James Moors gets by with a little help from a friend

After a decade of making records by himself, James Moors is ready to share the spotlight. The Superior troubadour, who shed his "Sterling Waters" stage name only a couple years ago, will unveil his first duo release with Colorado's Kort McCumber,...

Moors and McCumber
Superior's James Moors met Kort McCumber at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in 2005. As the story goes, they heard something in each other's music that "just fit." Submitted photo

After a decade of making records by himself, James Moors is ready to share the spotlight. The Superior troubadour, who shed his "Sterling Waters" stage name only a couple years ago, will unveil his first duo release with Colorado's Kort McCumber, "Moors & McCumber" in a few weeks' time.

"It's really helpful to write with somebody else who's talented because you can get a lot done," Moors said of his songwriting partner. "It's like with anything: There's always all these choices you have to make and, if you have someone who's willing to make those choices for you, it takes a load off."

Moors met McCumber -- an Americana aficionado who has recorded with Vince Gill -- at the 2005 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, a well-respected event in Lyons, Colo., that features artists as varied as Rufus Wainwright and M. Ward to Brett Dennen and Gillian Welch (and those names are just from this summer's lineup).

As you can probably guess by the fact that they're putting out a record together, Moors and McCumber heard something in each other's music that weekend a few years back that "just fit."

"It's the first collaboration for both of us," Moors, ever the multi-tasker, told the Budgeteer as he walked his daughters home from the grocery store. "Up until I met Kort, I really kind of thought I was just supposed to do it on my own -- and that's not necessarily good or bad. For example, when I went to do the 'Hush' record (released last year) ... I had written quite a few songs, but it didn't feel like any of them were finished. And it was really nice to share them with Kort because he opened my eyes to how they could be finished by just making a couple of key decisions."


Not only do Moors and McCumber come together to improve upon each other's songs, but they also play together regularly (at least as regularly as 1,358 miles of pavement between them will allow). And, although the first pieces they hammered out together appeared on each other's last solo records, the duo decided to take its collaboration to the next level.

"We thought, Instead of us trying to reinvent the wheel," Moors said, "why don't we make a CD of us playing together so when we do shows it kind of legitimizes the process -- so we actually have a product to sell."

The fact that a number of the "Hush" tracks reappear on the no-overdubs "Moors & McCumber" may lead some to believe Moors wasn't satisfied with how that 2008 solo album turned out, but he was quick to point out that's not just the case.

"I was happy with it -- I love really well-produced records, so that's why I wanted to make 'Hush,'" he said. "But I also just love songs, so that's why I love the 'Moors and McCumber' record. ... We just decided to do it really simply, kind of like the way the songs were written."

"Simple" is a bit of an understatement: "Moors & McCumber" was recorded live in the studio in just two days.

Maybe it's the fact that Moors literally lived in McCumber's studio while they were working on the "Hush" material -- "I had a batch of songs that I felt were kind of close to done, but not DONE," Moors said of the state of those songs before he welcomed McCumber to the fold -- but the duo seems to possess an enviable in-studio chemistry.

"What usually happens is I come with an idea for a melody and the lyrics, and then Kort has ideas about structure and arrangement," Moors said breezily, before going "behind the music" about the recording of "Shaking Off These Blues, which he described as a little more intense than a simple co-write (like what happened with the lead track "Far Too Long," which was finished after McCumber suggested a few on-the-fly changes).

"'Shaking Off These Blues' was originally titled 'Time to Shine,' and we had recorded it and produced it in a totally different version for the 'Hush' sessions," he said. "But it just didn't work with the other songs; it kind of had a different flow to it.


"But Kort really liked the song, so he kept working away at it: He totally changed it and came up with 'Shaking Off These Blues,' which is all the same lyrics, but the verse and chorus structure changed. He put it on his record 'Ain't the Same as Before,' and I really liked it, so we decided to put it on this new record. So, that was kind of a different way that a song came about."

'Welcome to Duluth'

Moors' music career began, earnestly enough, "trying to scream like Kurt Cobain." The south Minneapolis-raised musician was in a couple different groups, like the Strangers and the Wooly Brothers, but the premature death of his drummer brother ... well, the death of a sibling is the death of a sibling.

"I wanted to get out of the Cities," Moors said. "When he passed away in the mid-'90s, I wanted to start writing songs and focus on music.

"I had written some songs for the Wooly Brothers, but I hadn't really gotten serious about it. The first batch of songs that I was really serious about were just all about my brother dying -- [his death] threw me into an introspective phase, and I'm still waiting to snap out of it."

Moors got his "new direction" when his first wife took a job up in Ely. That lasted about three years.

"I started getting into the music more seriously, and it kind of felt like we needed to be in a bigger city -- Ely is totally the end of the road," he said with a laugh.

At the suggestion of a friend of his who worked at the Brewhouse, Moors checked out the Lake Avenue artist co-op that is Washington Studios.


"Next thing I knew, we moved down here," said Moors, who adopted the aforementioned Sterling Waters moniker soon after abandoning grunge for singer/songwriter territory.

"I had kind of taken that on as an homage to my brother and the things we had started musically," Moors said, before admitting that he also applied the moniker to distance himself from the darker fare he was producing. "I had wanted to sing about real stuff that had scared the s--- out of me."

With the release of "Hush" last year, however, Moors decided it was time to apply his real name to his work.

"The reason that I dropped the 'Sterling Waters' name, I guess, was that I felt I was ready to start writing about different things, and I was just taking more pride in being a songwriter," he said. "I wanted people to know who was behind it, I guess, and not be afraid to take credit for it."

That previous material -- there were three Sterling Waters records -- hasn't been completely abandoned, thankfully.

"There are probably three or four songs on each record that pop up now and again," Moors said. "I'm waiting for somebody to demand a Sterling Waters greatest hits album so I can make one. [Laughs]"

That said, would he re-record his favorite tracks from that period with everything he learned from making "Hush" (which included contributions from such Minnesota luminaries as Polara's Ed Ackerson and the Jayhawks' Marc Perlman)?

"I have one record that I made live back at Amazing Grace in 2000," Moors said. "I think it has some really good songs on it, so I think it would benefit from giving it that kind of studio treatment."

James Moors will play a CD release show with Colorado singer/songwriter Kort McCumber for "Moors & McCumber," the duo's first disc together, at 8 p.m. Oct. 17 at Red Mug in Superior. Cost is $10; first 30 fans will receive a signed copy of the album. Preview some of its tracks at .

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