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John McCutcheon: Bucket List
by George Graham
(Turn Up Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/15/2021)
To those of a certain age, the folk music scene of a half-century ago remains influential, being the source of inspiration for generations of singer-songwriters, who have become quite musically diverse over the generations. There are performers who draw on styles ranging from rock and roll to classical to world music. But there are still some died-in-the-wool folkies, who play their acoustic guitar and sing articulate, poetic or political lyrics, or tell stories in song.
This week we have a new recording by one of the best on the scene these days, and also a remarkably prolific one. It’s John McCutcheon, and his new recording, his 42nd album, is called Bucket List.
A Wisconsin native, John McCutcheon has been recording since 1975, specializing in the classic folksinger style, and also being a multi-instrumentalist, playing hammered-dulcimer, for which he is well-known, banjo and fiddle. One of his best-known songs is Christmas in the Trenches about the Christmas truce during World War I. But he has also created children’s albums. When he became a father, he felt that children’s songs were condescending so he set out to create his own. But his recording career has spanned a variety of contexts, with live albums, and a couple of concept recordings pertaining to seasons of the year. Along the way, his songs weave stories of the common man, challenges of a changing world, personal stories of people, and some humorous, satirical compositions.
In 2020, McCutcheon was coming back from an Australian tour when the COVID quarantine hit. So he holed up in a cabin at home in Georgia and proceeded to pen a bunch of relevant songs, with the result called Cabin Fever, Songs from the Quarantine, I think one of the best collections of songs inspired by the pandemic. We featured that recording on our album review series last year, and gave it high honors in our annual Graham Awards.
But with the pandemic continuing and McCutcheon not able to perform before live audiences, it gave him time to write new songs, and he created quite a batch. The result is the generous new 18-track album called Bucket List, and he says that there will be another album of songs from that period being released next year.
While Cabin Fever was, more or less by necessity, an all solo album, recorded in his home studio. The new release, Bucket List reunited him with some of the musicians with whom he has recorded in the past, including Jon Carroll on piano, ubiquitous fiddler Stuart Duncan, and bassist JT Brown. So the sound of the new album is more wide-ranging, though it remains acoustic. McCutcheon plays banjo on a tune, and there ares some piano-based songs. The topics range from vignettes about characters, a village in France that takes in refugees, more songs about times changing the lives of people, and small-town America.
Opening is the title track, Bucket List, which McCutcheon says he dedicates to his wife. As its title suggests, it a song about things one wanted to do in life. <<>>
The subject of home, which McCutcheon has addressed before in song, is again explored in It’s Not, about what makes a hometown what it is. <<>>
Very much with the sound of 1960s folksongs is a piece called Art about preserving the scribblings of a child, and by extension the reason for art. <<>>
McCutcheon has written a number of songs about intolerance and bigotry. On the new album is Atonement the story of a white supremacist who reforms. <<>>
Along the same lines is The Other about how people treat other people who are different, and how we ultimately are all the “others.” <<>>
The subject of aging is taken up articulately on the song Used To about the things one ceases to be able to do with advancing age. <<>>
One of the more memorable songs, highlighting McCutcheon’s great lyrical storytelling ability is Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, about a French village with a reputation for taking in generations of refugees. <<>>
The album ends with Zilphia’s Piano the story of an instrument of great significance to folk music fans on which several classic songs were given life. <<>>
Bucket List the new release by veteran folksinger John McCucheon is a good example of what happens when a prolific songwriter has to stay home in the pandemic: a large batch of high quality songs, with another album full coming next year. After his last release was a solo recording done in the midst of the lockdown, the new album features a small band to give the songs more sonic color. The result is a classic-style album by an acoustic folkie that shows why this venerable stylistic format still has relevance in this day and age.
We’ll give Bucket List a grade “A” for sound quality. The recording is warm and inviting, nicely capturing the subtleties of the acoustic instrumentation, as well as McCutcheon’s rich baritone vocals.
Compared to so much technology-based pop, an album like this seems like something out of the history of music. But John McCutcheon, over 42 albums, remains as vital and creative as ever, and still has a lot to say, in the 2020s.
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