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Bruce Cockburn, En Route To Nashville, Talks Career, Canada, And Christianity

Daniel Keebler

Bruce Cockburn seems to have taken a cue on aging gracefully from David Letterman, with a full Santa beard and snow white hair buzzed close to his skull. The professorial spectacles remain, and the figure appearing on my computer screen last week was very much the 78-year-old version of a great songwriter whose voice I’ve had in my head for more than 30 years. Cockburn was on a tour bus, suspended between stages and between hope and concern.

“Time takes its toll, but in my soul, I’m on a roll,” he sings in the opening track of his latest album O Sun O Moon. This first set of new material since 2017 was recorded in Nashville by Cockburn’s longtime friend and producer Colin Linden. Cockburn’s roll heads back to Music City this weekend for a show at the CMA Theater on Saturday night.

I was delighted to have a chance to speak with the sage Canadian star, because his music was a huge force in my life, especially in the 1990s when my interest in songwriting and folk rock was surging. In Cockburn, I heard a personal and particular way of fusing smart, guitar-based composing with a trustworthy poet’s voice and a boldly idealistic worldview. Now, as the political and natural worlds he cares about so deeply wobble on crooked axes, he’s taking the long view.

“I have a very personal stake in this. I have an 11-year-old daughter and four grandchildren who are going to come of age when the fan is spraying stuff even more than it is now. And that's very worrisome,” he says from outside of Boston. “I feel a sense of standing on the edge of the precipice when I think about death, too. But I also know that there's love out there, and it's huge. And that love flows everywhere, including through me. So in spite of all of that crap that's going on, that is a central thing for me.”

Since the 1970s, Cockburn has been a rare prominent voice in folk music who embraces a Christian worldview. And while he is non-denominational and non-dogmatic (“I have as eclectic an approach to Christianity as I do music,” he says), the ethos and edict of “love thy neighbor” has been ever-present, including in his newest music. The song “Orders” allows the songwriter to claim both what he stands for and against in puzzle-snug verses.

“The pastor preaching shades of hate
The self-inflating head of state
The black and blue, the starved for bread
The dread, the red, the better dead
…The list is long—as I recall
Our orders said to love them all”

Meanwhile, the precarious state of the environment becomes the focus of “To Keep The World We Know,” in which he sings: “Waters rise, grassland dries/Mother Earth, she weeps/Willful ignorance and greed/Prevail while reason sleeps.” It’s far from the first time stewardship has shown up as an important value in his work, but Cockburn is now and ever a committed man who articulates our own prayers with enough musical grace, groove and levity to inspire and help us through bewilderment.

Cockburn’s journey to the top of Canadian folk music began with a passion for jazz. As a young guitar student in the 1950s and 60s in Ottawa, he was mentored in that direction but also influenced by his mother. “The instrumental side came first,” he says. “I didn't see myself as a songwriter initially. I was a guitar player. My mom insisted that I should sing, because guitar players sing, she said, you know? And I grudgingly sort of tried that. I was very self conscious about it.”

He did a stint at the Berklee College of Music in Boston but quit that to be in a band back in Ottawa, then more groups in Toronto. When he finally went solo, things clicked fast. By the early 70s he’d won three straight JUNO Awards as the country’s top folk artist. After a remarkable nine albums in the 70s, he reached the US market with the luminous picking and singing of “Wondering Where The Lions Are.” That’s the first I heard from him on the radio, but a few years after its 1979 release, that album Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaws and 1984’s Stealing Fire became favorites of mine for their thoughtful arrangements and the skilled dialogue between his vocals and his interesting guitar playing.

I asked Cockburn about his long relationship with Colin Linden, whom he first met as a kid in the 70s on the folk music circuit. While Linden’s inspiration and origin story is more rooted in traditional blues than Cockburn’s, they found common cause in the 80s when Bruce brought Colin aboard as his first ever touring guitar partner. After two early 90s albums made with T Bone Burnett, including my beloved Nothing But A Burning Light, Cockburn turned to Linden for his next one, Charity of Night. “In preparation for that, I knew that Colin, having worked with him closely for a couple of years, had absorbed a lot of information about how to make the studio work. And so I asked him to co-produce,” Cockburn told me. “I trust him completely, so he's produced all but one of the albums since then.”

Linden for his part says that Cockburn shows up highly prepared for sessions, with songs structurally integrated into guitar arrangements. But that doesn’t mean the producer has nothing to do. On O Sun O Moon, Linden assembled a cast of exceptional Nashville musicians with whom Cockburn hadn’t worked before, including bass player Viktor Krauss and wind multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke. Guest singers include Sarah Jarosz, Allison Russell, and Regina McCrary. The 12-song set is, remarkably, his 35th release, but it’s as urgent, unguarded and refined as anything he’s done.

O Sun O Moon has performed well on the Americana radio chart since it was released on May 12, but Cockburn’s legacy in America at large is more complicated. He’s won every possible honor in his native land, including its songwriters hall of fame, the Order of Canada, 13 JUNO Awards and numerous honorary doctorate degrees. But he’s never had so much as a Grammy nomination in the US, which I’d assess as outrageous. I didn’t ask him about that directly, but we did talk about what he’d witnessed over his four decades of songwriting about national identity.

“Back in the late 60s, it was typical of Canadians to undervalue what we produced ourselves,” he said. “I remember getting in an argument with some guy on the street one day about whether Joni Mitchell was actually Canadian. And his position was no, she can't be because she's good. I said no, she was from Saskatchewan. This was typical. It was as if a Canadian artist had to go and get approved in the States or Britain, and then Canadians would approve of them also.” Cockburn bridled at that, as he, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson and others carved out a proud Canadian sound and landscape, a legacy one hears today in the work of Colter Wall, Corb Lund, and the aforementioned Allison Russell.

You’ll hear it as well in the grooves of O Sun O Moon, in the show on Saturday, and in the determination of a fellow who’s wired to reach out with music and ideas. “I'm not sure this is true, but I have a feeling I'm more active than a lot of people my age,” he says. “On the other side of the coin, the hands are arthritic. The spine is falling apart. There's bad stuff going on that will eventually impair what I'm able to do, but so far I'm getting away with it. Because I like doing what I do, and I like being able to share the songs with people.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org