Folk musician John McCutcheon on 50 years in the biz with 43 albums (and counting)
Folk musician John McCutcheon has been making music for fifty years now, and shows no sign of slowing down. His 43rd album, Leap!, was released in September of 2022, the third release to come out of the Covid lockdown. Thanks to regular appearances at the Walnut Valley Festival over the years, McCutcheon might as well be an honorary local at this point, and thanks to albums which have aged like fine wine, his output feels as fresh and robust as when they were first released.
John McCutcheon returns to Kansas City on Saturday, March 11, with a performance at the Polsky Theatre of the Midwest Trust Center at Johnson County Community College, and we took that opportunity to ask the musician about his long career and connection to the region.
The Pitch: You’ve performed in and around the area for decades, including a performance of “Christmas in the Trenches” at the National World War One Museum. What keeps bringing you back?
John McCutcheon: The simple answer is that I keep getting asked. The WWI Museum performance was part of a mini-tour I did commemorating the centennial of the Christmas Truce of 1914. But an active folk music association in the KC area, CrossCurrents, has been a frequent host for my shows. Two other big factors are that I’m a regular performer at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, KS, and a lot of my audience in KC was introduced to me there. And, of course, Folk Alliance International is headquartered in KC and they’ve helped expand and sustain the interest in all things folk in the area, of which I am one of many beneficiaries.
As with many folk musicians, you appeal to adults and kids. How do you balance something like “Christmas in the Trenches” with “Howjadoo”–or, I suppose, bridge that gap with a children’s version of the former?
I recorded Howjadoo as a new father, back in 1983. It was an unexpected success and I followed it up with seven subsequent family albums, essentially chronicling the experience of my kids and their friends growing up. By the time the last one was released, in 1999, my kids were grown and I figured I’d said everything I was going to say. I was, simultaneously, writing and releasing albums that would, by comparison, be considered “adult” albums… which sounds a little creepy, but you know what I mean.
Most of the kids I was singing to in the ’80s and ’90s are parents now and I keep getting requests from audiences either because of the nostalgia of the parents, or the fact that they’ve introduced their own kids to this music. I’ve kind of cycled out of the family music market these days, absent a release in that genre in going on 25 years. So, the balancing is not as much a factor these days, but, believe me, it was a lot trickier back then.
Covid is obviously what led to you starting a Patreon, but what else have you gained from using the platform?
A lot of musicians turned to Patreon during the pandemic as a tool of simple survival. And it was gratifying to see your fans step up and say, “Yeah, we know it’s tough out there and we want to help you come out the other side.” One of the issues for me is the change in the economics of recordings. CD sales have dropped off a cliff. Labels are languishing. Streaming, the ascendant music delivery system, is nothing short of larceny. Hell, Taylor Swift doesn’t make decent money from streaming.
It all added up to the fact that, if artists are going to release new music, it was simply not going to pay for itself. Ask any musician and they’ll tell you the same. So, I was straight with my people: this money is going to fund recording projects. And they’ve responded resoundingly. The pandemic was a particularly prolific time for me and I’m now working on my fourth album of songs written in the past three years, thanks to the belief and the generosity of my Patreon supporters. I only hope it’s been as successful for my comrades.
Who comes to your shows these days and has Patreon changed that or offered a closer connection with longtime fans?
These days I can only speculate who’s coming. Audience members have so many different contact points with an artist. I’ve been a particularly eclectic and, hence, confusing guy for them. Some people only know me from my hammer dulcimer recordings. Some raised their kids on my music and that’s all they know. Some people know a particular song. Others think of me as an Appalachian archivist. Still others as a political satirist. Or a guy who writes baseball songs. Who knows?
Patreon isn’t as much a factor in live performance, but there is a very interesting new twist, that also has developed over the past three years. During the pandemic, like lots of musicians, I did live-streaming concerts from home. It was a testament to how much we missed live concerts that musicians learned how to sing into camera lenses and that audiences were willing to watch concerts on their phones. I thought once the concert world opened up again that the live-streaming concert world might dry up. But it is as robust as ever. I get to play for people who live where I never have or many never play again. Or people who like having a front-row seat in their own home. Or who don’t feel comfortable going to a concert hall. Or like getting up to pee anytime they choose and not disturb anyone.
The result is a surprising number of people still signing up for online shows. Plus, it gives me a chance to do themed shows…I’m doing one on the 19th featuring music from all the female songwriters who inspired me when I was coming up, for instance. It’s great fun and I love saying to my wife, “So long, honey, I’m going to play in Seattle. See you in a couple of hours!”
After 43 albums, where do you see yourself headed next?
Oh, that’s easy. I just started project #44: an album of 14 of the songs that Tom Paxton and I have written over the past couple of years. We’ve been friends for decades and have always threatened to do a joint album and now we are.
John McCutcheon performs at the Polsky Theatre of the Midwest Trust Center at Johnson County Community College on Saturday, March 11. Details on that show here.