Pandemic times were incredibly difficult for musicians, whose livelihood depends almost entirely on performing in person. With that difficult era largely now in the rearview mirror, the music scene is thriving, and musicians are again playing full houses—rather than streaming to the world from their living rooms.
But even that happy ending has a bit of an unexpected dark side, as the rather productive singer-songwriter John McCutcheon relates.
“When you do these streaming shows, you could say, ‘Hey, honey, I’m going to go play in Seattle, I’ll see you in an hour and a half.’ Now, I gotta say, ‘Honey, I’m going to play in Seattle, I’ll see you in six days,’” McCutcheon said of the realities of returning to the road.
The 70-year-old admits cutting back on his touring schedule these days, and—another covid silver living—has learned that he enjoys the comforts of home and spending time with family.
“I kind of settled on the fact that I really love performing, [but] I’m really tired of what it takes to get to a gig,” McCutcheon said. “I mean, when they perfect astral projection, I’m going to be first.”
But before that futuristic technology becomes a reality, McCutcheon, nonetheless, keeps a respectable performance docket, including returning to the Barns at the Wolf Trap April 20. Though he now calls Georgia home, McCutcheon for years lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, meaning heading up to Vienna was essentially a “local gig” for him.
“I have played at the Barns more than any other venue in the world,” McCutcheon says proudly. “The first time I played there was 1981, which I believe was when they just opened up. And with the exception of the pandemic, I have played there at least once a year ever since.”
Fans can expect some tracks from McCutcheon’s latest album, “Leap!”, his 43rd record—equating to about one per year. During lockdown, McCutcheon said his pen was even busier, particularly as he was able to bounce ideas over Zoom with frequent collaborators Tom Paxton and Carrie Newcomer.
“The thing about somebody like Tom and I getting together is we know how to finish stuff up,” McCutcheon said of their songwriting process. “We kind of know right away when we’re in the middle of it. … We [also] pulled the plug on a bunch of stuff. This was a good idea,’ and that’s as far as it was.”
The “good ideas” on “Leap!” are numerous. “The Troubles” starts out as a plaintive recollection of the lengthy conflict in Ireland, but the narrator eventually segues into hoping for resolution in such other conflicts as between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda or Palestinians and Israelis. Such enmity, and the need to overcome it, is universal, McCutcheon believes.
“We have our own troubles going on, which is why the chorus goes, ‘We think of the Troubles, the far and the few’—as though everything happens ‘over there’ because we’re so used to things happening someplace else,” the songwriter said.
“The Troubles” gestated not long before the pandemic, when McCutcheon was invited to be part of a sister-city trip to Belfast along with other folk musicians “from” Nashville. (McCutcheon chuckled at being tapped since he lives in Georgia.) In Belfast, McCutcheon held court with young songwriters, many of whom weren’t even born when the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998. Nevertheless, he said that seminal event—and the decades of ugly fighting that led up to it—still infuse the DNA of their songwriting.
“I don’t know if it’s generational trauma…or whether [they] never really left the reality that people were dying unexpectedly day after day,” McCutcheon said, adding that “The Troubles” ends with a nod to Northern Irish poet’s Michael Longley’s poem “Ceasefire,” composed for the historic agreement—and which harks back to the battle between Achilles and Prince Hector of Troy.
“People in Ireland hear that [historical precedent], and they go ‘oh yes!’” said McCutcheon. “I wasn’t trying to solve anything; I was just simply saying ‘Does this sound familiar?’
“I think the best songs ask questions rather than give answers—and leave not the solutions but the decisions and the revelations up to the listener.”
“Leap!” ends on a dulcet tone poem called “Kora in the Subway.” This seems to be in keeping with McCutcheon’s habit of ending his albums sweetly, similarly to “Zilphia’s Piano” from 2021’s “Bucket List.”
“I’ve often wanted to leave the album sort of with a settled, ‘restive’ kind of feeling,” he said. “Also, the piano ballads that I write, they’re stark and I don’t know what to follow them with. They just seem like a nice place to” end the record, he said.
On his 2020 album “Cabin Fever: Songs From the Quarantine,” McCutcheon included the elegiac composition “The Night That John Prine Died” shortly after Prine’s death due to complications related to covid-19. While he and Prine weren’t necessarily friends, McCutcheon said the two ran into one another often and chatted of old times and long-ago gigs—such as the time they both attended the Cambridge Folk Festival in England, where an impromptu jam session broke out in the hotel bar featuring such other artists as Nancy Griffith.
“Every time we talked, he would be like, ‘God, I remember that night in England at that bar!’ So when I got the really sad news that he had passed away, I thought, John would want that to be in the song,” McCutcheon said of his musical eulogy. “John was really remarkable. If you talk to anybody who knew him, he was funny, he was humble, he was just a regular guy. He loved to laugh and wrote these deceptively simple songs.”
(Prine gets an additional shoutout on “Song When You Are Dead” from “Leap!”, in which McCutcheon cheekily croons, “I’ll write you a great song when you’re dead…I know you won’t care, because I know you won’t be there.”)
McCutcheon says he has several new albums of material in the works, and later this year, he will attend more international songwriting camps with aspiring songsmiths. His friend and frequent collaborator Carrie Newcomer has also invited him to a “theological dude ranch” this summer, where he looks forward to spending his off-musical hours fly fishing.
He may also return to the DMV for a proposed 86th birthday celebration for Tom Paxton, tentatively scheduled for the Birchmere in Alexandria later this year. But first, there’s that stop at the Barns at Wolf Trap April 20.
“It’s a really nice room, sounds great, and it’s more like a concert venue than a ‘club,’” McCutcheon said of that upcoming show, adding that he sees many of the same people year after year in the audience, including someone who represented his Wisconsin hometown in the House of Representatives. Last year he also re-met the Estonian ambassador, an avowed fan.
“I love the people I work with there. This is almost cheating because the audience is great, it’s always sold out…the sound is fabulous,” the artist said. “In fact, the only live album I ever did [was] at the Barns.”
With over 40 albums of original music to his credit, McCutcheon said the first part of his show will be his most recent material, likely from “Leap!”, “Bucket List” and “Cabin Fever.” Just before intermission, he asks that people hand request notes to his tour manager. McCutcheon will construct the show’s second half from there.
“[Sometimes] if I get an unusual request, I’ll do that one,” he said, though he admits that with such a deep catalog, he sometimes forgets lyrics. However, he has a rather 21st century way to get out in front of that.
“[If] somebody came to hear ‘Ladies in White’…I better log onto iTunes and download my own song so I can learn to play it,” he said. “I have done that!”
The evening will be a concert as well as a yarn-spinning ride through McCutcheon’s career, as he shares tales behind the songs and their fruition.
“Because I’m big into stories, a lot of my songs are story songs,” he said. “And a collection, an album, can be bigger than the sum of its parts.”
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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