The Chat Room: Corey Matheson of Northumberland
It’s fitting that the first song on Northumberland’s self-titled debut album is called “Never Too Old.” As a celebration of rock and roll’s timeless appeal, it leaves a powerful first impression of a band of musical veterans drawn together to create something new out of their shared love of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Steve Earle, Drive-By Truckers, Lucero, and others who have shaped the sound of no-frills, blue collar American rock.
But if the band’s name doesn’t provide an immediate clue, the four members of Northumberland hail from the wilds of Nova Scotia on Canada’s east coast, where life can be just as hard as anywhere in the American Midwest. Such stories have always inspired Northumberland’s singer/guitarist Corey Matheson, and on the album, he treats us to 10 tales of hard-bitten characters struggling to stay one step ahead of past decisions that will forever haunt them.
Produced and mixed by Corey at Chimney Hill Studios in Truro, Nova Scotia, Northumberland is the culmination of two solid years of work since the band’s formation, with all the songs road-tested on their modest but growing touring circuit.
The origins of Northumberland actually trace back to the friendship that Corey and guitarist David Dean have shared since their school days, just as bassist Bruce White served as their school’s music teacher. Bruce, in fact, had a big influence on the pair, introducing them to the Beatles, the Allman Brothers, and other classic rockers. However, by the mid-1980s, Corey was drawn to the emerging alternative rock scene and co-founded the band Haggis, which released its only album, Last Drag, in 1996 before splitting the following year. Corey then moved to Toronto where he joined the band Driveway in 2001 and fully embraced the alternative country movement.
The songs on Northumberland reflect a lot of this history, with “Drunk On Monday” offering a glimpse of Corey’s hardscrabble days in Toronto, while “1969,” “Shooting The Drag” and “Mud On My Shoes” paint vivid coming-of-age-in-Nova-Scotia portraits. With his simple and direct use of language, Corey proves to be a master storyteller. And with the band providing dynamic support, it results in Northumberland being an album that gets to the heart of the matter without any distractions along the way.
Northumberland seems like a labour of love for you guys. What’s driving you to make music at this point?
We have all spent many nights playing bars and clubs over the years, playing our fair share of covers to the point where we had a list of songs that we banned. I am sure anyone that has done the club circuit has a similar list. I have been writing music since I was in my teens, and that is my real passion. I spent several years in Toronto playing in the band Driveway. When I moved back to Nova Scotia, I wanted to get back into the scene and joined a Tom Petty tribute band. That band folded when the pandemic hit. I put out a solo album during the pandemic under the name “Gus Corey.” Bruce and Jim from the Tom Petty tribute band were still around and we started to play some of the new songs I had written. Dave joined soon after. I think the guys were getting tired of playing cover tunes, and the thought of playing original material reignited a passion in them also.
Everything about the album sounds timeless. Did you have a sense when you were writing these songs of how you wanted to capture them in the studio?
We had been playing the songs at rehearsal, and by the time we laid the tracks down we had the sound we were looking for. We all have many different influences. I was into punk rock, and then one day I picked up the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo at a yard sale, and that was a turning point for me. I ended up discovering Uncle Tupelo and the rest of the bands that were labeled “alt-country” back in the ’90s. I have been a fan of the Drive-By Truckers from the first time I saw them play the Horseshoe, which was right after Jason Isbell joined them. Bruce’s bass playing style is heavily influenced by the Allman Brothers and James Jamerson, who played on a lot of great Motown tracks. Dave is also a big Southern rock fan – Gov’t Mule and Blackberry Smoke – but he also has a weakness for some ’90s hair metal. Jim our drummer is into older Genesis and Van Halen, but he is also a Wilco fan.
What are some of the lessons you learned from your previous bands that have helped Northumberland be successful so far?
We don’t have any time for egos or drama. Bruce taught Dave and I music in junior high. Dave and I played in our first band together at that same time. We go back a long way and can be open and honest with each other’s tastes and musical direction without being offended.
You guys are based in a small town, and several of the songs on the album talk about that life. What’s your take on the whole rural/urban divide in country and roots music?
I think the rural urban divide was created by the media. You can actually trace it back to the early days when they labeled anything from the south as hillbilly music. In the ’70s the media picked up on what Willie and Waylon were doing and called it outlaw country. I would have liked to have been at those shows in Texas back then. They managed to bring people together. You had the hippies and cowboys standing side by side. There’s nothing better than creating controversy and a divide to sell records. The problem today is that it most often turns political, and that is a slippery slope. I think an artist has every right to share their thoughts and opinions, but when you are using the divide to ignite an already volatile situation you have sold your soul. The media on both sides is also responsible for fanning the flames. We are from a small town but have lived in cities at one time or another. My friends in Toronto have the same hopes and dreams as we do for the most part.
What are some of your plans for Northumberland in the foreseeable future?
We have shows lined up into the fall, and we have enough songs for a couple of albums written that we hope to start recording soon. We need to go through them and decide what we want on the album. We want it to flow like an album should. I am still a fan of the album as an art form. With streaming, many folks are just releasing singles.
JASON’S JUKEBOX PICKS
Tommy Prine / This Far South (Thirty Tigers)
For fans of an artist as universally beloved as the late John Prine, it might take some persuasion to embrace his offspring’s attempt to follow in his footsteps. Yet, from the sound of Tommy Prine’s full-length debut album, he seems more focused on establishing his own identity. Working with producer Ruston Kelly, Tommy’s songwriting contains more indie rock influences than might be expected, and anyone approaching This Far South with preconceived notions will be surprised by the expansiveness of opening tracks “Elohim” and “Crashing Again.” The simple melodies are there, but they’re carried by a powerful rhythm section and sonic embellishment antithetical to what his father stood for. Of course, that’s hardly a criticism; Tommy’s desire to forge his own path is admirable. In fact, it makes the more stripped down songs such as “By The Way,” “Boyhood” and “Letter To My Brother” hit that much harder. The only real detriment is that Tommy doesn’t display any of the natural wit his father was famous for, making This Far South a slightly ponderous listen overall. But that may change in time. Tommy clearly poured his heart into every note on This Far South, and its success should be predicated on that basis alone.
Brennen Leigh / Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet (Signature Sounds)
When a female country artist releases a great album, it’s common to read comparisons to Patsy, Loretta, Dolly and others. However, I think we’ve reached a point in country’s evolution where women can easily stand shoulder to shoulder with George, Waylon and Willie. That’s certainly the impression I got from my first encounter with North Dakota-born Brennen Leigh, who’s been exploring different aspects of traditional roots music since the early 2000s. But on Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet, the title says it all, as she effortlessly nails the sounds that blasted out of every roadhouse jukebox in the ‘60s. The fiddle-and-pedal-steel-powered highlights are too numerous to mention, but the rhyming couplets on “The Bar Should Say Thanks” and “Running Out Of Hope, Arkansas” might have you reaching for the rewind button to make sure you savor every word. Country music doesn’t get more “authentic” than this, and more aspiring songwriters should take notice.
Tommy Stinson’s Cowboys In The Campfire / Wronger (Cobraside)
I’d wager that when Tommy Stinson was blasting through drunken renditions of “Hey Good Lookin’” as the teenage bassist in the Replacements, he couldn’t have conceived of playing actual country music 40 years later. Well, “actual” country may be an overstatement, as this latest twist in the unusual path his post-Mats career has taken still bears all the ramshackle trademarks he learned from Paul Westerberg. Tommy’s partner in Cowboys In The Campfire is longtime collaborator Chip Roberts, and together they turn back the clock to the wild and woolly 1980s, when bands didn’t think twice about mixing a couple shots of country, folk and rockabilly while doing all they could not to spew it all over the stage. With Paul now seemingly a recluse, Tommy proudly carries the torch, and sounds uncannily like his mentor on most of Wronger, particularly the honky tonk homage “Fall Apart Together” and the jangly ballad “Schemes.” Die hard Replacements fans are sure to be instantly smitten with Wronger, but those only familiar with the legend should also get a fair amount of pleasure from Tommy’s sneaky-good songwriting and heart-on-sleeve delivery.
VIDEO OF THE WEEK
Tyler Childers / “In Your Love” (single / RCA)