John McCutcheon Releases A Folk Masterpiece
It’s been a long time since I considered an album a folk masterpiece, but I must give that distinction to John McCutcheon’s new Trolling for Dreams.
The album — the 38th in McCutcheon’s prolific career — overflows with great songs, warm and lively vocals and masterful playing. McCutcheon, a virtuoso on guitar, fiddle, and hammered dulcimer, is backed by electric guitarist Pete Kennedy, Nashville fiddler Stuart Duncan, keyboardist Jon Carroll, and vocals from Tim O’Brien.
“It is an album that happened very organically,” McCutcheon tells me. “A year ago, I had a serious health issue (a lung infection), had to cancel a couple of months of touring and was home for the longest period of time in many years. I was able to do lots of things, among them, going over my folder of songs in various states of completion/incompletion. Probably half the songs on “Trolling” were living in that folder a year ago. I discovered little gems that I fell in love with. By the time I was able to get out again, I realized that I had, along with a bunch of new things I’d written, enough for an album. However, two months of lost touring left me in a pretty deep financial hole. I really had no business mounting a new recording project, but I had to do it, because I felt as though this was some of the best stuff I’d done in years.”
The songs on Trolling for Dreams flow effortlessly, and McCutcheon’s rich baritone is compelling. He actually walked into the studio with many more songs than the 14 on the album.
“I loved the songs I brought in — over twice as many songs as we used. The band and the engineer loved all the songs equally, but I had to make some executive decisions about what to focus on thematically and musically. I can’t tell you how much a difference it is to have everyone in the room — engineer, musicians, writer — completely invested in a song. In this age of home studios, Pro Tools, self-publishing, and more, I went back to Bias Studios in Springfield, Virginia, and my long-time engineer, Bob Dawson, who is a wizard, perfect artistic foil, and dear friend. I reassembled the core band I used on Greatest Story Never Told, the last album I felt this way about song-wise. They are guys I love playing with. And, finally, I’m 64 years old. I have a much clearer idea of what I want to talk about and how to do it. To quote Tom Wolfe, I came in feeling like ‘a man in full.’”
Why the choice of Trolling for Dreams as the title?
“You always go for the obvious song title, one that hopefully ties everything together,” McCutcheon says. “There was nothing there, so then I start poring over the lyrics. There wasn’t a perfect match, but the phrase ‘trolling for dreams’ (‘the old men at the riverside trolling for dreams’) from the song ‘She Is’ somehow felt right. Plus, and the singers out there will resonate with this, it simply felt good in the mouth.”
McCutcheon, who also has built a following with his children’s albums, says he spent many years listening carefully to instrumentalists trying to learn how to play, but he failed to treat his voice as an instrument.
“Once I started doing that, things changed pretty dramatically. Second, despite being bred and buttered on traditional Appalachian music, I had to finally admit that I was not a tenor. I was a baritone. And once I figured that out, I suddenly felt very comfortable in my vocal skin.”
Another excellent voice, Hot Rize lead vocalist Tim O’Brien, joins McCutcheon on three Trolling for Dreams songs: “Gone,” “Y’all Means All,” and “Sharecropper’s Son.”
“I’ve known Tim since the ’70s,” McCutcheon says. “He’s one of the most versatile and amazing musicians I’ve ever met, and a lovely guy to boot. My admiration for Tim is deep and wide. When Hot Rize would play in town, back when I was in Virginia, I’d have them over to the house for a cookout. Tim and I have bunked at one another’s joints and share a deep, deep love of traditional music, which has influenced the way we sing, play and write. He’s been involved in many of my projects and always makes them better. I love the guy.”
McCutcheon started playing with Pete Kennedy during the sessions for McCutcheon’s exceptional 1983 album Howjadoo.
“He’s played on probably the majority of my albums, though we hadn’t done anything together since (2002’s) Greatest Story Never Told,” McCutcheon says. “It was a delight to have him back in the studio, and he’s a one-take wonder.”
McCutcheon is equally enthusiastic about Stuart Duncan’s talents.
“What is there to say about StuBob?” McCutcheon says. “He’s simply my first choice. We’ve done everything from fiddle/banjo duets to some of the most expressive fiddle playing you can imagine. Plus, he’s a swell guy and gets inside of a song better than any fiddler I’ve ever worked with. He really understands what he needs to do, right away.”
McCutcheon’s folk-music prowess sometimes is overlooked because of his eight children’s albums. Howjadoo was his entry into the children’s market, and it was recorded “as a first birthday gift” to his son, Will.
“There really wasn’t a children’s music market beyond Disney at that point, but it was a fun way to chronicle the growing up of my kids and their pals,” he says. “By the time the eighth album came out (1999’s Four Seasons: Springsongs), my kids were more adult than child, and I felt I’d said everything I needed to say. Plus, the songs I was writing for them at that point felt more like adult songs, whatever those are.”
Are the years of singing to children behind him?
“I’ve never really had a career plan,” McCutcheon says. “It was more organic and spontaneous. When I was in the parent world, lots of my songs were in that language. I have grandkids now and am writing loads for them, so who knows? Maybe there’s a future back in family music.”
McCutcheon says that when he was recording family music from 1983 through 1999, he never stopped making “adult” albums. “Sometimes we were simultaneously recording an adult album and a family album,” he says. “Believe me, the mixing sessions were mind-bending. My involvement in recording and performing for families was simultaneous with my regular touring schedule.”
McCutcheon is a master of many instruments, so I asked him to discuss his proficiency on each and whether there are any others he would like to learn to play.
“I wish I knew how to play all instruments!” he declares. “But, after 45 years of lugging around all my crap, I’m coming back as a harmonica player. I started on guitar when I was 14 and started hearing banjo music — especially Tom Ashley and Roscoe Holcomb — [at] about 18. I borrowed a banjo from a kid from Arkansas when I was in college and went off the deep end. I convinced my college adviser to let me spend my junior year abroad traveling around the Appalachian South visiting and learning from banjo players. I’m still on that trip! I quickly found that banjo players hang with fiddle players, so I picked that up. Mandolin is the same fingering as fiddle.
“The autoharp, mountain dulcimer, Jew’s harp and others came in short order. I was in my early 20s with no family, no obligations. I spent every waking hour playing music, exploring new territory. I went to shape-note singings, Old Regular Baptist church services, pie suppers, picket lines, family reunions. It was in all those places I was blessed to be taken in by elders who were not only talented and generous, but also patient with this overeager young stranger. It is those people who taught me everything I know about playing music. But, most importantly, they taught me how music is a normal part of life, how it has obligations to a community, how it helps sustain communities, how it is relevant, dynamic, and instrumental — rather than ornamental — to a community’s life. It is not art for art’s sake. It is utilitarian and, as such, has responsibilities.”
“My instrumental bucket list includes learning enough to at least amuse myself satisfactorily on Cajun accordion, nyckelharpa, and Uilleann pipes. I actually own one of each and squeeze, bow, and honk on each regularly.”
Did any specific musicians or songwriters also influence McCutcheon?
“The day I got my first guitar at 14, I started pedaling to our county library and checking out the only book that had guitar chords in it: Woody Guthrie Folksongs. I didn’t know who he was, but the book had a page of guitar chord grids and loads of songs to learn. Guthrie was an astonishingly ecumenical songwriter: love songs, kids songs, historical songs, topical songs. He did it all. That experience probably fed a wide-ranging interest in subjects and audiences that have marked my work. Plus, Dylan was just emerging, and it was clear that he had visited the very same wellspring, so that convinced me I might be on the right track.
“Pete Seeger influenced everyone that ever had to perform in front of a group of folks. He taught us that concerts are not simply about one guy standing up and showing off. It is a communally created affair. You left a Seeger concert transformed, hopeful, less alone. How’d he do that? That was the classroom we all went to.”
Numerous other musicians have also been an influence: Roscoe Holcomb, I.D. Stamper, Janette Carter, Paul Van Arsdale, Jimmy Cooper, J.P. Fraley, Tommy Jarrell, Tommy Hunter, Nimrod Workman, Mike Seeger, Dock Boggs, and Cas Wallin. Influential songwriters have included Guthrie, Si Kahn, Jean Ritchie, Hazel Dickens, Utah Phillips. Guy Clark, Stan Rogers, Joe Hill, Pete Seeger, Victor Jara, and Leonard Cohen.
McCutcheon says his first Pete Seeger concert, probably in 1971, at Mankato State College in Mankato, Minnesota, “was transformational.” But he gives Bruce Springsteen the nod for the best concerts he has seen.
“Springsteen never fails to create an intimate, expansive, joyous experience with 20,000-30,000 people at a time,” says McCutcheon, who has seen him live many times. “He absolutely believes in every song he sings and in the transformational power of rock and roll. And even in his late 60s now, he’s still able to do it. He ain’t called The Boss for nothing.”
The concert, however, that influenced McCutcheon most as a musician was a very different scene.
“My mother took me to a community concert series piano recital when I was 8, probably 1960, in our local high school auditorium,” he recalls. “I’d never been to a concert before. We got dressed up, sat in a big room with lots of other dressed-up people and watched one guy in front command our attention. It felt like I was in church, which has a surprisingly similar set-up and effect. I left feeling like I was a different person, though I didn’t know how or why. And I knew I wanted that to happen to me again. I eventually wanted to know how to help create that feeling, both in an audience and in myself.”
McCutcheon grew up in Wisconsin and lived there until leaving for college in 1970. Wisconsin, he says, “continues to provide a narrative landscape for my songs. I tend to write very cinematically, and I frequently use my memories growing up there, people I knew, faces and stories I remember/misremember, as the canvas on which I write.”
From 1975 to 2006, he lived in Virginia, and he now lives in Smoke Rise, Georgia, just east of Atlanta.
“I lived in Virginia most of my life, so that state — a commonwealth, actually — figures largely in my music. I’m still getting to know Georgia, but the ethos of the Deep South is definitely a wonderful world to explore, while being part of it. It provides great stories to write about — listen to ‘Fitzgerald’ on (the 2013 album) 22 Days. And North Georgia fiddlers are a very different breed, plus there’s a great songwriting community here that defied cross-genre description.”
Thirty-eight albums in the can is quite an accomplishment, and No. 38 may be his greatest work.
“I love Trolling for Dreams,” McCutcheon says. “It feels like the most fully realized album I’ve ever done. But I’ve loved doing each of my albums. Joe Hill’s Last Will, released in 2015, was the first album of all Joe Hill songs in 65 years and was released in honor of the 100th anniversary of his death. In 2012, I did a similar album of Woody Guthrie songs, honoring his 100th birthday. I love being able to do albums that are not only musically enjoyable, but timely and helpful. That’s really all you can ask for, isn’t it?”