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(Appalsongs 2007 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/14/2007)
As popular as rock and pop stars can be, many of them will end up having a career that doesn't last very long. If they do keep on going, as many try to do, most will end up on the oldies circuit, or generally fading into obscurity. Jazz and blues musicians, on the other hand, seem to get better with age and typically have careers measured in the decades. Folk musicians can also be counted in the durable category. With the possible exception of some well-known figures from in the 1960s, few dyed-in-wool folkies have ever enjoyed popular stardom, but they can keep on going, maintaining or building their audiences over a good number of years, without really breaking into the popular glare of the commercial media.
This week we have a fine example of a veteran folkie who even among some people who are partial toward singer-songwriters, may not be all that well-known, but has been plying his trade for some 35 years and is much respected. John McCutcheon has just released his thirtieth album called This Fire: Politics, Love and Other Small Miracles.
McCutcheon, like many folkies, is a prolific songwriter. Probably his best known song is Christmas in the Trenches, about the spontaneous Christmas armistice that took place during World War I. But McCutcheon is also a writer of children's books, and he is a folksong archivist, having produced over a dozen folklore albums of music by traditional musicians. In other words, McCutcheon is your classic, veteran folksinger and activist. And his new album is a gem, doing everything that a folk-style recording should do, present intelligent, often witty, often political songs in a mostly acoustic setting, in his rich, warm, classic folksinger's vocal style. He sings a couple of love songs, and takes on topics like the death of his own mother, but he lays it on with topical songs like the best of the 1960s folkies, and even does a talking blues in the Woody Guthrie style. But it's not a strictly traditional or rustic-sounding album. He is heard with some tasteful supporting musicians, sometimes with a full band. He co-produced This Fire with John Jennings, a guitarist and keyboard player who has worked extensively in Nashville. They are also occasionally joined by Tim O'Brien, who is a fine singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist in his own right.
This is a generous fifteen song CD with compositions that date back to 2002, according to McCutcheon's notes. There are a couple of topical songs that arose in connection with the 2004 election, but most of the details are still relevant. But there are also quite a few timeless songs that have things to say, regardless of who is in power.
The CD opens with a kind of uplifting song called Hope Dies Last which was inspired by Studs Terkel's book of the same name. McCutcheon had the victims of Hurricane Katrina in mind. <<>>
The first of the political songs is Not Me, about the considerable tendency of the folks currently in power in Washington never to accept blame for their mistakes. <<>>
McCutcheon writes that when he was coming up, he played fiddle for a lot of barn dances, and sometimes saw love blossom on the dance floor. He yearned to be down with them, instead of always being on the bandstand, which he expresses in the song Fiddler's Last Dance. <<>>
The oldest song on the album, according to McCutcheon's note is Waiting for a Miracle. It's quite timeless in its lyrics, and musical setting is as close to a produced pop sound as this folk album gets, complete with some electric guitar. It's a song that might make a good candidate for a pop or country artist to cover. <<>>
A topical song with a definite expiration date bears its subject as a title Dick Cheney, though when the VP is finally out of office, the song might continue to offer advice. Typically for McCutcheon, the current-events nature of the song is not an excuse for any kind of musical compromise. <<>>
McCutcheon creates a song about a Native American star athlete named SuAnne Big Crow who was killed in a car crash not long after her victories. But the song is also about the discrimination Native Americans can face in situations like that. <<>>
Also on the subject of athletic competition is a song called Boob on Our TV, about Janet Jackson' famous "wardrobe malfunction" during the Superbowl, and how that fits into the bigger world of the media. <<>>
One of the most poignant songs is Twenty Todays Ago, which McCutcheon said was based on a poem he had written for his family on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the death of his mother. <<>>
And as a reminder of the parallels if they were not obvious, McCutcheon revives the Pete Seeger Vietnam era classic song Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, and gives it an almost rock-oriented setting. <<>>
Another song that has a currency though it's based on an old topic. The Other Side is about the story of an immigrant. <<>>
John McCutcheon's new CD This Fire, his thirtieth, is the epitome of what a good folk album should be in this day and age. He brings all the classic ingredients, literate lyrics on topics from love to politics, from poignant to humorous to acerbic, with a tasteful, mostly acoustic backing, and a voice that is the kind of personification of a folk troubadour. There is a fair number of topical song based on news events that will, we can all hope, soon be just a bad memory. But even in his topical songs, McCutchen imparts some timeless wisdom or observations.
Sonically, we'll give the CD an A. The sound is warm and very transparent. The acoustic instrumentation is nicely handled, and the dynamic range -- the way the recording maintains the difference between loud and soft passages is respectable.
This Fire: Politics, Love and Other Small Miracles is a CD that could well appeal to a couple of generations. First, the Baby Boomer who remember the folk music boom and protest songs of the 1960s, and a younger, now increasingly socially conscious generation some of whom are attracted to acoustic music. It's an outstanding recording that shows that folk music is alive and well in the 21st Century.
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