The back roads of West Virginia proved to be the place where I began to understand the music on Bruce Cockburn's recent release Nothing But a Burning Light (Sony, 1991). I was driving along Route 33, a winding and spectacular route through the hollers, when it dawned on me. These are frontier songs; they map out new territory.
It's been a long time since Cockburn's last release of new music (Big Circumstance, 1988). Listeners expecting something similar to the likes of "Where the Death Squad Lives" and "Tibetan Side of Town" may need to pack up A Burning Light and head for the back roads to get reacquainted with the faith and politics of this Canadian singer-songwriter. Big Circumstance this is not.
The lead single, "A Dream Like Mine," is a perky made-for-radio offering with Sam Phillips singing background vocals. It is followed by "Kit Carson," in which Cockburn blasts the legendary American frontiersman - "He'd learned to trade in famine, pestilence, and war" - and yet uses his best twangy, haunting electric guitar for accompaniment. The juxtaposition of lyrics and music in "Kit Carson" is our first clue to one of the major themes of this release: We need to know who our real heroes are.