Joel Cumby's “Empty Highway”

Joel Cumby’s musical introduction on the local music stage is rather novel even though the singer and songwriter has lived in Hamilton for nearly a decade

Joel Cumby’s musical introduction on the local music stage is rather novel even though the singer and songwriter has lived in Hamilton for nearly a decade. Growing up forming punk bands in Newmarket, Cumby’s life would change when he’d find love and form a country band with his wife, Anne. But with married life came more responsibilities and a move to Hamilton made sense. Now with his daughter not needing as much tending, Joel Cumby is stepping into the spotlight to showcase his solo debut collection of songs entitled Empty Highway.

“I was born in Toronto but grew up north of Toronto in the Newmarket Aurora area,” clarifies Cumby. “I had a punk band that played the kind of stuff you’d hear in skateboard videos in the ’90s. I went to high school with at least two of the guys from Serial Joe. My first band in Newmarket around 1997 was Ruccus — we were all about the age of 15 and our drummer quit. We needed a replacement fast and our guitar player suggested his little brother had just started but he could play. We called him Tiny Tim because he still had a high voice, he was still in Grade Seven. That was Tim Oxford and he’s currently the drummer for Arkells and six foot something but I still think of him as Tiny Tim.

“I don’t know why but I only put out a record about every ten years. I did that old Ruccus album in 1999,” adds Cumby. “My wife and I, we co–wrote for and she fronted a band called Their Shallow Valley and we released a record of classic country type music in 2008. We’d just seen the Joaquin Phoenix movie Walk The Line about Johnny Cash and I was floored watching all those guys — Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis — all traveling the country side on tour in those big American cars. I never thought country looked so cool. Anne and I hadn’t written together in a band before but we wanted to try something new but it was hard as hell to find country musicians in Toronto at that time.”

The 20 year journey for Cumby was an exploration of genre and geography that would lend him finding a new music and city to be passionate about.

“Anne and I met looking at punk rock CDs in an HMV in Newmarket in 1997,” recalls Cumby. “We moved to Toronto right after we married in 2005. I tried the tool and die thing but the housing market crashed basically the year I graduated. I learned there was not going to be a lot of work in that industry so I bounced around whatever trade there might be available. I wanted to find my path and it didn’t seem clear but it was after I moved to Hamilton a couple of years later and I tried my hand at cutting hair that things fell into place and I’ve been doing that for the last five years or so.

“We knew only one couple from Hamilton that we met in Toronto and they kept telling us to visit because it was such a cool place,” continues Cumby. “No one else in Toronto was saying that at the time but they brought us here and drove us around town. We were looking for our next step for our life and family. We moved a stones throw from Dofasco, where some people would not call the prettiest part of town but we just liked the urban feel. I love the grittiness. Even though I grew up in the cookie cutter suburbs I’ve always liked the gritty rock and roll vibe and this city has it. Hamilton seemed like the cool place to be.

“We’ll have been in Hamilton ten years this Christmas,” adds Cumby. “My daughter, “Calla Joy, is turning ten this summer. I came here with a six month old in 2009 and I wanted to get plugged in but I had no night life. My wife was bartending and I was welding during the day so I’d just pass my wife the keys and she’d go to the bar and serve drinks. We had no night life so it took me a few years to get out there. It was a very slow immersion in the Hamilton music scene and I feel I’m just starting to do that. I missed going to shows but even more playing them. I’d go to a show every three or four months and I’d miss it. I thought I want to be on stage and it feels wrong that I’m not.”

Cumby developed his songwriting and honed his guitar skills out of the spotlight and finally came to the realization that his music had to be heard. He’d enlist producer Glen Watkinson at SheepDog Studios and fashion the music to record his debut solo EP. Now, with a live band including Eric Fusilier (bass), Brian Dexter (drums), Alex Drumm (rhythm guitar, vocals), Anne Cumby (backing vocals), and Reg McLean (guitar). Cumby will finally get back on stage — but that’s not the end game necessarily.

“A lot of the musicians I find to play with at church on Sunday,” says Cumby. “The same thing happened here in Hamilton. We got a lot of those folks together and we’re lucky enough to like the same music or at least they want to play it or maybe just get out of the house. Half of the reason to do it is just to get out and jam. The rehearsals are as much fun as performing. My father–in–law says it’s all about the journey and I feel that’s the way it is for music with me.

“What I’ve done with my recent EP seems like a natural progression,” adds Cumby. “It was heavily influenced by all of my favourite ’80s heartland rockers like Tom Petty, John Cougar Mellencamp — I was listening to a ton of Bruce Springsteen. I was really trying to grab that middle America rock and roll feel. I always call it driving music although everyone could drive to different music. In my mind, I loved that theme and there’s always been that in there. I’m very happy with the music and I’m very proiud of how these songs came out. It would be sad if I didn’t do this for another ten years. I hope to do a lot more stuff and I’ll make sure it’s in less than a decade.” 

Joel Cumby plays Thursday May 9 at This Ain't Hollywood with Math Club. Doors open at 8pm and $10 gets you in. Click on @joelcumby

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