Supposedly, even cowgirls get the blues, if you can believe what some authors tell you. Drifting cowgirls, though, make some fine, fine music. Sally Timms, long-time member of the Mekons (hear her fronting Ghosts Of American Astronauts on Nascente's Roots compilation), leader of the late Drifting Cowgirls, and solo artist extraordinaire, does make remarkable sounds, as you can hear on her new album, Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments For Lost Buckaroos (sample a track on this issue's fRoots #14 CD). As the title implies, it's night music, often becoming almost ambient country, and a definite continuation of the ideas she's pursued on her previous releases.
"There's definitely a thread here," she agrees. When I listen to my stuff, I always think, 'It sounds so languid.' I don't sing fast songs -- everything's very drawn-out. It's poignant and sad, and also a little arch and campy. Art-country, that's my definition. I'm quite pleased with that. It wasn't anywhere near as extreme as I was aiming for, but I don't want to go too crazy on this. It's almost a side project for some other things I have going on, but it developed in such a nice way that it became a little more than that."
These days Timms lives in Chicago, which has become one of the centres of the alt.country movement (such as it is), and a fertile place for musicians of all kinds.
"It's nice to be able to call on other people. That's the nice thing about living here. There are a lot of really good musicians who live here. Everyone assumes those people are too cool... and they're not. I wanted something smooth-sound, even though it's a little uneasy. A lot of the way things turn out is always chance."
One of the album's highlights (apart from the inclusion of steel drums on a couple of dreamy country songs) is In Bristol Town One Bright Day, the kind of song to get you reaching for the sleeve to make sure it's ont some lost trad. ballad. In fact, it's composed by Robbie Fulks.
"Robbie is definitely very good at appropriating stuff and making it his own," Timms agrees. "He wrote it, but it's obviously very much in the vein of a traditional song. He's a very good songwriter. That's another advantage of being here. It's just very easy to call on people. They say yes because they're kind of into it, possibly because people don't often ask them. That's the way I always worked on records -- I know all these people who can do stuff really well, and I ask them, and very rarely do they say no."
She'll be touring with the album, but eschewing the traditional band format -- a case of been there, done that. "It's me, Chris Mills on acoustic guitar, and John Rauhouse, who plays a lot of the instrumentation on the record, on Hawaiian steel, banjo, and mandolin. Very sparse. I like the idea of being the loudest person on stage."
In case you imagine this solo activity means the Mekons are on hold, think again. They've had a busy year, putting out two collections of rare and unreleased material, and "We're recording a new record right now. We're working through something, and we've decided it has to be good, not a knockoff. There's a strange and long history there, and I think we've made some good songs. The Mekons are essentially a folk band, anyway. We do very little in England these days. I am sure there are places we could play, but it's a case of finding them. I've talked to our agent, wondering why we don't do more folk stuff."
So Sally Timms remains a busy woman, particularly when you include the other big project she's working on.
"I've been working live for a long time with a primitive sequencer, and I've been working on a sort of very primitive electro-folk record. As a reference point, I used The Marble Index, by Nico; that's my template. It won't sound like that, but it's a starting point. I'm looking to make something more avant-garde. I think all the women musicians I like tend to be more in the avant-garde -- Yoko Ono, the more extreme stuff Bjork does, P.J. Harvey -- I see her as a folk musician in a way. She straddles folk and rock. But if I could make a record like Johnny Dowd I'd be a very happy woman."
But why should people fall neatly into pigeonholes? Sally Timms has been evading them for years. And that's the best way to be, obviously, allowing you to go where you will, sing like a glorious nightingale, and make some fabulous records. So let her twilight laments lull you to sleep...