John McCutcheon photo by Michael G. Stewart
John McCutcheon on Building Together With Tom Paxton
It seems to be an era of exceptional collaborations among seasoned songwriters and musicians, and we have another to add to that list, John McCutcheon and Tom Paxton finally creating an album, titled Together. For those who are members of McCutcheon’s Patreon or who follow either artist closely, this will come as no surprise, since the two have been spending Zoom sessions chatting and drifting into songwriting for a substantial period now. But at last, the public gets to see the results, results which may be the forerunner of future offerings. Audiences can also catch McCutcheon and Paxton live in performance together at several shows in late October 2023 (check here for tour dates: https://www.folkmusic.com/shows.html)
In a body of work affectionately referred to as the “McPaxton Project” on social media, McCutcheon and Paxton are equal songwriters, with either party as likely to have contributed one part or another, a dynamic that McCutcheon feels has been unique to his experience. This ease of communication stems from a shared conception of songwriting that comes from directness, a certain “leanness” in approach, and a razor-sharp focus on the story to each song. The songs on Together share that remarkable sense of focus that is clearly the product of a wealth of creativity and a long-honed selectiveness that both Paxton and McCutcheon brought to the table. They are also joined by Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Jon Carroll on keyboard, JT Brown on bass, and special guest Charlie McCoy. I spoke with John McCutcheon about the playful and productive dynamic that built Together.
Americana Highways: I know from talking to you during the pandemic period that you were already having conversations with Tom Paxton that were resulting in songwriting. I seem to recall there was rather a lot of songwriting going on, too! Is this the first gathering of those songs?
John McCutcheon: The two of us would just tell stories, have conversations, and tell jokes. That’s kind of how our two o’clock sessions still are. The first half is the two of us telling lots of stories, and then talking lots of sports. We’re both really into sports. Then, eventually, one of us will say, “Don’t you think we better write a song?” [Laughs] Then comes the easy part. It’s really easy writing with Tom. He’s my hero, in that he’s 15 years older than I am, and at a time when most people are saying, “Well, that was my life.” But here he is. I’m not even the only person he’s writing with. People in this line of work only survive because we’re flexible, and resilient, and creative. The pandemic presented us with ways in which we had to be creative and use all kinds of new technology.
I’m in my writing studio, and it looks more like a film studio, with cameras and stuff all over the place. We had to learn how to do that. We had to learn how to utilize Zoom technology. I just got off another songwriting session and I’m writing with all kinds of folks. It’s been learning to do things in all different ways.
AH: I feel like it’s been a really interesting turning point for you because once you started figuring this out, it is now part of your practice, isn’t it? You even have an online concert coming up.
AH: So this all ties into your decision to do more songwriting and start using technology to do that?
JMcC: As soon as we realized that we can’t get out of any meetings anymore! When musicians were at home and audiences and venues weren’t ready, you had to find a way to keep the wolf from the door and also to scratch that issue. I also think that time proved how much live music meant to the community at large. We learned how to sing into camera lenses and audiences were willing to watch live concerts on our phones.
That shows how much we missed that. I am continuing to do it because people raised hell when I said I wasn’t. It was a lot of “Gosh, you never come to our town,” or “I like always being in the front row,” or “I like being able to get up to pee without disturbing everybody.” There were all kinds of reasons why people wanted it to continue. It’s also kind of fun to say, “I’m going to do an all-Pete-Seeger show.”
AH: Is the musical relationship that you have with Tom connected to your discovery of protest music as a young person? He’s just enough older than you to have gotten your attention back then.
JMcC: Well, that was connected with the Civil Rights Movement. In our house, my mother had been a social worked, and we were a really religious family, and here was this movement led by clergy. The songs were repurposed hymns and ticked all the boxes for me to pay attention. It was music that sounded old but also felt really contemporary. Tom was fearless back then. He was writing songs that were speaking truth to power. As a 15 or 16-year-old kid, if I heard someone thumbing their nose at authority, I said, “I’m right there with you!”
I also think, “Last Thing on My Mind” was one of the greatest songs ever written, so he was able to write love songs, and kids’ songs, too. He really fit the mold of Woody Guthrie for me, who was my hero. He wrote about everything, and so did Tom. Inevitably, we became friends, and he influenced me. I don’t know that I influenced him. We’ve been really good friends for 30 or 40 years, but inside, there’s still that 21-year-old kid, so I pinch myself, and say, “Damn! I’m writing with Tom Paxton! Who’da thought?”
AH: The fact that you started songwriting on Zooms together so easily suggests that you’d written songs together in person before. Is that true?
JMcC: We’d actually only ever written one song together before. We were on tour in England, I remember, and it was during the Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill hearings. We were reading about it through the British press. We wrote a song called “Surprise Surprise Surprise,” which is a quote from that great American political thinker, Gomer Pyle. But I just had this feeling with the Zooms that if it worked, it worked, but if it didn’t, I got to spend an hour every Monday with Tom Paxton and talk sports, if nothing else. I feel like I learned how to be a good co-writer.
AH: Only now? You’re kidding.
JMcC: Well, I think if you talk to any song writers who do co-writing, you’ll hear this. I heard it once described as trying to find the right therapist or getting your meds just right. You try, and eventually, you say, “This works.” I had written a lot with Si Kahn, but we each had our roles. I was the finisher, and the song would go on one of my albums. With Tom, we write songs that we are never going to record, that nobody is ever going to record, because it’s fun. We’re playful about it, and that’s what makes it so easy. We really glom on to an interesting story. It can’t just be fluff. We want it to have a beginning, middle, and end, and go somewhere.
If you look at “Christmas in the Desert,” or “Life Before You,” or “Letters from Joe,” they have something that carries things along. We’re not trying to write hit songs, we’re just trying to write songs that matter to us.
AH: How would you keep track of them after these conversations? What form would they be in?
JMcC: Well, speaking of new technology, I had to learn to do something new, because I had a couple of bouts of hand surgery on my right hand. I could not actually hold a pencil, and my form had always been to use a yellow legal pad, pencil or pen, write it down, then transfer it onto a computer. This was different for me because I was writing it as a first draft on a computer. Tom was handwriting it in a notebook. We both know that you don’t necessarily write linearly. So sometimes the chorus would come first, or the first verse that came would actually be the third verse. There was a lot of cutting and pasting, which was really easy to do on a computer.
But I think Tom and I come out of the same kind of school of writing, so it was really easy to see where we were going. We always felt that every verse needed to be self-contained. We didn’t want any fat that had to be trimmed off later. It feels like pretty lean writing. Songs are carriers of ideas and that’s how we wanted to communicate. I’m writing with five or six different people right now, and everyone is very different, but Tom feels the most like wearing an old pair of boots.
AH: So any given part of a song could have been supplied by either of you?
JMcC: Yes. And sometimes, one of us will take the song and add a verse, or a bridge. It’s often that I take it and create a demo. Then we’re arm wrestle about what the memo will actually be. Sometimes Tom will create a demo, but it’s a little easier for me, because I’m set up to do it. There is no song on this album, or even in our catalog, which is about 100 other songs, that one of us wrote, and the other person just has their name on because we’re using the “Lennon/McCartney Rule.” I actually do use that rule with everybody, a rule of sharing song credits.
But these were communally created songs, and we both have veto power. We like and trust one another enough to do this. That’s what I mean about me becoming a better co-writer. Part of it was deference, because I know who I am, and I know who Tom is. To me, he’s my elder. It’s exciting when someone’s on fire, and you never think of saying, “Slow down!”
AH: The song comes first in that way, too.
JMcC: Absolutely. Tom and I both come from a kind of spiritual background where every once in a while, we’ll sit back and say, “Well, thank you!” Because we know that line, we’re not that good. There has to be that basic humility, as well. Also, you have to put your ass in the chair. Like the song says, “You gotta do the work.”
AH: I was definitely going to ask you about the song, “Do The Work.” I felt like it very clearly expressed your ethos, but Tom probably had a lot to do with it, too, and it fits him equally so. It’s a great theme song, I think, for people who have been doing this as long as you have. Did that arise from a conversation?
JMcC: Oh yeah. We were having a conversation that didn’t seem very song-related, but then one of us said, “Wait a second…” I did the music for that song, but it’s both our songs.
AH: That one has a kind of ragtime feel to it, almost like a traveling man or band. That fit really well with the idea of it.
JMcC: I kind of thought of it that way when we were writing it, almost like a 12-bar Country Blues kind of thing. That chord progression is an old form. It was reaching back into the old bag.
AH: It’s timeless.
JMcC: I remember when my agent heard, “This Campfire.” He said, “Boy does that sound like an old Tom Paxton song!” I remember saying to Tom, since he’s written a lot of songs about the West, “Let’s write a cowboy song.” I had never written a cowboy song. That one definitely felt like a Tom Paxton song.
AH: Then you find yourself being able to do new things, which is pretty cool, considering how much ground you’ve covered in your life. If you can discover new things on your horizon, it keeps you motivated.
JMcC: Yes, and now I have this wonderful problem of deciding what to do with all this material. Tom’s 86 and he’s still in a creative stride that he probably didn’t ever imagine. When all my peers say to me, “When are you going to retire?” I think, “Pete Seeger was out there at 94 with Occupy Wall Street” singing for people and shaming us all. Be helpful. Be useful. Be creative.
AH: What will you and Tom do with the other songs? Will you play them at your live shows coming up?
JMcC: Just last week, Tom said, “Next August we’re going back into the studio for Volume Two.” I said, “Well, I’m going into the studio in the spring for one of my own albums, but okay.” But when I started thinking of all the songs we’ve done, I thought, “Oh yeah, we’ve got to go back in.” There’s stuff that we decided wasn’t ready or didn’t fit on the new album. We just wrote something yesterday, and we’re still meeting every Monday.
Thanks for chatting with us, John McCutcheon! Find more information here and check out tour dates and more: https://www.folkmusic.com/store.html
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: John McCutcheon & Tom Paxton “Together”