On first listen, “Cumberland Gap” sounds like nothing more than a fatalistic rock song about a young man from a small town hell bent on drinking himself to death. One might even think it’s some sort of roman à clef, the lyrics a not-so-veiled reference to Isbell’s struggle with the bottle before getting clean, settling down and recording his 2013 masterpiece Southeastern.
But on closer inspection, the song — an absolute scorcher and the most rocking thing he’s released in years — documents the sense of despair that pervades so much of rural America, in this case the Scots-Irish cosmos of Appalachia. It is a brilliant socio-political song in the vein of Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” and the Cumberland Gap title recalls Robert Mitchum’s moonshine epic “The Ballad Of Thunder Road.”
The song’s protagonist is the son of a miner “who isn’t cut out for war” and living in the land of “churches, mall and grocery stores.” He considers leaving, but asks “what would my mama say?”, which sounds like something John B. McLemore of S-Town, Alabama, might use as an excuse for staying put.
Like so much of Isbell’s recent work, this song is multi-layered and tight as a drum — and sure to be a highlight in concert from here on out.