Folk singer John McCutcheon released his 39th album “Ghost Light” this past Friday, featuring appearances from friends Kathy Mattea and Stuart Duncan. In typical McCutcheon style, it weaves great storylines with pop and folk elements and showcases his top rate musicianship. One of the top tracks is “The Machine” with its great lyric – “Woody Guthrie had this guitar with the best sign I have seen — this machine kills fascists – we must be the machine.”Be sure to have a listen embedded below.
John McCutcheon: I was born there. My father was born there. My mother was from a farm family in southwest Wisconsin. She was a social worker and ended up in the same town as my father. They met on a blind date and got married. Then I was born the oldest of nine kids. Like all kids growing up, where you are is what you know. [My hometown] was historically called a market town. I was one of two students from my high school graduating class that went to college out of state.
There’s an amazing number of people from my high school that still live in town. There’s kind of this small-town sensibility. That has been something that really has stayed with me. I have traveled all over the world, played in major cities, but it was that Midwestern, small-town experience that has stayed with me. My entire working life I’ve been identified more with the rural Southeast, because I went off to learn how to play the banjo when I was 20 years old and that was that. I fell in love with an entirely new part of the country, with which I had no experience. I love it and [Avondale Estates, Georgia] has been my home since.
SR: Very cool. Where would you send a first-time visitor to Wisconsin? What would you tell them to see?
JM: It’s a big state with a lot of cool stuff. If you’re a sports fan at all. And, I’m talking any sports at all. You’ve got to go to Lambeau Field once in your life. It’s the home of the Green Bay Packers, and they’re an anomaly. They’re a publicly-owned team and the only one in professional sports. Green Bay is the smallest town in North America to have a major sports franchise, as well, in any sport. There’s barely 100,000 people. Lambeau Field is right up there with Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, in that it’s intimate but big. It’s just one of those things as a sports fan that you have to see.
You’ve also got to go to a cheese factory. The smaller, the better. Get some fresh made cheese curds. You can tell that they’re fresh, because they’ll squeak when you bite them. It’s a truly Wisconsin experience. It’s got as many, if not more, lakes than Minnesota too. My siblings are scattered from coast-to-coast, and they all regularly return back to Wisconsin to rent a house on a lake, because that is what they think of as a vacation.
SR: You really made both seem like must-do’s when in Wisconsin. What was your first real exposure to music? How did you get inspired to create your own?
JM: I was exposed to music, in general, from a really early age. I’m old enough that I was in junior high school when The Beatles came out. They were our band. At 10 or 11 years old it was exhilarating to clearly understand that you were experiencing a revolution. Prior to that it was Elvis. This was something really, really different. And, with every subsequent album it just morphed right before your ears and eventually your eyes.
There was that. But, the real seminal moment came for me when I was 11 years old and my mother, who spent every waking hour trying to get us not to watch television, invited me in the middle of the day on a Tuesday afternoon to sit down and watch TV with her. It had never happened before. I was fascinated that my mother would do this. What she was watching was the march on Washington. The “I Have a Dream” speech. It was the first thing in our nation’s history that was broadcast live. The next thing was Kennedy’s assassination that happened mere months later. It was an amazing thing for an 11 year old to see. It just seemed like an endless sea of bodies.
Then there was preaching like I had never seen or heard at church on Sunday. It was done by people who had experience preaching in that southern-preaching style. Then there was the music. There was Marian Anderson singing the national anthem. And, Mahalia Jackson – had never heard anyone sing like her before. It was a revelation for a little white kid from central Wisconsin. Then, out came the folk musicians – Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. There was Bob Dylan. When I heard him I was convinced I could be a professional singer. It was really amazing. They were all songs that were rooted in something old, but they were all recently composed. It was all over from there. I had to learn all about this music.
SR: To fast forward a bit. You just released your 39th studio album on Friday, which was incredible on its own, “Ghost Light“. Talk about your vision behind that release. Can you touch on how you keep the creative juices flowing after all these years?
JM: I don’t know that I actually had a vision behind this release, because more than any album I’ve ever done this was completely unplanned. I’m working on what I thought was going to be my 39th album right now. I do these songwriting camps in the late spring/early summer, and at the end of the May camp last year, we were having a Q&A. One of the campers asked, how do we keep the songwriting energy from the camp going when we go home alone? How do we keep the creative process going?
I was giving them all kids of exercises and goals for themselves. There was a friend of mine, Vedran Smailovic, who back in 1992 became world famous for about 15 minutes, because following a bombing at a Sarajevo bakery, in the height of the Balkan War, 22 people were killed. The following morning he showed up at the bombing site in a full tuxedo, like he was performing at a concert, and played this particular piece of music. After he played that single piece of music he got up and left. He showed up the next day and did the same thing again. For 22 days he showed up at precisely at the hour of the bombing and played this single piece of music. By the time he was about eight or 10 days into this, people figured out what was going on, and the press got a hold of it. I saw the picture first, read about it and followed it. I wrote a song about it. I hear these stories that really capture my imagination and write songs about them.
So, back to the Q&A, I realized that that coming Sunday was the 25th anniversary of the first of those 22 days. I told them the story of Smailovic, who became known as the Cellist of Sarajevo. And, I told them to sit down every day at the same time for 22 days and write. Don’t worry about creating anything or having a plan, just write. Following, I thought I’m very good at thinking of exercises for others to write about, and I thought why don’t I try it. I kept writing for 25-26 days and I had 30 songs. I said, “I guess I have to make a CD.” It wasn’t as though I had a theme that I was pursuing. It happened really organically and spontaneously.
SR: I didn’t know that story about the cellist. That’s really amazing and it ties into my next question. One of our main objectives at SCP is to bring people together while traveling. We feel that music is one of the central pillars in doing that. It’s constantly bringing people from all walks of life and languages together. Many people say that music is this international language. Talk to how special that is to be able to unite people under your sound.
JM: It’s cliché that music is an international language, but clichés exist because there’s a big chunk of truth under them all. In my case, because I am trafficking in the oldest music in the world, folk music is in every primal culture in the world. Before there were professionals that entertained us, we had to do it ourselves. Since we have been painting on cave walls we’ve been talking about our world and how we survive. It’s something that’s really special to be lucky enough to do. I can’t express that enough. I’m so grateful that I sat on the couch with my mother all those years ago, because the whole world opened up. I remember I was in Madagascar for a trip and was playing some music, and local villagers had heard me play and they said, “You, you, you.” We didn’t understand each other, but it was clear that we were going to be playing music together later on. And, we did.
SR: Lastly, I love asking well-traveled people if they have a few destinations that they haven’t been to, but need to see. Do you have a couple on your list?
JM: I’d love to see Budapest. I hear it’s a really beautiful city. The country I’ve been to the most in my touring is Australia. I love Australia. I have many aboriginal friends, but I’ve never been to Uluru, which I find astonishing. The English name is Ayer’s Rock. One of the instruments I play is the hammer dulcimer, and its routes are in Iran and Persia, more recently in India. A friend of mine in India wants me to tour with him through India, so I’d love to do that. I feel like someone who’s been raised in their entire life as a Christian that I have to go to Israel. A friend of mine went to Jerusalem, and came back saying this place where the three great monotheistic religions in the world all have legitimate claim, is about the size of a shopping mall. It is somehow at the route of what seems like the worlds fate somehow. It’s all centered there. So, I really want to go there. Those are the places, but there are so many. It’s a big world.