Laura Conning interviews Tom Wilson of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, who are touring their latest album Kings and Kings (November 2016), a collaboration with world-renowned male artists including Dallas Green, Nick Lowe, and Bruce Cockburn. The album is a companion piece to their 2011 release Kings and Queens, which features collaborations with female artists including Serena Ryder, Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings are performing at The Gayety Theatre in Collingwood, Ontario on February 26th, 2017.
LC: What was the name of your first ever band?
TW: Well, I kinda got out the front door and started playing as a solo artist, but the first band was called the Florida Razors. That was in my 20s. I think we might have put together a band, if somebody had a guitar, like when we were kids. I’m trying to remember…maybe “The Dragons” or something. I think it might’ve been “The Dragons”, with a guy who lived up the street. We made some t-shirts. Or we made a t-shirt, that we all shared. We mostly rode around on our bikes.
LC: Did you ever have a car with an 8-track player?
TW: Hm. God, I never had a car for a long time. So no, I never had a car with one. They were pretty popular there for a while. And they were really annoying because you’d get to the song that you wanted to hear, and they’d cut the song in half. Fucking annoying, man. You’d be listening to Santana or something, and the song would fade out, and then there’d be a click, and then the song would fade back in. Terrible.
LC: How did Junkhouse get so well known? What was your big break with them?
TW: Well, we had a couple songs that I guess a lot of people liked, you know. So, it kinda surprised us to tell you the truth. We were kinda just a bunch of knuckleheads from Hamilton. All of a sudden a couple of songs, we put out a record…they’d fly us over to Europe, or to Australia. There’d be all these people there that knew us and wanted to see us, radio stations wanted to talk to us, and Rolling Stone Magazine over there, and MTV over there…I figured out pretty quickly that we had something going on. We just couldn’t hold onto it.
LC: So with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, when you’ve been working with the same band and the same guys for over 20 years, do you have certain things, like morals or themes, that you try to stick to in your songwriting? As you’re all changing and developing as individual people and artists, are there things that will always make Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, “Blackie and the Rodeo Kings”?
TW: Well, it’s an interesting thing, because the band started as a tribute band to Willie P. Bennett. And because we had a starting point that was so well-defined, outside of the three members, it wasn’t like I came up with the idea and said ‘Hey, well this band, you know, it’s gonna go like this,’ and then the other two guys, you know, did that and then went off in other directions. In exchange, that never happened, because we always came back to the focus that it was Willie P. Bennett’s songwriting that was the reason why the band got together. And as a result, we’ve always hovered around that. For our records, you know, we bring in a certain amount of our own personality all the way along, [but] the band’s never really had a problem with identity. And our inspiration, individually, for a lot of what we’ve done in our lives and our careers started with Willie’s records, and his songwriting, and his music and who the guy was. So when we go back to writing a record, creating recordings, etc., it’s with that spirit that we go into that battle.
LC: Have you noticed your songwriting style change at all after working with so many different songwriters on Kings and Queens and Kings and Kings?
TW: No, I’ve been doing this a long time. My songwriting style changes from LeE HARVeY OsMOND to Blackie and the Rodeo Kings to writing songs for other people. I’m not married to any one style of writing; I try to remain in the moment, and what that moment calls for spiritually and energetically is where I go.
LC: I’m also interested in knowing whether you experienced a difference working with all women on Kings and Queens vs. working with all men, like if gender played a role in how the album making came together there.
TW: Well women are just great. You know, so, I’ve just always enjoyed the company of women more than the company of men, maybe it’s because I’ve been in bands for 40 years. But I mean, as far as artists go, I don’t think that gender has anything to do with it. You know, it’s one place where men and women can go where we can leave the world behind, and leave all the silliness that goes along with gender. Pissing contests between the genders all kind of fall away and we get to look at each other as artists. It’s a very rare occasion and it’s not a common field for us all to be standing on.
LC: How do you think small town Canadian artists can gain attention to their work?
TW: Uh, leave. Sadly, as Canadians, the most important movement an artist can make is to leave. Anyone who…wants to know what they should do with their careers, it’s like, leave Canada. You want to be successful. You know, am I gonna go open a variety store in the middle of nowhere? Am I gonna go open a variety store in the North Pole? No, I’m gonna open a variety store in a downtown, populated area. And you know, there’s only seven people in Canada, and you and I are two of them, right? So there’s not many people here. Mind you, I gotta tell ya, I live here because it’s the best country in the world. And our brand of freedom is just better than most of the rest of the world. But, culturally, we are still under the thumb of the British Empire, and we’re still under the umbrella, in the shadow, of America. So it puts us, growing up here, in a very odd situation. When I was starting to play music in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, if it was from Canada, it was not very good, you know. And if you had a British accent, then you’re immediately accepted. Or if you were, you know, doing something in New York, it was ‘legitimate’. Sadly, neither one of those things cross the path of Collingwood, Ontario, you know, so being ‘legitimate’, even being accepted in Toronto, was a little more difficult if you’re from Hamilton, Ontario.
So, Collingwood, Ontario, [and] Hamilton, Ontario, are microcosms of the entire problem with Canadian culture, up to this point anyways. We’ve gotten way better. When I was growing up, in high school, my teachers were such buffoons that they used to actually pose the question: ‘What is Canadian culture?’ And that’s a stupid thing to do, to ask a student, because it was being defined by the people in the trenches who were out there making it happen. It was defined by the Irving Laytons, and the Stompin’ Tom Connors’, and the Gordon Lightfoots and Bruce Cockburns, and the Tomson Highways and Mordecai Richlers. They weren’t asking what Canadian culture was, because as artists they were creating it. You know, that was the stupidest question I’d ever been asked: ’What is Canadian culture?’ And basically, that’s an example of just how crippled we were as a country in the ‘70s. Like I say, we’ve come a long way. We have successful artists in this country that can survive in this country and that people believe are the best in the world. But at the same time, starting out from Collingwood or Hamilton, Ontario is like, you know, get the fuck out of there. Then go home.
The decisions we make as artists are very important. Emulating or copying what it is we’re inspired by or listening to…finding our own identity is the most important as an artist no matter where you are–Collingwood, Winnipeg, Red Deer, Vancouver–geography has nothing to do with the art that you’re creating, with the artist that you are. Standing apart is the bravest thing that you can do. So, not sounding like City and Colour, you know. City and Colour are fantastic, that’s why they’re City and Colour. That’s why Dallas Green is Dallas Green. That’s why Leslie Feist is Leslie Feist, or Gord Downie is Gord Downie. Be original. That’s why you’re becoming an artist.
LC: So, you’re going from Massey Hall one night to The Gayety Theatre the next night. Does your performance style change from big venues like that to when you go into a small theatre?
TW: No, not for me. I mean we’re bringing the same show. Going from major populated areas to secondary markets–I say that respectfully about Collingwood, Collingwood even being smaller than a secondary market, to be quite honest with you–but, you know, you play every bowling alley. And you play every dance hall, and every legion along the way. And everybody does. There is no glamour in cutting across a giant piece of land like North America. You’re going to be in the spotlight in Massey Hall, and you’re going to be in the spotlight at The Gayety Theatre. So, people have paid a lot of money to see you at Massey Hall, people have paid a lot of money to see you at The Gayety Theatre. Everybody deserves every thing that you’ve got. Basically, leave your blood on the stage, no matter where you are. And you leave your blood on the stage, so the next guy has to walk through it.
LC: This might be somewhat on the lighter side, but when you’re touring so much, do you have a health & fitness routine that you try to stick to?
TW: I’m usually healthier on the road than I am at home, because there’s way more routine. People think that touring, you just kind of hop out of a box at the side of the stage at five minutes to 8:00, and then you’re in front of people for 90 minutes, and then you walk offstage and hop into that box again. But living on the road, is…like being in the army, without the guns. Timing is everything. The tour bus pulls in, the crew unloads, 3:00 arrival, 4:00 you’re loaded in, 5:00 soundcheck, 6:30 dinner, 7:00 doors, 8:00 show, 10:30-11:00 you’re back on the bus, 11:30-12:00 the bus is loaded, the driver’s back from the hotel, and you’re onto the next city, and then it just keeps happening over and over and over and over again. So inside of that, you decide you’re going to eat fruit and you’re going to be prepared for 8:00 every night because that’s what your job is. So everything that goes around that is, you’re in such a routine that you wake up, you eat your bananas, and you have your cereal, and you go for a walk. You actually get to think about yourself a little more than you do at home.
My thanks to Tom Wilson for his time and thoughtfulness. See you on Sunday night!