Moors and McCumber Music Trip Announced Sept 1-6, 2018!
James Moors and Kort McCumber grew up in different places and listening to different kinds of music – classical, rock, bluegrass, you name it. But when they met ten years ago they knew they’d found something golden. Since then, they’ve been cultivating their wide-ranging musical influences in songs that delve into love and life through haunting lyrics, soaring harmonies, and dazzling instrumental proficiency. As Grammy award-winning producer Lloyd Maines puts it, “These guys should be playing every major festival in the country. They bring it all to the stage and deliver it in a big way.”
An Interview with James Moors & Kort McCumber
How and when did you two meet? And why did you start performing together?
KM: We met in 2005 at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival Song School. It’s an inspirational place that’s all about developing your songwriting. People were swapping songs, and when it came around to James, he played one of his original songs. It was amazing, so partway through, I joined in on bouzouki and harmony vocals. Afterwards, we introduced ourselves, and not long after that, we decided to try performing together.
JM: We were both pursuing solo careers at the time. I invited Kort to join me for a few of my shows, and I joined him for some of his shows. That evolved into booking more shows together, and it went so well, we decided to make the duo a priority.
KM: You can play with so many different people, but when you find somebody you really click with and your voices blend in that perfect way, you know the universe is telling you something. When we started performing together, people kept coming up after the show and saying, “I want the CD of what I just heard.” They didn’t want our solo stuff; they wanted records with both of us. So we said, “Let’s make a record together and start booking as a duo. So we did. In the fall of 2011, we did our first tour in Ireland together, and when we came home, we made our second record, Gravity. At that point, we felt like this was something for real.
Has your collaboration changed over time?
JM: Early on, we were playing in bars and other noisy places where people were only paying half attention to the music. That wasn’t what we wanted, so we decided to quit playing bars and focus on performing in places where it’s all about the music.
KM: Working together as a duo also really opened up songwriting and performing for both of us. We started writing songs together, and now most of our songs are co-written. When we met, James sang lead and only played guitar, and now we both sing lead and harmony and play a bunch of instruments, including guitar, ukulele, mandolin, bouzouki, harmonica, and many more. That makes for a much more dynamic show than when we first started.
What makes your collaboration work?
KM: James is an amazing lyricist, melody writer, and lead singer. I love singing harmony and adding all the bells and whistles to the songs through arrangement and instrumentation. We both respect each other’s strengths and fight for what we think will make a great song.
JM: I think we have complementary strengths, and we’ve definitely learned a lot from each other. Kort’s perfect world is play a different instrument on every song. Mine is to sit down with a melody in my head and start writing the words. If I were still just doing my own thing, maybe my songs would sound more alike, and for sure there would be fewer instruments. He’s taught me a lot of different instruments, and I’ve gotten him into writing more lyrics. In addition to collaborating well as songwriters, our voices also harmonize really well. Some people tell us they can’t tell which one is singing lead and which one is singing harmony.
KM: It’s like sibling harmony, which you rarely find outside of a family.
JM: I also realized something recently. Years ago, I was organizing a music festival and one of the groups hadn’t shown up. I was getting really stressed. Five minutes before they were supposed to go on, these guys drove up, talking and laughing, and they didn’t look the least bit worried. One guy took out his guitar and the other took out his mandolin, and they just went up on stage and started playing. No sound check or anything. It was like the conversation they’d been having was continuing on stage. That is what it’s like for us now. When we step on stage, the performance is an extension of who we are and what we’ve been talking about.
How do you practice when you live in different places?
JM: We are doing about 120 shows a year as a duo, which adds up to about 180 days total, including the travel, so we’re spending about half the year together. That gives us a lot of time to work on new songs and arrangements.
KM: I think spending so much time writing and playing together is why we are so tight. We are constantly trying new things, and it’s all about making the songs better. James will say, “Here’s something I just wrote, do you want to work on it?” I might say, “Why not try it on ukulele or add a little cello?” That builds chemistry, and it makes us excited about the new songs as well as older songs. Nothing sounds exactly the same from one time to the next. We revisit songs and arrangements all the time.
What’s your music about?
KM: Our songs are about love and loss, and about trying to navigate this crazy life. We also touch on what is going on in the world. The political climate. War. Hard times that face the common man.
JM: We are also both interested in history and geography and about the people we meet along the way. All of that finds its way into our songs.
What kinds of music did you gravitate to when you were growing up? How about now?
JM: The first songs I remember listening to on my parents’ stereo were “I Write the Songs” by Barry Manilow and “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell. Later, my brother and I would pretend we were musicians, air jamming to Pink Floyd and the Beatles. My mom often had the top 40 station playing in the car, and luckily in those days it was Paul McCartney and Wings, Neil Diamond, and the Bee Gees. In high school, I discovered the local music scene in Minneapolis and started listening to The Replacements, The Flaming Oh’s, and the Suburbs. After college, I heard a live Shawn Colvin tape where I could really hear her in those songs, and that lit the fire for me to start writing about what I was feeling and going through in my life. Since then, I’ve been drawn to songwriters who write songs you can hear yourself living in, like Ron Sexsmith, Tom Waits, Neil Finn of Crowded House, and Gary Louris of the Jayhawks.
KM: My musical upbringing was totally different. I grew up playing piano and cello and listening to classical music. Neither of my parents were into folk, rock and roll, blues, country, etc. It wasn’t til later that I started listening to all of that. When I got to college, I got hooked on Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Police, Sting, U2. Then, when I turned 20, I bought an acoustic guitar and started teaching myself songs by Neil Young, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Jimmy Buffett, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. When I started playing bar gigs in Gainesville, Florida, I listened to more folk music and singer/songwriters – people like Ellis Paul, John Hiatt, Shawn Colvin, Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien. They helped me learn how to be a better lyricist. Now I listen to a lot of Stephen Stills, The Band, Levon Helm, Allmann Brothers, and Sting, and a lot of Irish traditional music also.
How would you describe your sound?
KM: I guess you’d call it Americana or roots music. We incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues. More recently, we’ve also been influenced heavily by Irish music.
JM: We don’t have a song that’s 100 percent country. Or rock. Or bluegrass. We are hitting on a lot of these things, but our records aren’t “one of each.” All of these different influences that have shaped each of us are blended together.
What are some of your favorite times performing together?
JM: I really enjoy playing towns we’ve never played before; they just have a different energy. In terms of bigger shows, the Kerrville Folk Festival in May 2014 was a really special performance. How we got there is an interesting story. There was a terrible flood in Colorado, and Kort had to evacuate. We got together and wrote a great song and played it for the director of Kerrville Folk Festival, and she asked us to perform on the main stage. We were both really on that night, and the crowd was right there with us. Our Blue Rock show in Wimberley, TX in April 2015 was also a magical night. Then a
Another time, we were doing a fundraiser in Dallas and the person organizing it knew I loved the Jayhawks, so he invited the lead singer, Gary Louris, to play with us. The next day, we were swapping songs, and a couple of weeks later, I asked if he would produce our next CD. Who knew that would happen?
KM: If you allow yourself to be present in the world and stay ready, incredible things happen.
How do people respond when you play?
JM: I think people really respond to the fact that we are friends and having a great time on stage playing music together. We’ve heard from a lot of people how a song gave them chills, made them cry, laugh, smile. How a song made them think of a loved one who has passed, or who they miss.
KM: When we sell a bunch of CDs at a show, that tells us the crowd was really into it. I love it when we play a great concert and people say that it was the best show they’ve ever been to. That feels really good.
Why do you like going to Ireland so much?
KM: We feel at home there, and it’s not only because I have Irish blood in my veins. It’s also because they have such a deep appreciation for musicians and singers and writers. When you share a verse with someone over there, they say “please sing me another one, and let me share one with you.” Also, much of the music we gravitate toward has its roots in Irish melodies: rock and folk and bluegrass. What predates Americana? Irish music.
JM: Lots of musicians say there’s no other place like Ireland for music, and it’s true.
KM: Some of our most memorable performances have been in Ireland. I will always remember playing at McGann’s pub in Doolin. We were sitting under a poster of the incredible Liam Clancy, and it felt unreal. Another time, when we performed at the Courthouse Pub in Dingle, the owner closed the shutters and kept the place open after hours because nobody wanted to leave. We loved it that people were having such a good time, they wanted to keep going.
What’s your next CD going to be like?
JM: Given how dynamic our live performances are, we thought it would be nice to have a live record, so we decided to record a show and see what happened. In April 2015, we performed at the Blue Rock in Wimberley, Texas, with about 100 people in the audience. They were a great crowd. When we went back and listened to the recording, it was spot on.
KM: We were originally planning to pick only 10 tracks from that night, but everything sounded so good, we decided to use all 22 songs from the show. That will become our next CD, Live at the Blue Rock.
What’s on your wish list for the future?
KM: I think #1 would be playing at the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest. It’s a dear place to a lot of people I’ve met and worked with, including James. We know we’re ready for it. Telluride, Red Rocks, and Newport would be amazing too.
JM: We would love to play for 100-500 people every night because we could reach more people per show. But honestly, it isn’t just one thing that we’re looking for. We get so much from any audience that wants to be present with us. So whether it’s 20 people in a living room or 20,000 at a big festival, doing our thing for people who want to be there makes life worth living.
KM: We want to keep doing this for a very long time, and we want to be present and relish it while we’re doing it. That’s what keeps us moving forward.