John McCutcheon photo credit: Eric Petersen
Dive Into a “Bucket List” of 18 New Songs with John McCutcheon
John McCutcheon has spent many, many years on the road bringing joy to audiences with his multi-instrumental, songwriting, and teaching expertise in Folk music. He’s also set to begin another tour taking in the East Coast, and in the New Year, the West Coast. But during this long time at home, he not only has stayed incredibly busy as a songwriter, he’s come to some realizations about the time and space needed to write, what options are out there for reaching audiences remotely, and what works best in terms of collaborating and recording with friends at a distance.
For those of you following the work of John McCutcheon, you’ll recall that he released a surprising burst of super-relevant songs titled Cabin Fever early in the pandemic period. Following that has been a more reflective but equally energetic volley making up the 18 songs on his Bucket List album, releasing on September 17th via his Appalsongs label. Like Cabin Fever, the digital album follows a pay-what-you-can model and is easily accessible for fans. I spoke with John McCutcheon about the realizations that this at-home time has brought him as reflected in Bucket List, and about how those realizations might continue to shape his future.
Americana Highways: I’m aware of your quickly created pandemic album, Cabin Fever, but I think you were hinting even then that another one was on the way.
John McCutcheon: The turnaround time for Cabin Fever was pretty quick because it just needed to be mixed as a single voice and a single instrument. But I actually have another album that I’m half-way done with, and yet a third waiting on the shelf ready to be done from when I returned from Australia 18 months ago. There’s no shortage of material, which is a wonderful problem to have, but it’s a weird time to figure out how to get your music out there.
AH: Are you having to zig-zag a little depending on the needs of different albums to try to finish what you can?
JMcC: I don’t know if you can hear it on this album, but we managed without every being in the room at the same time, to play together somehow. I think musicians realized that we were going to be the last part of the workforce to go back to work, so we figured out how to do what we needed to do. I’m grateful for that, but I can’t wait to get back in the studio with these fellows and actually play face to face like we used to. But we are all old studio dogs, so we know how to play together, even when someone is isolated in the next room. The real magician in all this was the mixing engineer, who had to take all this material and deal with it. Kudos to Bob Dawson, who made it sound like we were all in the same room. I’ve worked with him for 30 some years.
AH: At what point in the songwriting did Jon Carroll, JT Brown, and Stuart Duncan come in?
JMcC: What’s really fun is that they are really invested in the songs. They hear them from the time they are rough drafts. They actually helped me pick which songs would be on this album because they reacted so powerfully to some them.
AH: I was wondering how you chose these particular songs for the collection, since I knew you had a surplus.
JMcC: When they had listened to all 40 plus songs, there were some that felt closer to completion and then I imagined that they could and might work together. I’m old school in that I still love the album format. Everyone in their lives has gotten an album and fallen in love with a song on that album that’s very deep in the album and is never going to be on the radio. It touches them somehow. Then, there’s the ability of a group of songs to be greater than the sum of its parts. What kind of story does it tell? I’m a dinosaur in the age of streaming in that I think that I still like to actually sit down and listen to a whole album.
AH: Having chosen these songs with your collaborators, do you feel that they come to form a whole? Is the sequencing important in that?
JMcC: I think there’s a real art to the sequencing of an album. I remember the days of LPs when you had to get people invested in the first song. Then, for the last song, you had to make people want to turn over the disc and listen to the other side. Now, things are different on your phone or on a CD. But there’s pacing, determining which song has emotional impact, and what to do immediately after that. It’s kind of like putting a live set together. You want to feel that you can engage with the listener, make them laugh here, then well up there, and where do you leave them after that? Finally, you hope to leave them in a place of elation, meditation, etc.
For this album, sequencing was a lot about pacing, about putting songs together that seemed to provide context for one another, like the song “Medicine Game” going immediately into the song about the little French village that harbored Jews in World War II. One song can amplify and inform another.
AH: Has your approach to storytelling changed at all between Cabin Fever and Bucket List? Cabin Fever was very much of its time, though narrative was still important. This one feels more timeless.
JMcC: Actually, my writing took a turn about five years ago when I got pretty sick and I had to get off the road for about three months for treatment. I went through that file that I know every writer has of songs in various states of incompletion. Having all this stuff laid out before me, I was able to perform the jigsaw of stitching together little pieces that had been created over the years. I think that made my sense of storytelling really heightened. I feel like my writing took a big turn five years ago, which is a weird thing in the midst of a 50-year career. But it’s exciting to feel like I’m still learning cool new stuff and how to do my job better. I actually demand that my listeners do some work and get inside the song, which is something that I’ve learned from the people I admire.
When I’m writing a song now, the first two things I ask myself are: “What’s the story? Who is the voice?” Because the voice is not always you. You are not always that person. You see the story through a person’s eyes. I find it interesting myself when I hear other writers do that and I’ve gotten more tuned in to what makes a story work for people. You’ve gone somewhere else, even for only three and a half minutes, and when you come back, you find that you’re a little bit different, that you’ve got a soft spot in your heart for a character in the song, and you didn’t expect that. It’s one of the magical things about music.
But, when you have a year and a half in which you don’t have to worry about getting on an airplane every weekend, occupying the whole weekend, and planning all week for your job as a concert performer, it’s different. I look at some of the songs on the album and I know that I never would have remembered some of these stories then. I never would have remembered hearing about the East Kentucky Moonshiner and how the world changed when the timber and coal people came. I certainly never would never have remembered my grandfather lowering himself into his chair and thought, “I’ll write a song about that.” It’s amazing what you can do when there are no parameters.
AH: I saw in the liner notes from the album that you have never allowed yourself enough time to write in the past. How big an impact do you think that realization has had upon your future?
JMcC: Oh, it’s had a tremendous impact. I think that I have been seen as the ultimate road dog, with 150 or 200 shows a year. I thought that’s how you had to do it. But I have realized that the impact of any one of those shows is not going to last as long as these songs simply being out there in the ether. I think, also, at different times in your life, you have different roles to play. Now, I’m kind of an elder in the Folk music community, and there are a lot of young people coming up. I’ll be touring about half as much once things get geared up again.
AH: You have put in so many miles on the road, so it seems pretty healthy not to feel like you have to operate in the same mode during all phases of your life. But your upcoming tours are still pretty wide-ranging.
JMcC: I’m of an age now where a lot of people I know are retiring and they ask me when I’m going to retire, and I don’t know what that means. I remember Pete Seeger being out there in his 90s, just trying to stay as youthful as possible. I think whatever kind of work you do, that’s probably your goal. I don’t think I knew what that could possibly feel like, though, until the pandemic came. Then I was forced for a year and a half to think about how it would feel to not be on the road anymore. I feel like I got in touch with my inner introvert. I realized that I could really write, and that was really fulfilling. It’s sort of like that song, “When All of This is Over” on Cabin Fever, “I suspect there will be some changes in the way things used to be.”
AH: For your title track, “Bucket List,” you’ve released a video. It is pretty damn amazing how many things you’ve done in your life. Are the photos in your video your actual photos?
JMcC: No. I could have just put the song up there with the cover of the album, and I thought “That’s boring!” So I went online and found photos. The picture of my wife and I at the end is my photo, and some of the performance images that I’m in.
AH: Sometimes when people reel off the things they’ve done in life, that can feel like a reduction, but this exploration feels really expansive. It brings some mystery back to those things.
JMcC: I haven’t done all of these things, though most of them. The funny thing is that I’d never thought about it before. It wasn’t as if I had a Bucket List. Some of these are things that my younger self didn’t know about. One of the things about Folk music is that there is Folk music everywhere. I’ve never been a tourist. Somehow without a lot of effort, I find people who do Folk music in their respective cultures, and the world does feel really expansive and yet completely interconnected to me. That’s part of what I wanted to say as well.
AH: That’s a really beautiful idea. A heavier song on the album is “Atonement.” That’s a big subject to decide to write about in some ways.
JMcC: Here’s a little insight into my writing process. I was up at our cabin, and I almost never sit down to write with an idea in mind. I just have enough faith that something is going to happen. I don’t think that God is going to reach out and touch my hand, I’ve just done this enough that I know that if I am not too intentional about it, something really interesting and unexpected can come out. That’s absolutely the story of this song. It’s a completely fictionalized story, but it started with me wondering what I was going to write about that day. Then a truck rolled by and I heard tired crackle on the gravel. I wrote that down and it was off to the races.
I think that it was inspired, in some respect, by a movie. I think it’s called Five Minutes of Heaven, a Liam Neeson movie about a former IRA terrorist. It was interesting to hear about really asking forgiveness of someone and also have to be realistic about what the response would be. But I also thought that in writing about a semi-reformed white supremacist, that’s something that we’re all going to have to tackle at some point. What we really want is for all these people to somehow repent, but how would that work?
In order for that to work, you’d have to forgive, and see them as real people rather than caricature. So much of what we see, even among people we like, is a caricature. That’s what a lot of racial reckoning is about, seeing actualized humans. In some ways, I think this is the most important song on the album. It’s a very intricate story and it calls on us to have a protagonist that we have to feel some kind of empathy with. The guy is admitting, “Yeah, I fucked up. I know I did. And the price that society said that I had to pay was not enough. I have to do something myself to make this right.” He confronts all the really bad shit he did.
There’s that song, and also “The Other” on the new album, which also doesn’t leave any stone unturned. Everybody “others” something. I want to present some interesting stories in ways that make people say, “I gotta think about that.” I don’t know that there any greater accomplishment than to make people have a new idea or open their heart just a little bit. How great is that?
Keep up with John McCutcheon here: https://www.folkmusic.com