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John McCutcheon: Trolling for Dreams
by George Graham
(Appalsongs Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/18/2016)
It’s hard to imagine a contemporary musical style more distant from today’s commercial music, than classic articulate folksingers, who dispense their poetry, commentary and observations in a largely acoustic setting. It’s nice to see that there are a number of young performers who are taking up the mantle, while most of the artists who more than fifty years ago brought the style to fore are getting to be old-timers or passing on.
One of the best of the active classic-style folk singer-songwriters on the scene is John McCutcheon, who has been creating great thoughtful, often narrative-based songs with for more than 40 years. He has just released his thirty-eighth album called Trolling for Dreams.
Sixty-four-year-old John McCutcheon is a Wisconsin native who around his time in college, traveled to Appalachia to learn from some of the long-time traditional artists. He has been at it ever since, releasing his first album in 1975. He is known for playing the hammered dulcimer, and for a while, created a series of children’s albums, after he became a father and did not like the children’s music he found available. But he is best known for his articulate songs that usually have an underlying sense of social consciousness. In 1984, he created probably his best known song , Christmas in the Trenches, about the legendary spontaneous Christmas truce that happened during World War I. His last album was Joe Hill’s Last Will, with some labor songs from the IWW in the early 1900s.
But his new album, Trolling for Dreams is a more personal one, with McCutcheon’s gift for turning individual experiences, either of his own or others, into impressive musical narratives, some of which are likely to bring a lump to your throat. And there is some social commentary on contemporary news woven into poetry which transcends the topical circumstances. As usual, his accompaniment is mostly acoustic, but there are some tracks with a rock band. Among the notable regulars on the album are Washington, DC area keyboard man Jon Carroll, who was part of the Starland Vocal Band in the 1970s, and has toured with Mary Chapin Carpenter for several years; ubiquitous Nashville fiddle maven Stuart Duncan; Pete Kennedy of the Kennedys on electric guitar, when the band does occasionally rock out, and Tim O’Brien on backing vocals. McCutchen has one of the best folksinger voices in the business: a warm clear baritone which seems perfect for telling his musical stories.
The generous 14-song, hour-long album begins with a reflection on how things can change and not always for the better. The song is called Gone and it’s woven around the small world of an old man who finds his favorite small-town cafe closed. <<>>
One of the songs based on news is Y’all Means All, which was inspired by the North Carolina so-called “bathroom bill” anti-LGBT law. It puts it in the context and contrast to traditional Southern hospitality. <<>>
There are a few of what I suppose could be called heartwarming songs. One is the Dance, the story of a pair of high schoolers going to the prom, and the thoughts of each and of their parents. <<>>
Another highlight of the album, in terms of personal storytelling, is Between Good and Gone which McCutcheon said was inspired by how, in his words, “I busted my father out of his Alzheimer’s care facility for a three-day road trip,” and the insights that it brought in the father’s moments of lucidity. <<>>
Though McCutchen is the archetypal folksinger, he pays tribute to the power of the simplicity of rock and roll in an engaging song called Three Chords and the Truth. Pete Kennedy plays his electric guitar. <<>>
A composition that was written during the 2016 presidential race, and the base statements coming from one of the candidates, is The Bible. It seemes allegorical at first, but turns out to highlight a pretty strong contrast between the politics of exclusion and misanthropy and the words of the Bible that was found in a yard sale. <<>>
Perhaps the most personal song is This Ain’t Me, inspired by a diagnosis of cancer, and the emotional reaction to it. <<>>
The album keeps a positive tone throughout the occasional turmoil and misfortune in the lyrics, but there is one song that really celebrates the good things in life. The Reason I’m Here is a series of vignettes about people happy to be achieving their goals. <<>>
John McCutcheon’s new thirty-eighth album Trolling for Dreams, shows that he is still at the peak of his form, creating a bountiful collection of music in the classic folksinger tradition, with stories, observations, allegory, poignancy, and romance in his fourteen songs. There isn’t a weak track on the record, and the performance is as good as the songs, with thoroughly tasteful accompaniment with first-call players serving as the backing band playing arrangements that always hit just the right note.
Our grade for sound quality close to an “A.” The recording is clean, open, warm and unfettered by studio effects. But it comes up a little short, as is usually the case any more, in dynamic range, with the sound compressed to jack up the volume unnecessarily.
There is definitely something to be said about folksingers in the 21st century. Maybe the audience is mainly a bunch of old fuddy-duddies who still have an attention span of more than 30 seconds, but the music does have cross-generational appeal, judging from audiences. And when it comes to folksingers, they don’t get much better than John McCutcheon.
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