An Interview with JOHN MCCUTCHEON On His Forthcoming 39th Album, ‘Ghost Light’ and More!
Posted On 30 Jan 2018
John McCutcheon didn’t mean to record Ghost Light, his 39th album. “It was a complete accident. I sat down over Memorial Day weekend and suddenly a line pestered me, ‘Billy didn’t come home last night.’ I thought, ‘Okay, so who’s Billy? Where’s home? What happened to him?’ And it was off to the races. 25 days and 30 new songs later, what was I supposed to do?” And as has happened so often in his forty-five year career, those races brought McCutcheon a collection of stories that are real, seductive and unexpected.
Wrapped in his distinctive Appalachian-rooted sound, he still manages to stretch out his musical wings. Whether highlighting his bluegrass credentials with the Woody Guthrie-McCutcheon penned “When My Fight for Life Is Over,” the rocking insistence of “Big Day,” or the chamber-folk delicacy of the title track, the musicianship is stellar (including appearances by fiddler Stuart Duncan and vocalists Kathy Mattea and Tim O’Brien), the production pristine, and the songwriting both spare and muscular.
Indeed, it is the storytelling of these songs that propel Ghost Light. “Me and Jesus,” muses about those biblically lost years we’ve always wondered about…with an added twist. “Story of Abe,” is the heart-wrenching tale of a man surprisingly shedding a reminder of his past. And even when tackling contemporary events, he tells the story of Charlottesville through the eyes of a World War II veteran in the stunning “The Machine.”
This new collection features appearances from friends Kathy Mattea and Stuart Duncan.
During the course of John’s 40 plus year career, he helped start the first traveling musician’s union, the Local 1000 – www.local1000.org. Johnny Cash once referred to him as “the most impressive instrumentalist I’ve ever heard.” John plays numerous instruments including piano, guitar, auto harp and banjo. He is one of the world’s master players of the beautiful hammered dulcimer. You will hear him play all or most of these instruments during his one man show and he tours quite a lot.
Learn more about John McCutcheon in the following All Access interview:
Happy New Year! Thanks for your time today! Where does this interview find you?
At home in GA after a 2 week tour out in CA.
Overall, how do you think 2017 was for you and your music career?
I had a health hiccough in early 2016, so I spent the balance of that year recovering, both physically and financially. 2017 was a good year. Released one of the most well-received CDs of my career, a new book (Flowers for Sarajevo, children’s picture book I wrote based on the story of the Cellist of Sarajevo), wrote over thirty new songs (it’s always nice to find you’re still creative), and got to spend great time with my family, all four generations of them.
What are you most excited about for this year?
Lots of interesting work ahead, concert-wise. The release of “Ghost Light,” which is the result of those 30+ new songs. Beginning the work on a project in honor of Pete Seeger’s 100th birthday next year. Plus, I’m old enough to be “retired,” which means I’m collecting my union pension, I’m on single-payer health care, finally (in America! Who knew?), which gives me a lot of freedom to do less of what I “have” to do and more of what I “want” to do.
Growing up, did you always want to be a musician?
Wanted to, never imagined I actually would.
Can you recall your earliest musical memory?
Probably music in church is the earliest memory. My folks had a collection of classical music on LP, so I listened to that a lot. No folk music until I saw the March on Washington on TV when I was 11. That introduced me to the music that would be the driving force in my life.
Was there a time where you thought of doing something completely different?
As the eldest son in an Scotch-Irish Catholic family, I was groomed to be a priest. Even went to seminary for awhile. Then I met Becky Rodehaver.
I always like to ask artists about where they came from and how that city or town has influenced them as an artist now. So how do you think your home has affected you and your music today?
I was born and raised in and around Wausau, Wisconsin. Grew up with small-town values, Catholic church and schools, big families, farms all around. It imprinted on me and my music in a really fundamental way. Cinematically, many of my songs are tied to images and people and places I grew up with. It’s why I turn to farming as a metaphorical locale for many of my songs.
Next month, you will be releasing your 39th album called “Ghost Light.” Is it hard to believe that you have put out that much material in your 40 plus year career?
It’s a cliché, I know, but these 45 years in the trade have gone by in a flash. I still feel like that 20-year-old I was when I started out, though tempered by something that feels like wisdom. Experience, at least. Being involved in a creative trade, forever infused by new, young energy, has kept me really creative. Plus, I’ve always considered myself a student of the craft and I feel like…after all this time…that I’m finally learning how to do it properly. And that, in turn, fuels the fire even more.
I love that you didn’t actually mean to record this collection and that it was a complete accident. Can you elaborate on how it all happened?
I sat down one day, participating in an exercise I’d given some of my songwriting students, and a line came to me: “Billy didn’t come home last night…” No idea who Billy was, where he was, why he didn’t come home, what happened to him. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that you surrender yourself to the process sometimes and follow where the story leads. Turned out to be a good one, so the next day I sat down again. And the race was on.
While it may be difficult to choose, can you pick a few of your favorite songs off “Ghost Light” and talk about how they came together?
”She Just Dances” is about observing my then 1-year-old granddaughter discover dancing one Saturday morning at our house. It was a remarkable, precious moment. Figured it deserved a song. “Me and Jesus” really reflects my current thinking about God’s work in the world, in a completely un-religious way. And “When My Fight for Life Is Over” is a Woody Guthrie lyric I completed that also happened to be Woody’s prescription for his memorial service. And now it’s also mine.
I am very curious to know about how you started the first traveling musician’s union, the Local 1000? Where did the idea for this organization first come from? How do you think it has helped you?
Like all good organizing, it was the result of lots of listening and asking a lot of questions. It was started by a group of long-time union members who wanted to see the musicians’ union (the American Federation of Musicians) better serve the needs of traveling musicians. We agitated, we met, we petitioned, we organized and, finally, twenty-five years ago now, we got chartered as the first (and only) non-geographic Local in the AFM. We now have over 500 members throughout North America and continue to grow. We are, in fact, the largest Local in the history of the AFM that doesn’t have an orchestra (which is, traditionally, a big money-maker for an AFM Local). I served as president for 15 years and am now a proud rank-and-filer. How did it help me personally? Insured my instruments via the Union. Mortgaged my house. Collected disability when I got sick. Went to bat for me when I got stiffed. Paying me a great pension now. But most importantly, it connected me with fellow musicians who had similar experiences, problems, and needs. We were able to work collectively to achieve what we needed and were able to aid one another in times of trouble. That, in a nutshell, is what Union is supposed to do.
Where do you find that you at your happiest- on stage performing, in the studio recording music, writing songs or elsewhere?
Musically, I feel most like I’m doing my job on stage. It’s where all the elements of what I do (songwriting, story writing, instrumental work, singing, and crafting a good “show” for an audience) comes together. I love each of the individual elements, but the focal point is the interaction of the work with the public.
Personally, I’m happiest at home, surrounded by a big extended family.
We are living in a crazy and at times rough world right now so I am curious how you think being a musician gives you the most joy in life today?
As one who travels from town to town for their job, I’m buoyed by the amazing work that’s being done by little organizations and communities and individuals all over this country and, indeed, around the world. Our attention is drawn to the top of the political food chain so often these days, it’s easy to give up. The empirical evidence will always be on the side of the pessimist, but that’s a terrible way to live your life. There are simply too many people doing too many good things for me to afford the luxury of despair. Plus, if we *truly* believe change comes from the bottom-up and does not “trickle down,” then that’s where we should look for the information about what’s really happening.
How do you think that new music being created today is going to reflect these difficult times?
As in every age, it’s a way for people to get information, get inspired, find out they’re not alone, find a part to play or sing that allows them to be involved. Helps us blow off steam. Helps us party, dance. Because we need music to give us solace, give us joy, piss us off, and connect us.
Who are some of your favorite artists or rather, what musicians have continued to inspire you and your music?
Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie we huge influences on my. Pete I knew well, Woody died when I was 15, never met him. I spent many years studying with amazing traditional Appalachian musicians that were never famous, but were some of my favorites. My list of those your readers are apt to know is long and weird. Springsteen. Mozart. Astor Piazzola. Stanley Brothers. Roscoe Holcomb. The Beatles. Dylan. Guy Clark. Duo Guardabaranco. Johnny Clegg and Savuka. The Carter Family. David Francey. Mercedes Sosa. The Balfa Brothers. Finest Kind. The Roots. Johnny Cash. Prince. Tom Russell. Roy Orbison. Roger Miller. Brahms. Richard Thompson.
What musicians would you absolutely still love to work with in the future?
I’ve already worked, in lots of different ways, with some of my favorite musicians. I’ve performed lots with symphonies, but I’d love to work with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, my hometown gang.
What do you hope your fans take away from your music?
That they’ve been entertained, maybe connected to something unexpected and bigger than themselves. That they leave more hopeful. That they’d maybe like to do it again.
Do you find that a lot of your music has a greater meaning behind it?
That’s for the listener to decide.
Where can fans see you perform next?
Depends on where they are. My www site, www.folkmusic.com has all my dates. It’s often where I go to find out where I’m going next. Really.