It’s a long, long way
On a road that ends in heartache
When you’ve gone too far to turn around
Chasing that sundown
Spinning your wheels round
In a big hurry somewhere
That road won’t lead you there
Josh Macumber – ‘That Road Won’t Lead You There’
The road Halifax based singer/songwriter Josh Macumber sings about on the lead single from his debut album is one he knows every mile of, inside and out – From the smooth patches and the rough spots to the sudden twists and turns that can take your life away from right underneath you.
But Macumber’s knowledge of the road doesn’t come from watching the world go by from the comfort of a tour bus. It comes from his putting in over a million miles behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer. Miles you can feel falling away behind you on both ‘That Road Won’t Lead You There’ and Macumber’s ode to his ‘old blacktop friend’, Nova Scotia’s Glooscap Trail, on ‘215’. More importantly you can feel the truth behind Macumber’s songs, and the fact that he’s lived every line of them back to front.
Macumber’s life story reads a bit like a country song itself. Even as a child he was a bit of a nomad; raised by a single mom who worked three jobs to keep a roof over their heads while studying to be a nurse, Macumber went to a different school virtually every year. Even so, he says, he grew up feeling life was great and that he could achieve success in whatever he put his mind to. “I may have grow up in a ‘broken home’, but I was one fortunate kid. People just loved me, aunts, grandparents, strangers – everybody.”
In a childhood characterized by near constant change, poverty and struggle, music was a constant. A force that shaped him since he was five years old; as he fell asleep to the singsongs at his grandparent’s kitchen parties and watched his father, Al Macumber, play guitar as part of the band on The Tommy Hunter Show. “That’s my first memory of my father – not with us in our house – on the TV. Music was always larger than life and I always used music to heal.”
In high school he joined a local metal band and practiced guitar for hours in the 14-wide trailer the family lived in, but when he heard Alan Jackson’s Here In The Real World, he traded in his electric for an acoustic guitar and never looked back. “When that came out I just started singing. I was hooked.”
Still, he knew that living in a small town and playing guitar weekends wasn’t going to take him far and that to find success he’d have to work for it. “Hard. Hard. Hard,” he says. “I always worked. I laid floor. I framed houses. I painted. My very first job was at a car dealership, washing cars and delivering customers. Without my license,” he adds. “It was a funny day when I asked for time off to go take my driver’s test.”
Even then the road called out to him. At age twenty, Macumber answered. Hitting the highway hard as a professional trucker, driving 320 days a year. “A hard ticket,” he says, but peaceful in its own way and the place where he found his voice as a singer and began mining the raw material that would ultimately become this record – A set of songs and stories that take listeners down all kinds of roads. Some that lead to home and happiness and others that head straight to heartache. Songs that echo the best of times like ‘Love Like This’ and others that dwell on the worst of them, like ‘Only A Memory’ and ‘I Know’.
After two years trucking all across North America and just getting by, Macumber and his high school sweetheart moved west looking for opportunity in Alberta’s oil economy. A few years on he found himself with a successful business of his own, hauling fuel and supplies through the oil patch, up the Arctic ice road and to the diamond mines of the Yukon and NWT. “I was happily married, owned three trucks, three trailers and it was great.”
Still, music called to him. “Back home people were doin’ it, maybe on an amateur level, but I wasn’t doing it at all. I was married to the trucking industry.” With three employees holding down the fort in Alberta, Macumber headed east, planning to work two weeks on relieving his drivers out west, and two weeks off enjoying life off the road and feeding his heart and soul. But Macumber’s heart and soul were about to take a sucker punch out of nowhere. And the good time country song his life was playing out like was about to go from happy to hurtin’ in the space of few weeks.
“I was in a truck in Estevan, Saskatchewan, on my first two-week stint out west. That’s when my wife called and told me she’d been seeing someone else and was moving back to Alberta to be with him. Now there’s a country song,” he says, laughing. “It all spiraled out of control really fast. As a driver you just sit and occupy your mind, but that can work against you if what you’ve got on your mind is what I was going through. I couldn’t do it, and I tried, but I couldn’t look at a truck, I couldn’t go anywhere in one, so I let it all go.”
Macumber sold his business and started a small excavation firm in Halifax, but rather than ‘choke on the smoke of his past’, he once again used music to heal. “I said ‘that’s it, I’m doing what I want from now on in my life’ and started playing anywhere I could, to anybody who wanted to listen. Even if there were only two people in the place.”
While the excavation business wasn’t as lucrative as his previous gig, it led Macumber down a road that ultimately brought him to Nashville. “I’m not a contest guy, but an employee I’d hired to run my machine dragged me into one at CFDR 780 Kixx Country in Dartmouth, and the first prize was to sing at Tootsie’s in Nashville. Well, I went in and won it.” That created a bit of a problem, he explains, forcing him to choose between a 60k season on the ice road and a weeknight one off singing two songs at Tootsie’s. “No contest,” he says. He took the gig, sang his songs and was asked back four nights running – A decision made with the heart, not terribly different from the one he later made to take a one-off show with Barenaked Ladies, entertaining Canadian troops at CFB Petawawa, over a week long gig showcasing for a who’s who of the Country music industry at Nashville’s 2009 Fan Fair.
Macumber’s reception in Nashville soon prompted another career move, one some people might call dubious at best. “I sold the excavator and everything that was costing me money and said ‘that’s it, I’m going to have an album within a year’.”
First though, he knew he had to generate his own material. “I didn’t write anything when I was going through all the major stuff, but I knew I had it in me.” In an effort to get it out Macumber picked up his suitcase, holed up in an apartment in a bat-infested house in Kingston, Ontario, and wrote…
While his raw songs had grit and heart and truth to spare, Macumber knew they needed some spit and polish to make it on the radio. Back in Nashville, with producer Gilles Godard on board – a deal brokered in part by Kixx 780’s Frank Lowe – Macumber set about retooling his raw material with Nashville based songwriters Willie Mack and Ryan Roberts.
Less than a year after his debut at Tootsie’s Macumber found himself in the studio recording live off the floor with an impressive cadre of players: bassist Larry Paxton (Kris Kristofferson, Roy Orbison, Chet Atkins), slide guitarist Michael Johnson (the voice behind Bluer Than Blue and This Night Won’t Last Forever, Keyboardist Michael Rojas (Big and Rich, George Jones, Hank Williams Jr.), drummer Mark Beckett (Vince Gill, Kenny Chesney, Charlie Daniels Band) and guitarist Richard Bennett (Neil Diamond, Mark Knopfler, Billy Joel). He also found himself being part of an historic musical event, Godard’s bringing guitar greats John Jorgenson (Elton John, Barbara Streisand, Bonnie Raitt) and Brent Mason (Alabama, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson), to record together, face to face, for the first time on the studio floor.
“It was kind of a magic thing that happened,” says Macumber. “They all came in there. Nobody knew who I was. They never heard my stuff before and I was just on cloud nine.”
The result is a record that, like Macumber himself, speaks straight from the gut, but somehow manages to be cautionary and hopeful all at once. Music as genuine the man who performs it; a man who, in spite of it all, still gives everyone the benefit of the doubt in the hopes they’re as well meaning as he is. “It may be gullible,” he says bluntly. And perhaps it is, but it’s also inspirational – Not just because Macumber has a way of looking at life that says he expects it to get consistently better, but because he’s living, breathing proof it does.