by Sandor Slomovits
John McCutcheon seems never to have met an instrument he didn't like. He is highly skilled on Autoharp, banjo, fiddle, guitar, piano, and mountain dulcimer, plus a handful of other folk instruments. He is an acknowledged master of the hammered dulcimer. And anyone who has seen him do "Hambone," using his hands to slap out complex rhythms on his thighs, chest, head, and other body parts, knows he needs no external instrument to make plenty of music.
And then there is his voice: a strong, what-you-hear-is-what-you-get, all-American voice that sounds better than most of us while still managing to sound like all of us. It's a voice that can confidently carry a cappella, Appalachian-style hymns or transform itself and remind you of Bob Seger at his raspy, rockin' best.
Now add his songwriting to this embarrassment of riches. If McCutcheon had never written another song besides his "Christmas in the Trenches," arguably one of the two best antiwar songs in the English language (Eric Bogle's "The Band Played 'Waltzing Matilda'" being the other), he could be counted among the great songwriters of recent memory. More than twenty years after he wrote it, the song still moves audiences to tears and cheers, even if they've heard it many times before. But he's penned countless other gems: children's songs, love songs, hilarious songs (ask him to sing "The Red Corvette"), and deeply moving songs about social issues and his response to 9/11. His twenty-four recordings have received countless awards, including five Grammy nominations.
Combine all that with an abundant gift for showmanship and an authentic, natural stage presence, and a McCutcheon concert is always a rich, memorable event. And yet, his live performances and his music are ultimately not about impressive displays of skill, or precocious show-and-tells. On stage and off, McCutcheon and his music seem to have always been about building community. For more than thirty years, he has traveled widely, from Alaska to South America, from
Australia to Russia, listening, absorbing, and then passing along what he's learned.
Whether he is bringing together some of the best hammered dulcimer players in the country to create a recording of rare beauty, or collaborating with other songwriters, such as Si Kahn or Tom Chapin, or with novelist and essayist Barbara Kingsolver, McCutcheon seems always to be looking for ways of communicating and connecting with all of us, and trying to find ways to help us all connect with each other. No wonder, then, that in "Kindergarten Wall," McCutcheon's musical treatment of Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, the only words he shouts, rather than merely sings, are "Stick together!"
John McCutcheon returns to the Ark on Friday, April 2.
[Originally published in April, 2004.]