Singer-songwriter John McCutcheon has been rather busy during the pandemic, thus far releasing two albums comprising 18 songs each. Last year saw “Cabin Fever: Songs From the Quarantine,” which McCutcheon recorded at his Georgia cabin during three weeks holed up following his return from Australia last March. He’s back at it, with “Bucket List,” releasing this weekend.
Oh, and in case you were counting, “Bucket List” is his 42nd album.
“I don’t look at it as outrageous [output] but you’re welcome to,” McCutcheon laughed during a chat this week. “Especially during the pandemic, when you had nothing else to impinge on your time, why not write?”
McCutcheon says he wrote obsessively during those three weeks in the Georgia cabin last spring—partly to ensure he didn’t potentially pass covid to his wife and mother-in-law. With no distractions, the ideas flowed from his pen.
“Once I hit about 100 [songs], I intentionally stopped writing and said I gotta figure out what to do with these things,” he said.
McCutcheon chose a few dozen that were ready for prime time, but rather than one mammoth album, he opted to release the first batch as “Cabin Fever,” the second as the new “Bucket List” and the rest for a forthcoming release to be called “Leap!”
Unlike “Cabin Fever,” which was solely McCutcheon and his guitar, “Bucket List” welcomes back collaborators including pianist Jon Carroll on piano, bassist JT Brown on bass and Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin.
“We’ve all had to learn how to play by ourselves and learn how to overdub onto other people’s projects,” he said. “The real magician in all of this is the engineer.”
After a half-century of touring, last spring McCutcheon’s calendar evaporated as lockdowns commenced. He finally has a few gigs, including one in Williamsburg, Virginia, on Sunday—which was originally scheduled for last year.
“I was talking to my roadie, and we both remarked that this is so weird because we used to hop on a plane every weekend,” McCutcheon said. “We’re going over every detail of all our gear because we haven’t done this in 18 months.”
“Bucket List” contains the titular song, which McCutcheon said he came up with before opting to use it as the name for the entire album. The cover of the CD features a grandmother popping a wheelie on a bicycle, which is about as life-affirming a metaphor as could be imagined. The image was even suggested by McCutcheon’s wife, children’s book author Carmen Agra Deedy.
“I don’t know that it has anything to do with the actual song ‘Bucket List,’ but it has that kind of piss and vinegar sense,” McCutcheon said of the bike-riding senior citizen on the album’s cover.
In addition to the song “Bucket List,” about realizing your dreams and chasing your ambitions while you still can, the album includes folksy tunes that are right in McCutcheon’s wheelhouse. There’s “Be Still,” which goads the listener to take a deep breath and relax, as well as “Ghost Town,” which McCutcheon says was inspired by the notion that, after his father passed away in 1988, he no longer had any living relatives in his hometown of Wausau, Wisconsin.
“When the last of your parents die, you have to confront being an orphan. But when you feel like you’re being orphaned from your hometown, it was just a whole other kind of realization that you have to calibrate for,” McCutcheon said of the specters that populated “Ghost Town.”
He says that his father lived in Wausau his entire life, working for the same company; he hardly ever left except to serve in the Second World War. He spent his later years walking up and down Wausau’s main drag, popping in and out of shops and restaurants, including the Mint Cafe. He was known as the “Mayor of Third Street.”
“I find that when I go back to my hometown, I always go into the Mint Cafe. This apple didn’t fall far from the tree,” McCutcheon said of visiting his father’s favored spot.
Unlike his dad, McCutcheon did indeed skip out on Wausau. In his twenties, as part of an independent study for college, he hitchhiked around the country to learn from various older banjo players.
“It’s a three-month independent study that I’m still on 50 years later,” McCutcheon said, adding that on that same trip he decided to move south, first to Virginia and then Georgia, where he has remained for the last 15 years.
“It was the music that drew me. It was the land, the music, the people, the food, for god’s sake, that kept me,” he said of relocating to the South.
Despite being a transplanted Midwesterner, McCutcheon’s songs tell stories about people from all around the world. “Story of Abe,” from the 2017 album “Ghost Light,” is based on a story McCutcheon heard about from author and radio host Steve Tobolowsky, and which Tobolowsky shared in his book “My Adventure With God.” It concerns a man named Abe who survived the Holocaust, and in his new life in America meets an Iranian surgeon—a fellow refugee—who agrees to remove Abe’s Auschwitz tattoo free of charge.
On his forthcoming album, McCutcheon is also working on another song about the last known Greek Holocaust survivor, Esther Cohen, who dedicated her life to sharing her experiences of the war until she died last December at 96.
“I just thought, my god this is like the Library of Alexandria burning down. Everything is second-hand from here on,” McCutcheon said of losing such precious first-hand accounts. “The people who [have] those experiences and have an open-hearted approach to their life, those are my heroes, And if I can tell their story in one of my humble little songs, I will.”
As his tour calendar dried out last year, McCutcheon employed a pay-what-you-wish model for “Cabin Fever,” as he was conscious of the fact that not only his fellow musicians but many of his fans were also struggling during lockdown. Somewhat to his surprise, many paid as much as $30—more than double what a CD normally runs.
McCutcheon is cautiously optimistic that heading into 2022, he will be able to tour again more regularly—if on a reduced schedule versus back in the day. Furthermore, he says that because the pandemic waxes and wanes, musicians are seeing some gigs postponed indefinitely.
“I fear for a lot of the venues, the brick-and-mortar places that have been dark,” he said. “And I’m hopeful that people who really want to have live music again are going to understand that they have to ‘take one for the team.’ They have to get vaccinated, they have to know that the venues we gather are going to be seen as safe places.
“Otherwise people are going to be too afraid to ever go there again. And those places are going to fold because they’re barely holding on now.”
He added: “I hope that we start thinking like citizens again rather than individualists, because that’s not how society works.”
Because the music business is an “affiliative field,” McCutcheon advises up-and-coming artists to meet as many other musicians as they can, and to look at their other artists as fellow travelers rather than competition.
“Just understand that you’re part of a long tradition. Don’t do ‘pay to play.’ It’s a ripoff [and] undercuts every musician,” he said. “Demand respect. And if everybody does that, it’s what’s going to happen.”
McCutcheon says he is still learning as he goes, and admits that even now, at age 69, he is only just starting to feel very comfortable with his place in the folk music pantheon. And he has many stories, set to music, still to share with listeners.
“I could be writing songs till my last breath, and hopefully I will,” he said. “Let me share this with you.”
“Bucket List” is available beginning Sept. 17.