John McCutcheon: A Voice Of Sanity with a Message of Reconciliation
The new album, Cabin Fever: Songs From The Quarantine, features tales of hope and resilience for this trying time
John McCutcheon has been writing songs, singing and playing traditional music for most of his adult life.
He’s a folksinger, a songwriter of everything from symphonic works to children’s music, a union man and an author, with 41 albums in his catalogue. Like all great folk artists, he often chronicles the day-to-day realities of life in America. When the country went into a nationwide lock down, he picked up his guitar and wrote songs about the pandemic. With two exceptions, the 17 tracks on his new album, Cabin Fever, were composed during a three-week period of self-imposed isolation in the mountains of Georgia.
“I’d just come back from Australia, at the end of an international tour,” McCutcheon said from his home near Atlanta. “In Australia, they didn’t get what was going on yet, but I don’t think anyone did. I’d been playing festivals with thousands of people in attendance and concerts with hundreds of listeners. People would come up to me at the end of a show and throw their arms around me and say, ‘Here mate, let’s take a picture.’ My wife is diabetic and my mother-in-law is 89, so even though I hadn’t seen my family for a while, I headed up to our cabin for three weeks, to make sure I didn’t bring anything home with me.
“I didn’t go stir crazy. Despite being a performer, I’m kind of an introvert. I had my dog and I got to read a lot and write a lot of songs. I had time to make demos of all the songs and it was a treat to isolate in a quiet, inspiring space. I had planned to make an album of entirely different material, songs I’d been holding back for a year or more, when I came home. I’d gathered the usual crew of musicians and the studio dates were booked, but that obviously wouldn’t work. My long-time recording engineer and co-producer, Bob Dawson, suggested making a record of the new songs I was writing during the quarantine. I have a home studio in my garage with some decent equipment, so I recorded them and sent him the files. He always makes me sound good and, since he wasn’t able to have sessions at his place [Bias Studios], it was an opportunity to remotely put an album together.”
McCutcheon was in a state of creative overdrive at the cabin and wrote enough tunes for several albums. Then he recorded simple demos. “I write the lyrics in a notebook, but when I’m writing two or three songs a day, it’s hard to remember all the melodies. A number of times in my life, when something important or memorable was happening, like the birth of my first grandchild, I’d give myself a challenge: to write every day in order to explore everything I was feeling. I don’t sing my diary, but I knew I was going to be up there for maybe three weeks and I wanted to see what came out. I got funny stories, cathartic stuff and hopeful things. When I’m in that zone, I lose the feeling of having to pilot my way through the writing and let it come.
“My friend Richard texted me and told me John Prine died. John was a friend of mine and that song [‘The Night That John Prine Died’] just happened. The song ‘Control’ came while I was sitting on my back porch. A squirrel came up and stole some birdseed I’d put out. I’d been reading Marcus Aurelius, one of the stoics – ‘You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.’ Squirrels used to piss me off. When I relaxed my control, the anger vanished. Once I acknowledge the fact that I don’t ever know what’s going to happen, everything becomes fun.”
Cabin Fever is a celebration of this moment in time. McCutcheon strips things down to voice and guitar, crafting simple arrangements that augment his insightful lyrics and haunting melodies. “Front Lines” pays tribute to the doctors and nurses caring for their patients, with full, strummed chords and a tense vocal delivery. “The Night That John Prine Died” borrows Prine’s fingerpicking style and references some of his memorable lyrics. “Hallelujah Morning” is a gospel tune that celebrates the end of the pandemic and the joy of community, with the brittle sound of a resonator guitar, while “My Dog Talking Blues” takes a humorous look at life under quarantine.
As soon as the album was finished, McCutcheon put it up on his website – www.folkmusic.com He didn’t put a price on the album. People can download it free or for as much as they want to pay. “I didn’t have the money to make a physical CD,” he said. “It doesn’t make economic sense to make CDs anymore. Some people still buy them, but I sell most of mine after shows and it’s clear there aren’t going to be any shows for a while. I know a lot of people have lost their jobs and they need music too. If you need it, and want it, and you have no money, take it! It’s yours. It’s interesting to see how many people have paid more than they would have for a CD. It creates a different kind of economy. The major labels put the price tag on CDs and LPs, not the artists. These days, I’m doing online concerts with a tip jar. It’s all gone back to busking. I don’t know what it’s going to be down the line, but people have been very generous. Some of them have come back and said, ‘I want to buy copies for all my kids’ and sent me 100 bucks. Everything is an experiment right now.”
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