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The Graham Album Review #2171

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Tom Paxton & John McCutcheon: Together

(Appalsongs Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/11/2023)

The pandemic’s effects have been widespread and profound, in many cases upending long-time paradigms, in some cases permanently. Probably one of the most affected spheres is music. COVID basically put performing musicians out of business for two years or more. Many tried alternate strategies, on-line streaming of concerts, recording with musicians in separate locations – there were a handful of big band jazz albums that were recorded with each musician adding his own part from home. The pandemic also was the inspiration for a number of songs.

This week’s we have an album that was another byproduct of the pandemic, and it has turned out to be a wonderful thing. It’s the new joint album by two veteran and revered folk singer-songwriters Tom Paxton and John McCutcheon, an album appropriately called Together.

Tom Paxton, of course, is an icon of the 1960s folk music scene, the author of many a topical and protest song, but also he has penned classics such as The Last Thing on My Mind and Bottle of Wine. John McCutchen is about a musical generation younger, and drew great influence from Paxton. A prolific songwriter, and personable performer, McCutchen has definitely followed in Paxton’s footsteps in songs addressing issues, and written his share of songs that have become classics in their own way, like Christmas in the Trenches. Over the years, Paxton and McCutcheon have become great friends. So when the pandemic arrived, and both had time on their hands – McCutcheon actually did a pandemic themed album called Cabin Fever –and the two folkies started doing a weekly Zoom call Mondays at 2 PM, and in their words, they would tell jokes, reminisce about old friends, talk sports, and then would go to work writing songs together. They penned more than 100, and they picked 14 for this new album, which they anticipate will be the first of a series. The pandemic having eased, they gathered in a Virginia recording studio and got together with some Nashville musicians like fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassist JT Bates, and harmonica man Charlie McCoy, along with Washington, DC area pianist Jon Carroll.

The result is a real gem of classic-style folk with songs that run from current events like the Ukraine war to timeless topics like enduring love. And since both Paxton and McCutchen are known to write humorous songs, there are a couple of those as well.

The liner notes attribute all of the songs to both of them, but several tracks feature one or the other as lead vocalist, though they sometimes exchange verses in the songs.

Leading off a powerful composition called Ukrainian Now about the Ukraine war. It evokes the anthemic spirit of some of the great anti-war and civil rights songs of the 1960s. <<>>

Also in classic form is This Campfire. The liner notes put succinctly: John says “Let’s write a cowboy song.” To which Tom says “OK.” <<>>

Another of the highlights of the album is The Invisible Man about those in society, like the homeless, and those in other walks of life who are largely ignored. <<>>

One of their more witty songs is called Same Old Crap about facing writer’s block and indifferent audiences who just want the “same old crap.” <<>>

Also with relevance for these days and times is the song In America a reminder to the xenophobic anti-immigrant crowd of this country’s history as a destination for immigrants, and how the country was built by them. <<>>

McCutcheon and Paxton are both big sports fans, and both have written songs about subject. They celebrate that together on the new album with a song called The Fan. <<>>

They get a little circular on the album on a song called Complete a song about writing a song that was recorded by Johnny Cash. <<>>

The album ends with its title track – a pretty ballad sung by Paxton about a long-married couple growing older and still very much in love. <<>>

It’s great hearing two folk music icons of two somewhat different generations, 85-year old Tom Paxton, still in great form, and 71-year old John McCutcheon, collaborating on an album that they did more or less as a combination of a labor of love, and an outlet for the pent-up creativity that the isolation of the pandemic inspired. They apparently very much enjoyed themselves on their weekly Zoom call, with the technology also being a catalyst for this pairing of old friends with well over 100 years of folk music experience between them. If you want to know how classic-style folk music is done, this is it. It can be both topical and timeless. Except for one instance of a cranked-up electric guitar, the production and musical accompaniment is thoroughly tasteful.

We’ll give the album almost an “A” for audio quality. The sound is admirably clean and the acoustic instruments are treated with respect.

If anyone wanted to know the appeal of the great folk songwriters of the 1960s, still playing their trade in the 2020s, you can’t get much better than Tom Paxton and John McCutcheon’s Together.

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