By Dennis Cook
Man thinks 'cause he rules the Earth
He can do with it as he please
And if things don't change soon, he will
These words from Bob Dylan's "License To Kill" follow a woman's laughter that rolls into what sounds like wracked sobbing. Thus opens the new album from Canada's long-running atmospheric rockers the Cowboy Junkies, who explore the lingering sadness that we're still building fences when we ought to be tearing them down. Clouds of war and want hover over Early 21st Century Blues, a title chief songwriter and master guitarist Michael Timmins says "is a way to define where we are now – the state of affairs in the world and a way of locating us in a particular point in time." As a snapshot of where humanity stands in 2006, the album is both a sad assessment of current events and a movingly thoughtful testament to the power of music to unite and inform.
"No matter what your political stance is or how aware you are of current events, there's still a way in through the music," observes Timmins. "(Early 21st Century Blues) is one of those phrases that popped into my head, and I knew immediately it was the title. The album almost came together around the title in a way. Music can draw people into things from all different angles."
Formed in 1985 around the nucleus of Timmins, bassist Alan Anton, and Timmins' siblings Margo (lead vocals) and Peter (drums), the Cowboy Junkies celebrate their 20th anniversary this year. Through an insatiable devotion to American musical forms, they've developed one of the most distinctive, wholly satisfying approaches to rock in the past two decades. Gritty as crossroad dirt and spacious as a Midwest sky, the Junkies resonate on a gut level. Timmins' songwriting - an ever-fluid short story-like marvel that's on par with past collaborators like Townes Van Zandt and John Prine – is saturated with blood and feeling. He holds up emotions to the light and unflinchingly describes what he sees.
Michael Timmins by Jutta Brandt
My first taste of Cowboy Junkies arrived on public radio at dawn on a road trip down California's Highway 1. It was their take on traditional gospel chestnut "Working On A Building" built on Margo Timmins' insinuating voice and Michael's brilliantly minimalist guitar, a combination that hinted that the building's foundation might lie between warm thighs. It was like the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas' version of the Last Supper where the apostles drink wine from Jesus' mouth with a kiss. Sensual and spiritual, the Junkies entered my bloodstream instantaneously and have never left.
Not unlike fellow Canadians The Band, the difference in latitude affords them just enough distance from the root sources to provide genuine insight into blues, country, and folk forms, and even American culture. Just as Robbie Robertson wrote the best song ever about the Civil War (The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down"), the Cowboy Junkies stand just far enough away to offer substantive commentary on the direction the U.S. has gone since 9/11. Timmins says, "The Canadian aspect helps. It's what we've all grown up with. There's a sense of removal from it, so maybe some of the cultural references are more exotic to us. We have this distance and perspective on things, so it's not so loaded when we talk about Dixie (laughs). That does help. We share a similar language and a similar-ish culture but with enough differences to change perspective."
More than any of their 14 previous albums, Early 21st Century Blues struggles with those differences in profound ways. "It's hard for us. We spend a great portion of our life in the United States," remarks Timmins. "Canadians, in general, are very close to (Americans). There's a lot of the Canadian stance that I really dislike, the holier-than-thou stance where we stand back and say, 'Oh, America,' but the next day we make our living off of trading with or touring through the United States. We realize the value of the United States. My wife's American. Everybody we know has some direct connection with Americans, and if you have any brain at all, you realize that (Canada) is what it is because we've had this relationship with (America). There are a lot of differences, but they're just differences. There's nothing negative about them, they just are because of a few quirks of history."
"There are times we find ourselves defending the United States, not necessarily specific actions but more the individuals, the people, and trying to bring things more into context and not make them so black & white. It's odd. That's the thing we brought back when we were traveling through the States and talking to a lot of our friends. They just don't understand the amount of fear that's outside their country about what their government is doing. And I don't think they understand that fear will likely turn to hatred, and this was all before the last U.S. presidential election when Bush was re-elected."