For more than 20 years, folksinger John McCutcheon has escaped the inclement weather of the East and returned to Grass Valley and Nevada City in January as part of his annual West Coast tour. This year is no exception. Strings Concerts presents John McCutcheon at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, (Jan. 17) in a special concert fundraiser for Community Radio KVMR at Center for the Arts.
“It’s almost like a big family reunion whenever I come,” McCutcheon said.
McCutcheon met and befriended the late Utah Phillips in the 1970s forming a 30-year connection with Nevada City. Soon after, he was offered his first gig for KVMR as part of the NightLive! Series held at the Miners Foundry.
McCutcheon has emerged as one of folk music’s most respected and loved musicians and songwriters. As an instrumentalist, he is a master of a dozen different traditional instruments, most notably the hammer dulcimer. With 30 recordings and seven Grammy nominations under his belt, critics and singers from around the globe have hailed McCutcheon’s songwriting.
Even before graduating from Minnesota’s St. John’s University, the Wisconsin native literally “headed for the hills,” forgoing a college lecture hall for the classroom of the eastern Kentucky coal camps, union halls, country churches, and square dance halls. His apprenticeship to many of the legendary figures of Appalachian music imbedded a love of not only homemade music, but a sense of community and rootedness. The result is music - whether traditional or from his huge catalog of original songs - with the profound mark of place, family, and strength. It also created a storytelling style that has been compared to Will Rogers and Garrison Keillor.
His most recent album, “This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America” is a compilation of known and unknown works of the iconic folksinger released during the 100th year anniversary of Guthrie’s birth. McCutcheon was first introduced to Guthrie “quite by accident” when he picked up a worn song book from his public library, the only guitar song book in the card catalogue at the time.
“This was my introduction to songwriting,” McCutcheon said.
The first 100 songs he learned to play were Woody Guthrie songs. To this day, McCutcheon is struck by the breadth of Guthrie’s work, from grave political songs to love songs and songs for children, all written in a prolific 20-year time span. Besides songs, Guthrie wrote plays, books, poetry, and newspaper columns. The new album is a mix of classic and unknown songs. Guthrie wrote thousands of songs during his lifetime. Many were left unfinished. On the new album, McCutcheon completes them and re-interprets old favorites.
Over the course of a decade studying Guthrie’s work, McCutcheon formed an intimate connection to the folk legend’s playful writing style with a message and reminder to look at the world.
“That was the thing I wanted to do with the album. I didn’t want it to be a tribute; I wanted it to be a collection of songs… What did the sum of his songs say about this land?” said McCutcheon.
Integration, workers rights, small town heroes and pillaging scoundrels worked their way into the themes of Guthrie’s songs, and remain relevant today.
“It sounds pretty contemporary. All of this stuff is still happening,” McCutcheon said.
The album features an all-star version of “This Land is Your Land” with Willie Nelson and others. McCutcheon is gratified when young people come forward to him after a performance excited about Guthrie songs that they hadn’t been exposed to before.
“These are not just neat little artifacts... His stuff is vibrantly and dynamically contemporary,” McCutcheon said.
During his Grass Valley show, McCutcheon will perform songs from the Guthrie album along with old McCutcheon favorites and original songs from a new album in the works.
Besides his own work, McCutcheon has produced more than 20 albums of other artists, from traditional fiddlers to contemporary singer-songwriters to educational and documentary works. His commitment to grassroots political organizations has put him on the front lines of many of the issues important to communities and workers.
This year, McCutcheon encourages folks to support, donate or join the local chapter of Friends of the Library at a time when use of public libraries is on the rise and budgets are being slashed. It was at his public library that McCutcheon first learned to play the guitar and was introduced to the folk songs of Woody Guthrie. Both McCutcheon and his wife are on the board of their local public library. All the proceeds from CD sales at the Grass Valley concert will go to Friends of the Nevada County Libraries.
To learn more about John McCutcheon visit: www.folkmusic.com