Key to the Highway: John McCutcheon

Interviews Key to the Highway Series

Americana Highways’  Key to the Highway series 

Fans always clamor to learn more about their favorite, most beloved musicians and those who travel with them. There’s such an allure to the road, with its serendipity, inevitable surprises, and sometimes unexpected discomforts. This interview series is a set of questions we are asking some of our favorite roots rock Americana artists to get to know more about them and what they’ve learned and experienced on the road. We are sure they have key insights to share and stories to tell. Here’s one from John McCutcheon.

AH: How do you like your coffee or other morning wake-up beverage?

JM: Strong black coffee w/half-and-half.  Followed by a morning ritual of Merton, Rilke, a bit of the Stoics, followed by NYTimes, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, sudoku, and Times crossword and I’m ready for the morning!

AH: What’s the most interesting or strangest motel/hotel or place you have stayed (while on the road?)

JM:  Easy.  Many years ago, my roadie and I bunked at the Fantasyland Motel in Eugene, OR.  All night drug deals in the parking lot.  Burned hole in mattress, filthy sink.  Should have accepted the offer of the Love Suite!  My roadie had a guy banging on his door at 3AM hollering for “Bob.”  Last night we didn’t stay at a Hilton-brand hotel.

Actually, a close second, also in Oregon, was a late night stop at the Sunrise Motel.  Too tired to make it all the way to a pal’s house in Seattle, we pulled over at the first place we could find.  I went in to get the rooms and, as I was exiting the office, the manager called me back in and handed me two pieces of beef jerky.  “They’re complimentary!” he beamed.

AH: If one CD is stuck in the player in the van for the entire tour, what do you hope it is?  And why?

JM: Antologia by Duo Guardabarranco.  I met this Nicaraguan brother-sister duo (the brother has since died) in the mid-80’s at a Canadian festival.  We became friends and visited one another in our respective countries many times.  The beauty of their music is otherworldly.  The most important “why” is my personal history with them.

A very close 2nd would be Famous Blue Raincoat by Jennifer Warnes.  This is the best collection of Leonard Cohen songs ever to be released.  Warnes is not only a fabulous singer, but she’s got exquisite taste, has forged fascinating and arresting arrangements, and consistently surrounds herself with impeccable musicians and singers.  Finally, this has to be the 20th anniversary release, which includes several additional and amazing cuts.

AH: What’s one personal item you must have with you on your road trip?

JM: Hmm.  I guess it’d be my iPad (weird that this can be called a “personal item”), as it contains all the digital versions of my morning ritual (see above), photos of my big ol’ family, and a way to FaceTime with my grandkids, which is one of the things that keeps The Road sane for me.

AH: What is your relationship with food?   How do you handle this on the road, and what’s your favorite dish on the road, (or restaurant, and what do you order there)?

JM: Boy, this is so much easier than it used to be.  Over nearly 50 years of roadwork, I’ve seen the introduction of salad bars (which was a huge deal back in the day), decent coffee, healthier menus in general, and lots of options.

Food is a big thing in our house.  My wife is Cuban and food is love in her culture.  So, maintaining some semblance of normalcy entails stopping, sitting down, and making room for the time and the community of eating.  And, not incidentally, it means less scavenging post-gig for whatever crap food is available at midnight…which is usually pizza, candy bars, or, if you’re touring in the UK, Indian.

AH: If you could pause your life for a few weeks and spend some time living in a place you only have passed through, which would you choose, and why?

JM: I actually did this recently, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  I returned from Australia in mid-March and immediately went into self-quarantine at my north Georgia cabin.  I was there for 3 weeks, at least 2 weeks longer than I’d ever been able to spend there before.  I would live there full time, if I could.  Isolated, peaceful, and inspiring.  I wrote an entire album while I was there!

AH: What quote or piece of advice have you gotten from someone on the road that has really stuck with you?

JM: Very early on, when I was young and stupid, I was partying hard at a post-concert soiree.  Someone offered me a ride to my hotel and said, “Probably time to hit the hay.  For the folks tomorrow night, it’s Day 1 of your tour!”  Ever since, I’ve kept in mind that there’s a job to do tomorrow and you owe it to those folks to be healthy, fresh, and present.  It’s kept me focused for nearly five decades.

Find all things John McCutcheon here:

See other Key to the Highway interviews here: (click here for: Danny Barnes  Patterson Hood Jerry Joseph BJ Barham Rodney Crowell Todd Snider Elizabeth Cook Tommy Womack Eric Ambel, Dan Baird, Robbie Fulks, Malcolm Holcombe Jon Langford Steve Poltz, Lilly Hiatt  Sarah Shook & the Disarmers )

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