George Graham reviews John McCutcheon's "Ghost Light"
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The Graham Album Review #1929

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John McCutcheon: Ghost Light
by George Graham

(Alma Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/14/2018)

Musical diversity is a wonderful thing, but sometimes I get to thinking about how far apart various styles are, even withing the context of American music that has been popular at various times. In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, there was the ascendancy of folk music, with lyrics that told stories in an acoustic setting. More than fifty years later, there is still some folk music around, but one has to dig deep to find it in a world of computer-generated commercial pop music with lyrics that are hardly the most profound. But there has been a rise in interest in folk-influenced or at least semi-acoustic music among a younger generation of roots bands, inspired by the commercial success of groups like Mumford and Sons. And there are perhaps thousands of singer-songwriters around, making their music, often in an acoustic context.

But this week, we have album by someone I consider a real died-in-the-wool articulate, literate, storytelling, lyrically incisive folk-singer in the classic sense, and someone who has been plying his trade for more than 40 years, John McCutcheon. He has just released his 39th album called Ghost Light.

A Wisconsin native, John McCutcheon was smitten by folk music early on, and in his 20s, made pilgrimages to Appalachia to learn from some of the great traditional rural musicians like Roscoe Holcomb. McCutcheon released his first album in 1975, and has not stopped since then. When he became a father in the 1980s, he was not very enthusiastic about the children’s music available so he turned his attention to children’s music for a while. But for most of his career he has been a classic balladeer, with songs in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, telling stories, making political and social statements, and sometimes showing a good sense of wit. His rich baritone voice is nearly perfect for genre, and he is a multi-instrumentalist, playing the hammered dulcimer, banjo and fiddle, in addition to his guitar, in performance.

McCutcheon released his last album, Trolling for Dreams, just a year ago and had not intended to make another album so soon, but he is quoted as saying that that he was pestered by a line that came into his head, “Billy didn’t come home last night,” so he started to write a song around it, and within a month had thirty new songs written. So a new album seemed inevitable. Like his previous records, his songs touch on the lives of ordinary people, especially those upended by circumstances beyond their control, or the so0called march of progress. He can celebrate a good time, and also make a powerful statement on the emergence of open expressions of bigotry in the current political environment. A couple of World War II generation folks are the subject of separate songs.

McCutcheon is joined by most of the people who appeared on his last album, pianist Jon Carroll, ubiquitous Nashville fiddler Stuart Duncan, plus Pete Kennedy of the Kennedys duo, on electric guitar, Tim O’Brien and Kathy Mattea, both songwriters in their own right put in occasional appearances on backing vocals.

Like most of this prolific songwriter’s work, McCutcheon’s Ghost Light is a generous recording with some thirteen songs, running from classic folksinger sound to Nashville tinges, to piano ballads.

Leading off is one of the most optimistic sets of lyrics on the album, A Perfect Day, celebrating what is title says. It has a kind of old-fashioned Nashville sound, with Stuart Duncan’s prominent fiddle. <<>>

One of McCutcheon’s recurring lyric themes is ordinary people caught up in change. This Road is one of the stories of a World War II vet who returned home to his rural home to find a road built and how it changed things. <<>>

A dying small town is the backdrop for the song Big Day about a celebration of the return a local native who became a successful athlete. It’s done in a rock setting. <<>>

The most topical and socially relevant song on the album is The Machine, in which a World War II veteran considers the hateful white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, after so many of his fellow soldiers gave their lives to defeat Nazism. <<>>

The title track, Ghost Light is a reference to the single light that is traditionally left on stage overnight after a theater closes. It’s a nice little vignette. <<>>

Another of the more powerful songs on the album is Burley Coulter at the Bank, the story of a farmer who had to sell out when a big bank took over his local bank and would no longer grant him a loan. The character’s name came from a Wendell Barry novel. <<>>

The phrase that inspired McCutcheon to his writing burst forms the premise of another topical song, Dark Side of This Town, about a military veteran who became the victim of opioid addiction. <<>>

Another character from World War II is the protagonist in the song The Story of Abe, in which a Holocaust survivor looks forward to being treated by a doctor from Iran, who would remove his Auschwitz tattoo. <<>>

I think that John McCutcheon is arguably America’s best living classic folksinger. On his 39th album he proves that he is still at the top of his game with songs that are thought-provoking, articulate, frequently poignant and altogether the epitome of what a great folksinger can do. While he has touched on some of these subjects before, he always manages to bring a new light to the topic at hand, and perhaps take a fresh look at situations from the standpoint of his characters. His backing group, as on his past recent albums is outstanding, and the arrangements are generally understated and tasteful. The band can rock out a little, but it’s in the context of being in service to the song.

Our grade for audio quality is an “A.” The sound is invitingly warm and clean. Little stands between the performance and your ears.

Sometimes you just want to dance or have dumb music on in the background. But John McCutcheon on his new album Ghost Light reminds us that music can be a source of inspiration.

(c) Copyright 2018 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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This page last updated February 18, 2018