A Conversation with John McCutcheon

John McCutcheon is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist rooted in Appalachian Mountain traditions. His February 13th, 4 pm performance at the Yorktown Hotel located at 48 E. Market Street in York is sponsored by the Susquehanna Folk Music Society; www.sfmsfolk.org.

Folkmama: How long have you been performing professionally?

McCutcheon:  It’s going on 40 years now. I started performing in 1972 and like many performers first starting out, I didn’t get paid very much.  And in those early years like a lot musicians I juggled a lot of things to get by. I gave lessons, I performed for school kids, I recorded, I wrote. I love to perform, but I’ve always loved those other kinds of things as well. At that particular time, I was 17 or 18 years old growing up in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, I would just take my recorder into the mountains and tape people playing and singing. They became my friends and mentors and I produced a lot of recordings of their music.

Folkmama: Well I know that the Susquehanna Folk Music Society, the organization that you are playing for on February 13th presents concerts that showcase tradition- based music. How much of that Appalachian sound that you became familiar with as a young man can be found in your music today?

 McCutcheon: Well, I mostly perform stuff that I write myself. But the song writing that I do and the performing that I do is all based in traditional music. It’s the bedrock of what I do. The themes tend to be themes that you might find in the traditional songs; things like home, family, work, and the everyday life. And I also perform some traditional songs as part of my repertoire. I think most people know me for my original songs. When they come into a concert I want them to see that no performer is just one thing.

Folkmama: I remember you from the 70s and 80s and I think of the work that you did with the hammered dulcimer. How you really did a lot to forward that instrument and get it into the public eye. But I also think that you were doing some things to change the instrument mechanically, like adding dampening pedals and things like that.

McCutcheon: Well I was kind of a guinea pig for the guy who builds my dulcimer, Sam Rizzetta (http://samrizzetta.com). I met Sam in the 70’s when a friend of mine build a hammered dulcimer under his tutelage which eventually became my first dulcimer. He’s a terrifically creative guy and a stunning craftsman.  I would go to him and say something like, “Man, it would be really good to have something that was really light and compact, but would still have a big sound. And could you add more notes to it? ” and he was always game. Sam and I had discussed how to create a dampening system, but it wasn’t until the mid-80’s after I returned from Central America where I had adapted my dulcimer to make the percussive sounds needed to play alongside marimba players by putting duck tape across the bridge that we got serious about making this revision. He really loved the sound, but of course was horrified about what I was doing to the instrument with duck tape!

Folkmama:  So described the dulcimer that you are traveling with now. What does it look like? What does it weigh?

McCutcheon:  It weighs about 12 or 13 pounds. And it has about three full chromatic octaves. It goes down about a fifth lower and a couple of steps higher than a typical dulcimer and it has a pick-up system built in. It has some very light telescoping legs, because I play standing. It has four bridges, the two standard treble and bass bridges and then some extra bridges that allow my instrument to go lower and higher. And it’s got a dampening system, of course. I can’t ever imagine now having an instrument without the contrasting sounds that dampers allow. (Check out a You Tube of John playing hammered dulcimer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFinPD8n1N8)

Folkmama:  Speaking of instruments I see on your site that you have some instruments for sale “to a good home.” They all sound pretty nice, which gets me curious about some of the other instruments that you travel with. They must be pretty spectacular.

McCutcheon:  I’ve always liked playing instruments that are built by people that I know. And when I am traveling, I usually have three or four guitars that are made from me by Huss and Dalton who are from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. (www.hussanddalton.com) For the tour this weekend I’m actually going to be playing a brand new guitar built from a fellow in Hanover, Indiana names Clint Bear. (www.ocbearguitars.com/luthier.php) I met him at the International Bluegrass Music Association Music Conference and he had made a little small body guitar with a deep box and very elegant lines. I’ve also got a prototype minstrel banjo made by Ome banjos of Boulder, Colorado. I always stop by their booth at the Winfield Festival in Kansas. And they had a prototype of a new banjo with a very unusual look and a great sound, and I just fell in love with this banjo. I said, “I’m sorry, this is my banjo now.”

I’m traveling with a Rizzetta hammered dulcimer and an autoharp by Tom Fladmark  from Sunbury, Pennsylvania  (www.fladmarkautoharps.com/autoharps.html) I have a fiddle built by Bob Childs, out in Somerville, MA (http://www.childsplay.org). I have a pile of Hungarian jawharps that I have been traveling with and I think that’s all—it’s a veritable circus of stuff.

Folkmama:  I see in your bio that you have 34 recordings and 7 Grammy nominations. If someone were totally new to your music, which CDs would you recommend so they could come to know the “quintessential John McCutcheon. “

McCutcheon:  The two most recent would be pretty interesting for people and pretty indicative. The first of the two came out last year, it’s called “Untold” and it’s a double CD.  The fist of the discs was recorded live at the National Storytelling Festival. So it included five or six of my signature stories leading up to songs. My newest CD “Passage” has original pieces that were recorded with an Appalachian feeling and instrumentation. This would be a good CD for anyone looking to hear more of my Appalachian roots.

Folkmama: And for someone coming to your concert who has never heard you before, what might they expect to hear?

McCutcheon:  They’ll hear a lot of interesting stories. I like to tell stories about the songs and put them in context. They’ll hear hammered dulcimer, fiddle, banjo, autoharp, guitar and piano and a little hambone thrown in too. They’ll be some songs that I’ve written and some that are traditional. We’ll have a good time together!

For more information on the concert, visit http://www.sfmsfolk.org/concerts/JohnMcCutcheon.html

Written by Jess Hayden. Jess is the Executive Director of the Susquehanna Folk Music Society.

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