march 2011

Cumberland River (from left: Jamie Stewart, James Dean, Joseph Jones, Dustin Middleton, Andy Buckner): A young band beginning to feel its oats

And What a Life It Is

By David McGee

cumberland riverTHE LIFE WE LIVE
Cumberland River
Rural Rhythm

Talk about walking like you talk it. On “Harlan Man,” the intense, driving treatise opening The Life We Live, the quintet Cumberland River describes in vivid detail the destructive, soul crushing routine the coal miner endures each day--“dusty lungs, calloused hands with a back of a working man/down in the mine wasting my life away” goes one especially piercing lyric—with conviction that comes from experience. Indeed, two of this impressive young band’s musicians are in fact coal miners when they’re offstage, which doubtless accounts for the performance being fully imbued with a sense of the tragic, an understanding rooted in real life of how the steady paycheck hardly makes up for the inexorable, incessant physical and emotional toll the mines take. Later on this journey the group offers another incisive look at the miner’s life in banjo man James Dean’s (real name) “Miner’s Prayer,” a fatalistic entreaty featuring an astringent vocal in which the miner asks for help from above in order to survive another day even though he knows his demise down below the earth is ultimately assured, his doom foretold as much in the lyrics as in the aggressive, foreboding fiddle lines Justin Moses employs and in Dean's own desolate, lonely banjo voicings.

Cumberland River, ‘Cold and Withered Heart,’ from the album The Life We Live

But the privations of the miner’s world comprise only a small portion of the topics explored on The Life We Live. In Dean and his fellow miner/bandmate Joey Jones, Dustin Middleton, Andy Buckner and Jamie Stewart, Cumberland River has a wealth of songwriter riches (only Moses is absent a writing credit), and to a man these fellows are exemplary musicians in the traditional bluegrass mold, with Moses especially impressive doing double duty on fiddle and dobro. The group has achieved some mainstream cultural notice in the wake of six of its original songs being included in a pair of episodes of the FX series Justified (this CD includes as a bonus track the song “Justified,” a gritty number about a lawman’s relentless pursuit of bad guys, inspired by the like-titled show), but in the long run they’re going to make more of a name on the strength of their slice-of-life original tunes probing topics ranging from the historical to the personal in simple, emotionally direct, unflinching fashion.

Cumberland River’s James Dean talks about growing up with his bandmates Joey Jones and Dustin Middleton and how they learned to play music together while convening on his parents’ front porch--‘that’s exactly where this band came from’

A dark, portentous Civil War ballad, “Antietam Hill,” recounts, as do the two coal mining songs, how a man feels compelled to carry out his duty in the face of certain death (“I’ll fight this fight until death comes for me,” the singer intones sturdily over a restrained bluegrass backdrop spiked with fiddle, dobro and banjo exhortations); equally dark—and certainly about battle, although of a different kind—the title tune, “The Life I Live,” details the horrors of an addict’s daily existence and his fatalistic premonitions (“I awake in the night/I tremble inside/damp on my cheek/from the tears that I cry/alone in this fight/that I’ll never win”). The music retreats and surges, with fiddler Moses expressing the anguished inner conflict the singer describes, as the lead singer’s mournful lead vocal is shadowed by guest Dale Ann Bradley’s haunting harmonies (Steve Gulley is also in the harmony-rich vocal mix here too). Buckner contributes a classically styled mountain murder ballad, “Remember Me,” in which retribution is swift and final, both for a slain girl and her remorseless killer; the title sentiment, included in a soaring, affecting chorus, is part of the last words spoken by both parties to the tragedy. Despite its title, “Train of Sorrow” is a bluegrass barnburner featuring ferocious dobro, banjo and fiddle workouts spurring its aggressive pace, although the story concerns a fellow trying to come to grips with his unfaithful gal; a similar uptempo thrust fuels another rousing heartbreaker, “Cold and Withered Heart” (which sounds tailor-made for Rhonda Vincent, by the way), with Dustin Middleton standing out early with a sprightly mandolin solo and Moses and Dean bringing up the rear with fiery fiddle and banjo retorts, respectively. Amidst all this drama a tender moment emerges near the end of the disc in the poignant “Road Back Home,” a rich, introspective, gently propulsive ballad detailing a humbled son’s homecoming, after having learned some hard truths about life on his own, to the family that loves him unconditionally. A pure backwoods beauty of fiddle, banjo and plaintive high harmonies, “Road Back Home” underscores the depth of Cumberland River’s collective heart and its true aim at listeners’ hearts. The Life We Live is a big-time record by a young band only beginning to feel its oats.

Cumberland River’s The Life We Live is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024