in what became cruelly prophetic of the singer’s untimely death, incurable disease (La tête haute, from L’expédition, 2008).
Catherine Durand, a musician and friend who toured with the Cowboys, said Mr. Tremblay “was truly capable of carrying words into people’s hearts” through his charisma and the strength of his voice. “These songs, sung by someone else, would not have had the same impact,” she said.
Karl Tremblay was born in Montreal on Oct. 28, 1976. He was a discreet man, giving few interviews and making sparse use of social media. (Other members of the Cowboys declined to be interviewed for this article through a spokesperson).
Mr. Tremblay and Mr. Pauzé met playing hockey in 1994, according to the band’s website, and started jamming together the next year.
In 1996, they participated in an amateur music contest held in a Repentigny bar, northeast of Montreal. The pair played satirical country songs rich with old cars and pathetic, heartbroken characters. They convinced Ms. Lépine, a multi-instrumentalist, to join and finished in second place.
“When we started it was really a joke,” Mr. Pauzé said in a 2021 radio interview with Radio-Canada. “We didn’t expect to have such success.”
After the addition of bassist Jérôme Dupras and drummer Dominique Lebeau (who left the group in 2007), the Cowboys got noticed with their third album, Motel Capri, in 2000.
A Le Devoir critic described their style as “frenetic trash-country drenched in folklore, not only good for keeping the party going until the early hours but delivering along the way some very good, hard truths.” The saucy Le shack à Hector became a tavern singer favourite while Québécois de souche denounced creeping anglicisms in the province’s spoken French.
Mr. Tremblay, who was still working as a video store clerk at the time, later described Motel Capri as his “worst vocal album.” His then-nasal voice, which served him well to deride country clichés, softened and deepened in later projects as the band matured.
“Karl is an underrated singer,” Mr. Pauzé said in a recent interview with La Presse. “Any song you put in his mouth won’t be lame.”
The Cowboys recorded 11 original albums, selling more than 1.3 million copies and winning numerous prizes, including six Band of the Year Félix awards (2003, 2004, 2011, 2020, 2021, 2023) at the ADISQ gala, which celebrates the best of Quebec music.
Their penultimate opus, Les antipodes, won the Félix for best rock album in 2020, and includes what might be the Cowboys’ greatest hit, L’Amérique pleure, where Mr. Tremblay plays a trucker saddened by the excesses and tragedies he notices while travelling North American highways.
Mr. Pauzé wrote and composed most of the songs, but Mr. Tremblay also crafted some, including Ruelle Laurier (from Break syndical), about a youth living with an abusive father, and Pub Royal (from Octobre, 2015) about a young woman struggling with addiction. Mr. Pauzé told La Presse he was jealous of his bandmate’s lyrics. “Karl is not a big producer of songs, but the ones he has done are always beautiful,” he said.
Despite a knack for dark themes, Mr. Tremblay was, by all accounts, the same person in life as he was onstage: a generous bon vivant, eager to bring people together for a good time.
He could be reckless in doing so, Mr. Pauzé recalled in La Presse, like the time the singer climbed on a pile of a dozen chairs and fell on a speaker during a performance in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., or when he flung himself into the crowd from the second floor of a venue in Saint-Lazare.
The tall, heavy Mr. Tremblay calmed down over the years, particularly after his diagnosis, when his disease and treatments caused intense pain and exhaustion.
But he stayed strong through it all, inspiring crowds and collaborators. “The only thing he complained about, to my knowledge, was his voice, that he couldn’t give it all to the audience as much as he would have liked,” said Mara Tremblay, a friend and performer who toured with the Cowboys.
Of course, as crowds demonstrated in Quebec City and many other places last summer, they didn’t feel that he had fallen short. Mr. Tremblay’s voice continued to make fans cry and laugh and sing along, perhaps louder than ever.