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It is fitting that John McCutcheon’s 38th release, Trolling for Dreams, features a quote from Pete Seeger on the back cover, calling him “one of the best musicians in the USA” while noting as well his commitment to “helping hard-working people everywhere to organize and push this world in a better direction”. I can think of no one more appropriate to pick up the mantle that Seeger left with his passing in 2014. Certainly, McCutcheon’s 2015 release, Joe Hill’s Last Will, which resurrected the songs of the legendary union martyr, fulfilled the celebration of art and social progressivism that Seeger’s life represented. On his latest release, McCutcheon’s progressive eye remains sharp as ever even as his primary focus rests in creating a masterful collection of story-telling songs.
In the album’s opener, an Acadian folk fiddle accompanies the morning journey of a nameless man returning to his nameless hometown to find that everything that made the place his home is now “Gone”, replaced by mass production franchises. It’s as if Rip Van Winkle awakened into our Fast Food Nation, a narrative evocation of Eric Schlosser’s book, where every highway exit leads to the same cookie-cutter collection of McRestaurants and WalMarkets, all the beloved Mom-and-Pop and independent businesses having been run out, the quirk of the unique replaced by the alleged comfort of sameness. The end result, McCutcheon’s song reveals, is a complete loss of identity.
McCutcheon’s identity as a master storyteller, though, is affirmed throughout this collection in songs that portray both life’s small moments and its milestones. In “The Dance”, a Rashomon-like collection of multiple perspectives on a first-time teenage date, we hear perspectives from the boy, the girl, and, especially, both of her parents, a catalog of nervousness and sincere desires. Whether or not most teenagers today even experience their first date in such a traditionally framed manner is immaterial. McCutcheon captures the timeless and tenuous reality of our dreaming selves here. That depth of commitment to family, to a sense of community however it is defined is amplified as well in the gentle and welcoming remembrance of his grandmother, “Y’all Means All”. McCutcheon consistently breathes new life into time-worn tropes, reminding us of the universality of the singer and the song.
McCutcheon’s compositions come not without moments of passion or well-justified anger, something no accurate chronicler of our times can avoid. We hear it in songs like “The Sharecropper’s Son”, with Stuart Duncan’s squealing, yawing fiddle evoking a sense of simultaneous entrapment and impending explosion. Even more so, “The Bible” offers a crisis of faith narrated third-hand via notes found in a bible bought at a neighborhood yard sale. “Blessed are the peacemakers / They are gullible and weak”, the previous owner of the book has written, “You’re sure to get your jaw broke / If you turn the other cheek.” Whoever the note-taker was, he would leave us without hope. But McCutcheon’s narrator, pausing to contemplate our troubled times, turns nonetheless to Christ’s reassurance that “What it is that makes us human makes us each divine”
McCutcheon’s personal grapplings with mortality are treated in moving fashion in “Between Good and Gone” and “This Ain’t Me”. The former describes McCutcheon’s visits with his ailing father as the elder struggles with the early stages of Alzheimer’s dementia. Meanwhile “This Ain’t Me” details McCutcheon’s experience with a cancer diagnosis and its treatment. The upbeat music and tone seem jarring for the subject, but McCutcheon is not one to wallow in self-pity. Rather than dwell on “Why me?”, he becomes fascinated by the language of treatment, noting “I’ve never been a violent man / But words of war pervade the plan”, then expresses thanks to the many who worked on his—and on a broader—cure. In the end, he finds contentment in his own internal prayer of “Thy will be done”.
McCutcheon has been creating timeless, traditional folk music with a nod to our modern times for over fifty years now. Trolling for Dreams features his masterful guitar and dulcimer playing along with his painter’s eye for storytelling. The album also gathers a collection of top-notch players who provide a variety of styles in the service of the songs. “New Man Now” and “Three Chords and the Truth” are both rollicking folk-rock numbers, “Waltz ‘Round the Kitchen” is a seductive country waltz, and “Longing” is a piano ballad. The collection offers a cohesiveness anchored by McCutcheon’s still strong and expressive voice.
There is a confidence born of long effort and a gentleness of craft that characterize McCutcheon’s songs. It might be said that he’s been doing this so long he could do it in his sleep, but the fact is, he is wide awake to each detail of every song he crafts. That appearance of effortlessness is the sure sign of a modern master.