Mountain Melodies: From the Mountain’s Shore

December 10, 2013 in Winter 2013 Issue by Lookout Alabama

Singer-Songwriter Jared Cushen.

Photo by Steven Stiefel

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Cloaking his lyrics in metaphor, singer-songwriter Jared Cushen croons about life in the northeast Alabama hills using a distinct vocal style and indie rhythms.

For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity or perception to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication… All kinds of intoxication, however different their origins, have the power to do this…” – Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Twilight of the Idols,” 1888

by N.L. MCANELLY

Steady rain has been falling in downtown Fort Payne, Ala., all morning and into the afternoon. The annual Boom Days festival seems to have been washed out until a break in the clouds floods the streets with people.

Jared Cushen, 26, is set up on an impromptu stage under an awning across from the DeKalb Theater in a folding chair with a flat-top guitar in his lap. He begins to play as friends and passersby collect, eventually forming a small crowd. Cushen’s wispy vocal style is tested by the noise of the crowd combined with the band a block away blaring Journey covers. He makes light of it and says we will get to hear his “loud songs” today.

Cushen’s songs are a mix of bare-bones indie and alt-country rhythms coupled with lyrics soaked in what seem to be expositions of deeply personal themes encrypted in metaphors.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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He sings about experiences from life in the mountains of northeast Alabama and relationships gone awry by way of queens and their castles and those lost at sea and those left standing on the shore. The images such lyrics invoke are fantastical and ethereal, but the next lines often cut through the veil, allowing a jaded edge of reality to show through. These little doses of grit help bring balance to his songs.

Cushen comes from a musical family. “As a kid, my parents were part of a Southern gospel quartet,” he says. “I spent a lot of weekends on a tour bus traveling to churches all over the Southeast and a little up the East Coast.”

I ask him how he got his start in songwriting. “I was real passionate about music from the start,” he explains. “I started piano at 6, so it’s been a lifelong thing for me. In high school, I decided to quit sports and learn guitar. I learned chord structure and how things fit together and I began writing almost immediately.”

Cushen grew up near the small town of Henagar, Ala., and has lived his entire life in the area.

“Setting is everything, in my opinion, especially as a person is being formed and imprinted upon,” he says. “Southerners still feel like an oppressed, impoverished people sometimes. We feel so often that something wonderful or amazing is happening somewhere else. There’s the natural urge to flee from here into somewhere at least mythically more exciting, New York or L.A. or Chicago or wherever… But it’s really easy to live and get by here. So there’s been a recurring theme of examining the pros and cons or staying or leaving, action or inaction.” While Cushen has a “regular” job, he says creating and playing music are essential to his life these days.

“It’s not at all unlike an addiction,” he says. “I don’t even claim anymore that I can quit anytime I like. In fact, I’m like one of these fourth-stage addicts who reject even trying to quit with the idea that they’d rather have their fix until they die than face life on its own terms.

“When I get busy with other things and don’t have time to play, and especially if I don’t finish a new song for long enough, I have physical symptoms, like withdrawal. I get irritable and depressed and often forget why until I pick up a guitar or stumble across a new song idea, and then I remember that I need to do those things to maintain myself.”

Nietzsche wrote about the drive to create and appreciate art in terms of “Dionysian intoxication” (the feeling that comes from finding harmony in chaos). Songwriting, as with all other art forms, can be a means to better understand and appreciate our humanity – sort of an existential therapy.

And that is enough for Cushen. “Most of the musicians I really admire are the ones who keep pounding away at it with no guarantee of any ultimate reward but the intoxicating, spiritual ones they get from playing and expressing,” he says. “Many of them are my friends. There are a lot of us in this area, I came to find out a few years ago – passionate people who would love to be successful and exclusively play music profession-ally and make ourselves comfortable with it, but have already made some sort of peace with the possibility that we may have to toil in obscurity forever. And that would be OK.”

There is an intentionally raw quality to Cushen’s lyrics and performances. “When performing my own songs or other people’s, I want to share myself, to articulate myself in a way that people can understand and, hopefully, relate to or at least empathize with in some way,” he says.

Cushen says his ideal audience, whether it’s three or 300 people, is an interested one. “I want my performance to cause a response,” he says. “I prefer even a negative response to an apathetic one.”

Cushen plays most Friday nights at the Mainstreet Deli in Fort Payne, Alice’s Restaurant in Mentone, Ala., the Wildflower Cafe in Mentone or Yo-Moe in Rainsville, Ala. Find him online at facebook.com/jaredcushenmusic.[/s2If]

The past couple of weeks, I haven’t bothered to sleep

But stumbled down and passed out in the sand

Where there’s a thin line between hallucination and dream,

I see your boat speeding fast toward the land

And there’s a bright second coming to your parents and friends

You’re brand new, curving, shining and clean

You rush to tell me you’re home, but babe, it took you so long…

That all you find is a bottle by what’s left of my bones.”

–Jared Cushen, from the song ‘Widow’s Walk’