Song Review: Matraca Berg – “Oh Cumberland”
“Oh Cumberland” opens more than a thousand miles from the river and region that lend the song its title. “Fire on the asphalt, L.A. freeway,” Matraca Berg sings ominously on the first verse. “Santa Ana windstorm, come blow me away.” That’s not an especially enticing depiction of southern California, which comes across almost literally like a hell on earth. It’s something that needs to be escaped, which only makes Berg’s longing for the more temperate climes of the Southeast all the more affecting.
Co-written with Gary Harrison, “Oh Cumberland” is a strong preview of Berg’s upcoming album The Dreaming Fields, her first in twelve long years. She’s been actively writing songs for other performers (including Dixie Chicks, Gretchen Wilson, and Trisha Yearwood) throughout the 2000s. In fact, “Oh Cumberland” has been making the rounds for a few years now: Berg first recorded it with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Emmylou Harris on Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. 3 in 2002, and in 2006 Irish folk singer Janet Holmes covered it for Live in Hope: The Wildlife Album, Vol. 2.
Nearly a decade after its debut, “Oh Cumberland” still sounds freshly affecting. Berg settles comfortably into the song and conveys its tender ache for home with a minimum of fuss and drama. More Americana than radio country, the song is quiet and gentle, as though its sentiments were only a fleeting thought during a traffic jam. “My heart’s resting on your banks in Tennessee,” Berg sings, her voice rising only slightly as the acoustic arrangement maintains its steady, river-current pace.
Even on a familiar song, it’s refreshing to hear her honeyed voice again after such a long absence and to parse her evocative lyrics, which reinforce deep sorrow with concrete details and sharp observations. Even with her success writing for others, Berg proves, unsurprisingly, the best and most intuitive interpreter of her own songs.
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