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Friday
Jan042008

“Oh, Cumberland”, Matraca Berg

There are songs that take you hostage, quietly and without notice. It always starts out with a hush, something that you almost don't notice - until you realize that you're on eternal repeat and the thought of getting off the tape loop is too painful to consider.

For me, black Irish girl that I am, those songs tend to be weepers or slow burns. They're songs that with no fan fair climb under your tissue and move through your veins sereptiously. They become a part of your blood and they flow through you as a languorous life force. Sometimes they're songs of desire one wishes to be greater, but more often they're songs of regret, ache, loss - and they evoke a misery that blankets you in the sweetness that was, a simple thing so fulfilling even bathing in the loss is more satisfying than what may lie ahead.

And so Matraca Berg gave me a demo of "Oh Cumberland." It is a benediction for a place and a time where it was barely moving, very humid, utterly fine. It is a song about being out there - and wishing for nothing more than the everlasting return to the place one feels most at home.

"Oh Cumberland" rises like heat waves on forgotten blacktop under an August sun at the height of the day. Nothing's rolling because there's no energy to apply - and as those national steel guitar licks shimmer like the illusionary oil slicks that dot limitless ribbon that runs towards an endless horizon, her voice rises yearning and plaintive, keening for a vision that is recognized only too late.

Too, there is just enough squeeze box to reflect the exhaling of despair for what is now gone, that place that can not be returned to. And while this is an elegy for a place, it is also an elegy for a state of mind, a state of soul - a moment when things were easier, enough was enough and the molasses-paced, sun-soaked laze of whatever offered a refuge that was never seen as that.

Refuge from what? Boredom wasn't a word - and that state of suspended engagement, prolonged nothing wasn't a liability or a cause to be railed again. If knowledge meant needing more, then bolting brought unsettled truths - hungers never considered and now utterly consuming.

I don't think it's the raging fires that burn us down. That urgency sets off a whole set of triggers and alarms that will ultimately bring rescue. It is the quiet storms that fail to elicit fear that creep up, that lull us into a paralysis of noncomprehension that bring us to our knees.

Until it's too late, until we're swallowed whole, we don't even know how faded our heart has become and how far we've drifted from the shore and the core of basic comfort and desire. Yearning may be the most pungent of feelings - that thing from which we will not drop, but suffer in a way that is as complete a companion as our shadow.

Though darkness provides a reprieve from our shadows, where it magnifies that which we miss. Indeed, the dark mocks our losses and elevates the anguish and the fever to a holy vigil that drives us to the breaking of the day, exhausted and more uncertain of our ability to get through.

If the words make it clear - "lazy old river, not a lick of ambition/ you get to Kentucky, then you roll on home/ if you were a highway, you wouldn't go nowhere and I wouldn't be lost out here, all alone…" -- it is the melody that creeps into the atomic structure and provokes those emotions we keep in check. Restraint is critical to survival in these modern times, a stiff upper lip, a refusal to feel that which is messy - and most days, most moments, we maintain the strain with a stoicism we no longer recognize or need to acknowledge.

It's what makes passion so thrilling - and loss devastating. Quietly coaxing the notes from the melody, "Oh Cumberland" rolls along sleepily, a glowing pillow that proffers comfort, but delivers the twinge that haunts long after the song has ended. The best melodies are like that, evoking and grieving and delivering the things we'd sweep by - and creating moments where the truth can be looked at like an eclipse through smoked glass.

Of course there's spare beauty - and then there's that connection of singer and song. For Matraca Berg, an award-winning writer who's captured bittersweet moments like the loss of innocence in "Strawberry Wine" and the painful truth of time's ravages in "Back When We Were Beautiful," a declaraction of freedom from archetypes in "That Kind of Girl" and the need to escape the first hand dealt for a dream and a three card draw in "Wrong Side of Memphis," the opportunities to make those larger unions defy her best-defined role - and that also informs her commitment to this song.

Matraca Berg is an artist without an audience - a tragedy and a truth that is all of our loss. For when she inhabits a song, it is more than a cloth to be worn, but a glimmer that makes us all wiser, stronger, deeper. Indeed, it lets us dream without fear of disappointment or reprisals - just a weightlessness that lets us drift without time or worry.

Barely breathed, tentatively embraced, when the girl who spent her baby years in Nashville's creative center closes her eyes to ponder the reality and the memory of the river that flowed through her life, it is the bruised wings of an angel that can't quite get home. She is a pious keeper of the visions and the sounds of quiet stillness - "I am a faithful son/ No matter where I run/ I hear you calling me" - just as she knows the truth of where she is now: "Fire in the asphalt/ L. A. freeway/ Santa Ana windstorm, come blow me away/ This rearview mirror could use some adjustment/ Some other reflection, some other place…"

There is no other place, however, just the sound in her mind. It doesn't mock, doesn't belittle, doesn't even mean to torture. There is rest for a fevered brow, the promise of innocence lost but never quite gone. If she is sadder, but wiser, she still reaches out and back, refusing to relinquish what was in the name of something ultimately less.

On those nights when the lost moments circle one's head like a halo of jewels and promises, it is songs like these that serve as a two lane of deliverance. Suggest what was in a way that settles like skin, covering the nerves and the muscles and fibres, they create a return without the angst that distorts a pure longing.

Writing about songs that no one has heard, by the way, is the most frustrating of all. Too literal and that which is suggested is smothered; too obtuse and the eventual point of arrival is lost in the flood. Hopefully somewhere between is where you are now… maybe not thinking of this song that you don't know, but one just like it - one that offers you a moment and a journey to a time and a place where you were so much less and so much more.

As I e-mailed Matraca, realizing I'd been taken prisoner and left for the heap of melancholy the song had reduced me to, "god, it's made me cry last night and this morning. Don't know what i'm yearning for exactly, but there must be something…

"Begs the question, though: do we shed our tears for what we've lost? or what we've become?"

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