An In-Depth Interview With Musician, JOHN MCCUTCHEON, On His 45-Year Long Music Career, Quarantine Life and His Latest Quarantine-Created Album, ‘Cabin Fever’!
Meet the folk singer-songwriter, John McCutcheon!
He returned from his Australian tour in mid-March and immediately went into self-imposed quarantine as a precaution for his family. Hermitted away at his north Georgia cabin, he read and wrote and tried to use his time creatively. He had long phone conversations with old friends and took long walks trying to imagine the changes that loomed ahead. Then he started writing songs, lots of them – a new one every day for three weeks. “I was in a groove so deep you could lose a tractor in it!” he mused.
The result of those three weeks is a new album, Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine. What almost overshadows this remarkable output is the fact that this is McCutcheon’s 41st album in 45 years. As prolific as this Georgia-based singer-songwriter is, what is equally astonishing is the consistent quality and variety of the songs.
The collection opens with “Front Line,” an homage to emergency care workers, told from the perspective of one of these individuals. “The Night That John Prine Died” is a spontaneous, loving tribute to McCutcheon’s friend who famously passed away in early April from COVID-19. “Sheltered in Place” is sung by a homeless man at an exit ramp with his cardboard sign, claiming that he’s known that kind of isolation for years.
“This is not the album I’d planned to do this year!” protests McCutcheon. Following his last release, To Everyone In All the World: a Celebration of Pete Seeger, in honor of the folk icon’s 100th birthday, he had stockpiled over 30 new songs as a pool for a new album of McCutcheon originals. “But that pesky virus kind of put a kink in the notion of gathering a bunch of my pals and going into a windowless recording studio for days on end. I mean I love these folks, but…”
“It’s an album that is completely of its time. That is, the subject matter, while not exclusively about COVID-19 and its effects, came out of that milieu. It was recorded in total isolation, mixed in isolation, my graphic designer worked on her part after she put her kids to bed, a remarkably quick turn-around time, and, to top it all off, it’s a pay-what-you-can release.”
In a career that has spanned nearly fifty years, McCutcheon has frequently been on the cutting edge of change in the folk music world. He is credited as one of the major forces in the revival of the hammer dulcimer. His 1983 album Howjadoo is widely cited as the beginning of the revolution in high-quality children’s music in the US. He helped found and, for a decade and a half, lead the first non-geographic local union, the American Federation of Musicians. His song “Christmas in the Trenches” was named one of the “100 Essential Folksongs” by Folk Alley. His work in both children’s books and a one-man play are further evidence of why the Washington Post dubbed him “folk music’s rustic renaissance man!”
Most recently, he’s been producing weekly live-streaming concerts via Facebook Live on a variety of themes, with a host of special guests from professional baseball players, to international union presidents, to musicians from around the globe. “It’s a whole new world we’re both creating and knitting together. But those of us in small business…and folk music is nothing if not small business!…have always had to be flexible, resilient, and creative. I love exploring new ways to reach people.”
Read more about John McCutcheon Here: WEBSITE
Learn more about John McCutcheon in the following All Access interview:
Thank you for your time. So given these unusual Covid-19 times, what does a typical day look like for you? How have you adjusted to these times?
**The mornings are not much different: up early, coffee, reading, NYT crossword. In pre-pandemic, I’d typically go to the gym. These days I’ve figured out a way to work out at home. I’ve ended up having a ridiculous number of Zoom meetings, mostly dealing with musicians’ union stuff (the union has been really active checking in on and supporting musicians through these times). Then there’s writing, etc. until I can’t stand being indoors anymore and I putter around in my garden, bee hives, etc. Staying close to home, ‘cept for the very occasional grocery run. We’re eating amazing meals in the evening. In sum, as a musician “of an age,” with an 89-year-old mother-in-law in house, it’s pretty quiet, lots of reading, etc. I’ve been surprised how much I’ve enjoyed this time off the road.
What has been the hardest/most challenging part about being quarantined? Is your city starting to open up more now?
**The most difficult thing, actually, is not spending as much time as I’d like with my grand-kids, three of whom live in Brooklyn. I live in GA and the governor was the first to open things up, though most people are smarter than he is. Lacking complete information and any leadership at all, it’s been up to us individually to protect ourselves and our communities. Long term, the most challenging part of being quarantined is figuring out what this uncertainty means for the livelihoods of musicians and artists across the board.
What has it been like having to reschedule so many of your spring, summer and most likely fall shows? What shows in 2021 are you are already excited for?
**After getting over the economic shock, I’ve realigned my priorities enough to actually enjoy being home, getting into a routine that isn’t going to be interrupted any time soon. That’s really a new experience for a 50-year road warrior. More than anything, the uncertainty of what things are going to be like after live music venues and concert halls start up again is the most pressing. It’s clear that we’re not going to seen anything approximating a “packed house” for a while. There’s going to have to be a different sort of re-prioritizing happening then, because the financial potential is going to change the math of touring. I think it might feel a little like starting over again. Humility and gratitude will be great virtues to dive into then…
Frankly, I’ll be excited to have *any* shows in 2021!
Since we are all desperately missing live music, can you recall a favorite show of yours from the past? What do you think ultimately makes for a great show for this band?
**Certainly one of my most memorable was immediately following 9/11. I was scheduled to play at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, KS, a yearly gig for me. This is a festival with a robust campground culture, people there for a week or two in advance of the festival itself. So there were thousands of people who knew what had happened but hadn’t been bombarded with endless visual images of towers falling, street corner vigils, commentary, etc. But they were hurt and heartsick and hungry for connections to what they hold dear. My flight to Wichita was cancelled, so my roadie and I drove all night, arriving 30 minutes before my first set. Many musicians couldn’t get there at all. I ended my set with “This Land Is Your Land” and the crowd rose, held hands, and sang with abandon. I’ve rarely felt as useful as I did that moment. And, really, isn’t being useful the most important thing, no matter what your job?
What makes a great show? When you are completely present, “there”, and the sound is great and the audience is totally connected and you’re in the groove musically and you step back and that 14-year-old kid that still lives inside you thinks, “I can’t believe I get to do this!’
Let’s talk about your brand new album, “Cabin Fever Songs From The Quarantine.” What an appropriate title! First of all, what was keeping you inspired and motivated to write a new song every day for three weeks? Where did this groove come from? Is this the first time you have felt this kind of intensely inspired to write new music? How does this songwriting process compare to your past 40 albums?
**There are a number of times when I’ve decided that, because of a particularly momentous event/date/remembrance, I was going to write every day to explore all the layers of what that event/date/remembrance might mean. It typically starts off slow, kind of searching under rocks for inspiration, the first song or two are like the first pancakes of a batch, they’re best thrown away. But once the groove settles in, it’s off to the races. I’m pretty intentional about not requiring that I finish anything immediately, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know how to bring it home.
The inspiration can come from anywhere. In the case of Cabin Fever, it was from phone conversations with old friends (“When All of This Is Over” or “Sheltered in Place”), something I might read in a newspaper or a book (“The Donkey” or “Monet Refuses the Operation”), something in the news (“The Night That John Prine Died”), or even an observance of something completely normal (“Control”). The senses are heightened, story emerges more quickly, the possibilities of voice clearer, and the attendant laziness that, sadly, doesn’t immediately put your ass in a chair to write just doesn’t exist. Everything is fodder.
Can you pick out a few of your favorite songs on “Cabin Fever” and discuss how they came to be on this collection?
**”The Night That John Prine Died” almost wrote itself. John provided some perfect lyrics in his songs (Angel from Montgomery, Paradise) to conjure heavenly images. His simple, direct, and heart-touching approach to writing seemed to transcend a solely earthly realm, an unforgettable night at a hotel bar in Cambridge, England provided the 2nd verse, and the near-universal sense of loss that his death caused was a rich pallet upon which to paint the entire song. I felt lucky to have been in the right place and time to have written it. It was the final song written for the album.
**”Sheltered in Place” was plucked from a conversation with an old friend. He happened to mention, in the course of a seemingly unrelated story, that the Dorothy Day House, a homeless shelter, had closed in a nearby town. The pandemic has provided us with all kinds of new terminology (Front line, 6 feet away, sheltered in place) that is commonly understood. Stretching the definitions of the familiar is something I’ve always tried to do in my writing. It can serve to shake our minds out of one way to think about things. That’s when creativity can occur in a listener. And that’s part of my Holy Grail of songwriting.
**And I’ll throw in a third, “Monet Refuses the Operation.” Part of my morning ritual is receiving emails from both the Writer’s Almanac and the Paris Review. I wake up knowing I’ve got poetry waiting for me in the mail. “Monet” is a poem by Leisel Muller, a German-American poet who passed away a couple of years ago, and was published in the Paris Review. I tend to think pretty cinematically when I write, so I was immediately in the doctor’s office with the famous impressionist painter telling a well-meaning physician that, no, he didn’t want to see the world more clearly, that it had taken him his whole life to see a world of such beauty. This song is the most derivative on the album and, like the runt of the litter or the last kid chosen for a game, I know this one is a little too weird to get any airplay, but I love how this turned out.
How do you think this new collection shows how you have grown over the years? How exactly is it vintage John McCutcheon? What has remained the same? Do you think that what motivates you all to make music has grown and developed?
**I think my writing has gotten leaner and more story-driven over the years. I used to struggle to be as poetic as possible and feel as though it often distracted from the story with pretty language. As I tell my songwriting students, “You could hear the writing…” My process now is twofold: 1) what is the story? and 2) what is the voice? I’ve already got my toe in the water of intention, so, with those two foundational pillars in place, I can get to the point of the song. That being said, I’m “loose” enough in my writing confidence these days that I can allow the characters to make their own decisions, turn the story in ways I didn’t expect. Writing is a lot more fun for me these days because of that.
“Vintage John McCutcheon?” I’m not exactly sure what that is. I’ve done lots of things over the years with my songwriting, from the years I focused on writing songs for my kids to enjoying writing songs that fit into an edgier, more rock-and-roll pocket. Traditional music is my first love and has always been the foundation of my understanding of how to make a song compelling and powerful, whether it be funny or serious. It probably goes back to my tutelage by “Woody Guthrie Folksongs,” the book I discovered in my local public library the day I got my first guitar. Woody wrote in a way that drew you in, that painted pictures you could occupy, that made you be as playful with language as he was. It was direct, plain-spoken, yet often breathtakingly beautiful.
When I was fourteen, I wanted my music and my songwriting to impress girls. I think I’ve evolved a little since then. Now, I just want to be useful.
How do you think future music is going to be influenced by this incredible and absolutely necessary Black Lives Matter movement that the US and even the world is going through now? Is it inspiring you and your music today?
**The music I grew up loving and trying to play, American traditional music, is one of the many products of the meeting of African and European cultures. Even Country Music owes its uniqueness to this influence. Icons no less than Bill Monroe, Jimmy Rogers, and Maybelle Carter directly credit black musicians with their music. Of course, like most of white culture, they benefited far more than the sources they cited.
I suspect that venues, be they concert halls or festivals, are going to be presenting more diverse programs than in the past. It’s more than mere tokenism, it’s providing a platform for seeing what a rich world we live in. But, ultimately, it isn’t about numbers, it’s about ownership. Expanding audiences is slow. It takes time and it takes determined vision. Once the audiences are as diverse as the performances, we might have truly accomplished something.
If you could design your dream music video right now, what would it look like?
**Hmm. That could go so many different ways! At the heart of any video is the song and how to illuminate it with visual elements. I’m thinking maybe my song “Y’all Means All.” I wrote it in response to NC HB 2, more commonly known as “The Bathroom Bill.” But it quickly leap-frogged to encompass more than a single issue. So maybe something that, like most of my songs, started intentionally small in scope: a family sitting together at a table, then the table gets bigger, there’s lots of interesting dishes appearing. more people join in on the chorus, and go wild from there. No commentary, just increased numbers of folks joining in. A more obvious director would have cops and demonstrators taking a knee together and singing, maybe Koreans from both sides in the DMZ singing, and who knows?, Trump and Pelosi? You said “dream video,” right? No matter what, Prince would have to make an appearance.
If you could perform or write and record with any artist right now, who would you choose and why?
**I actually have a back-burner project I started musing about almost 30 years ago, “Works and Plays Well with Others,” in which I’d write and record with a number of different pals. We’re talking Richard Thompson, Inti Illimani, Dave Matthews (who I knew when he was a kid growing up in Charlottesville), Sweet Honey in the Rock, etc.
But single artist today? I’ve been really impressed with Jason Isbell. He’s inventive and brave. Same for Brandi Carlisle. I think Darrell Scott is probably one of the best musicians and writers out there today that most people don’t know about. I’ve been friends and recorded with Stuart Duncan for years. It’d be really fun to create an entire album from scratch together.
Is it hard to believe that you have been a musician and recording music for 45 years? Is there anything that you wish you could go back and change or tell yourself 45 years ago?
**Oh, I’d probably try to undo all the really stupid mistakes I made. Twice. But it was those missteps that got me here. I’d probably tell my 20-year-old self to slow down, be patient, be grateful, and continue that pain-in-the-ass drive to hear/try/learn everything. It’ll serve you well, And, oh yeah, stop thinking that you “have to do that gig” because it’s going to be the difference maker. You’re in a tiny sliver of the music world that most people don’t know still exists. Just pay attention. Try to tell the truth. Be brave. Serve your community. That’s your job.