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Can’t rock my dream face: Joel Cummins of Umphrey’s McGee

Joel Cummins. Joel Cummins.

For the better part of a quarter-century, Umphrey’s McGee has remained one of the most fundamental and innovative acts on the live music scene. 

Originating at the University of Notre Dame (South Bend, Indiana) in 1997, the band soon called nearby Chicago, Illinois, home. But, the group’s reach has unrelentingly extended in seemingly every direction — geographically and sonically — from the Midwestern musical hub. 

With a thick thread of rock-n-roll running through its roots, the sextet has never shied away from diving deep into other genres — from metal to punk, pop to electronica. For Umphrey’s McGee, it’s always been about exploring the endless depths of improvisational possibility, taking a chance on a night of melodic magic that’ll never be replicated.

The Smoky Mountain News recently caught up with Umphrey’s McGee keyboardist Joel Cummins ahead of the ensemble’s upcoming two-night run in Asheville. He spoke of the band’s early days, what kept the group going, and what it means still be charting new creative territory. 

Smoky Mountain News: The band is approaching 23 years together. What do you think about that?

Joel Cummins: You know, it’s interesting because there’s definitely the feeling that we’ve been doing this for a long time. But, at the same time, when we get out on the road, get up onstage and are playing together — in a lot of ways it still feels very youthful and invigorated. 

And I’m sure part of it is that I get to make music with five of my best friends. We just kind of kept trying to push things musically and not be ever satisfied with where things are always — continuing to work on new music and to push forward. So, I think that’s really our lifeblood, that desire to keep trying new things. 

SMN: Was that the intent coming out of the gate or did the band evolved into that? 

JC: Honestly, when we started, we were just trying to postpone the inevitable of what we thought was, “Eventually, we’re going to have to quit screwing around playing music and get some other jobs. We’ll have to sitting behind a desk.” We were really just trying to make [the music] happen and see if anybody cared — fortunately, we’re still doing that 23 years in now. 

SMN: When you look at those early years, what was it that really kept the band going? 

JC: We took a cue from some of the other bands in the more jam-oriented scene — trying to write as much as we could, play as much variety with our set list as possible. And I think that was originally probably what had people coming back to see us again. 

That’s one of the most challenging things to try to do as a live musician, [which] is [to] not only get somebody to come out for the first time, but then to try to get them to stay interested in wanting to come out and see the band again. 

SMN: You’ve been able to have this career creating and performing music around the world, and you’ve interacted with people of all walks of life — what has that taught you about what it means to be a human being?

JC: I mean, certainly that we have more in common with each other than not. I think that’s one of the really important things for getting out there in the world, and not just visiting different cities in the [United States]. 

Music is one of these things that can bring everybody together, whether it has lyrics or not. And I think that’s probably what keeps bringing me back to it. 

You know, I’m a big sports fan, too. But, I don’t necessarily feel that [same] way when I go to a sporting event. Obviously, it’s cool if your team wins, and you and the fans of that team can celebrate that. 

But, with music you should never have the feeling like you lost the game when you leave. [It’s] something that’s a pretty special feeling [each and every time] — only music can create that.

Editor’s Note: If you would like to listen to the entire free stream of the audio conversation of this interview, go to YouTube and search: “Joel Cummins Garret K. Woodward.” 


Want to go?

Umphrey’s McGee will perform on Feb. 14-15 at the Arena in downtown Asheville. Doors at 5:30 p.m. with show time at 6:30 p.m. Openers for both nights will be Billy Strings (bluegrass/jam) and Empire Strikes Brass (jazz/soul). 

Tickets for each night are $37.50 in advance, $40 day of show. Two-day and VIP passes are available. Visit and click on the “Tour” tab. 

As well, Joel Cummins will host a special solo performance at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16, at Isis Music Hall in West Asheville. Tickets are $35 in advance, $40 day of show. 

All proceeds will benefit Conscious Alliance, a hunger relief organization. Visit and click on the “Calendar” tab.

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