Song Review: Matraca Berg – “Oh Cumberland”

Stephen Deusner | March 28th, 2011

Matraca Berg“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.

Thumbs Up

  1. SamB
    March 28, 2011 at 6:50 am

    I can’t wait for her album. I’m a big fan of Matraca, and will be going to see her along with Gretchen Peters and Suzy Bogguss in June.

  2. Donald
    March 28, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    Nothing wrong with this one- looking forward to the album when it is released. I can see Darrell Scott playing on this one- nice touches on the guitar, establishing- with MB’s phrasing- the atmosphere. (Not saying it is Scott playing…just that the playing on this recording is really nice.)

Tagged In This Article

Current Discussion

  • Paul W Dennis: Tom T & Dixie Hall are good people and I wish them all the best through this difficult time
  • Paul W Dennis: Actually , it is not. We have so thoroughly debased our language that it is no longer possible to praise …
  • Leeann Ward: Sheesh, Paul, that's a random/strange dig!
  • Jack Williams: After reading that New Yorker article, I canceled my pre-order of the Basement Tapes box set. I love Bob …
  • Leeann Ward: Wow! How terrible for Dixie Hall and Tom.
  • Ken Morton, Jr.: Another twisted collection of songs to put into the Friday Five Hall of Fame, Juli.
  • Arlene: I'd have included "Omie Wise." Doc Watson's is the version I'm familiar with but I think it's been recorded by …
  • luckyoldsun: I think the number one country murder ballad is "Frankie and Johnny"--by Jimmie. Also, how about "Delia's Gone" from Harry Belafonte …
  • Juli Thanki: Colloquial use of "fantastic" as a synonym for "excellent" dates back to the 1930s. And if it's good enough for …
  • Paul W Dennis: I think "Banks of The Ohio", "Miller's Cave" and "It's Nothing to Me" are far creepier than several of the …

Recently Reviewed Albums

  • deadmanstown
  • tom t hall storytellers
  • paulthorntooblessed
  • duhksbeyondtheblue
  • kelleymickwee
  • sandrarhodes
  • candi staton
  • sturgillsimpsonmetamodern