Folk instrumentalist-vocalist-songwriter-producer John McCutcheon was playing with his grandkids outside his home east of Atlanta in beautiful 65-degree weather recently when he took a phone break to talk about three shows in Greater Sacramento.
For his performance at the Palms in Winters, McCutcheon, 64, intends to focus on cuts from his “Trolling for Dreams” album, which drops in early February. (That show on Sunday, Jan. 15, has sold out.) He had the same approach for a KVMR fundraiser earlier this month. He also draws from his other 37 albums for which he’s earned six Grammy nominations. His arsenal of traditional instruments for such shows includes his beloved hammer dulcimer and the banjo.
His Wednesday, Jan. 18, show in Nevada City will have a different character. McCutcheon will perform on guitar and piano while swapping nine sort of musical innings of baseball-oriented songs with fellow troubadour Chuck Brodsky, who McCutcheon says “is a master at finding arcane pieces of baseball lore and writing wonderful songs about them. He’s a Phillies fan, and I’m a Braves fan, which means we are divisional rivals, and that adds to the fun.”
McCutcheon grew up in Wisconsin, taking piano lessons from Catholic nuns and receiving his first guitar at age 14. The game changer in his musical trajectory was persuading his adviser at Holy Cross Seminary in La Crosse to approve a three-month independent study of banjo players as he hitchhiked throughout Appalachia.
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“I didn’t know I wasn’t ever going to live north of the Mason-Dixon Line again,” said McCutcheon. “I was going off into a complete mystery. … I didn’t even know where I was going. And here I am 45 years later still on that three-month independent study.”
Every now and again I sort of step back from myself and think, ‘I can’t believe I can do this.’
“What really interested me,” said McCutcheon, “was how music helped create and sustain communities. Not just how to put your finger at the right place at the right time on a string. And so music was in a lot of different places. It was in people’s homes, but it was in churches, on picket lines, at cakewalks at church suppers.
“And it was in exploring and paying attention to the other parts of people’s lives that I learned about coal mining and farming and later small commercial fisherman in Alaska. And I learned about dirt farmers in the Midwest, and the music. Because I wrote a lot about work, it was a constant process of finding out what I needed to know to make the song sound true.”
That exploration and focus on authenticity in the vein of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger permeates McCutcheon’s prolific music output and social activism. “It was a fortuitous time,” said McCutcheon of his early years. “It was in the backwater of the folk music revival. Capitalism was done with folk music. The major labels were not signing people anymore. So I was blessed by the lack of possibility for commercial success and it allowed me to concentrate on other stuff.”
That other stuff is the proliferation of songs of perception and purpose, of both personal and universal experiences unimpeded by corporate demands and homogenization. His topics stretch from mining disasters to Krispy Kreme doughnuts to his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. His baseball songs go beyond the physicality of the game to sportsmanship, stars like Hank Aaron and Yogi Berra, steroid use and what it’s like to play catch with your kid. And his albums about childhood have multiple doors, one for kids and one for adults, as a single event, like a lost tooth, triggers reactions from both sides. “For the kid, a piece of his head has fallen out,” said McCutcheon. “For the parents, you sort of have this little conclave and you say, ‘OK, what are we gonna do now? Are we gonna have a tooth fairy?’ ”
The opportunity to bring these songs to live fruition is more blessing than job for McCutcheon. “I hope I’m not revealing anything shocking to audience members that musicians don’t have to concentrate 100 percent on every note they play after a while,” he said. “Every now and again I sort of step back from myself and think, ‘I can’t believe I can do this.’ I can’t believe the hammer dulcimer. I can’t believe that someone is giving me a microphone. How crazy is that? And they are paying to come see this. Unbelievable.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18
Where: Nevada Theatre, 401 Broad St., Nevada City
Information: 530-272-5333, paulemerymusic.com
Palms sold out
The John McCutcheon performance Sunday, Jan. 15, at the Palms in Winters is sold out.