Cabin Fever: John McCutcheon Talks Storytelling In Songs & The Future Of Live Performance

Multi-instrumentalist and lifelong songwriter John McCutcheon not only toured in 2020, but went straight from touring into quarantine in March, choosing a location where he might get a little creativity flowing, with only his dog for company. The results were immediate and album-worthy, but McCutcheon was faced with a decision about how to release these songs.

The normal business model of putting a CD together wasn't going to work, so he decided to release the album digitally on a pay-what-you-can format, an approach he had never used before. But he reasoned that if, like him, many people didn't have much money but still needed music, the album could do some good as Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine.

John McCutcheon shares the surprising results of the experiment in our interview below, the first part of which you can still read on Tower's PULSE! We also discuss the origins of his narrative-driven songs, his advice on how to build a story in a song, and what has led him to take the lead when he has an opportunity to share his expertise with others. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: I wanted to ask you about the relationship between purely instrumental music and storytelling music. Because you’re very much on the storytelling side of things but you have these skills and abilities for instrumental approaches.

Why go towards writing storytelling music versus just writing instrumental music?

John McCutcheon: It’s just what interested me, is the simple answer. When I started playing the guitar at age 14, my friend had gotten a guitar for his 14th birthday a few months earlier. So, of course, that launched an endless, irritating campaign that I had to get one, too. For my birthday, he gave me the album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

HMS: Ohh…

JMcC: Which was an astonishing album and is still one of my desert island discs. “Blowing In the Wind”, “Girl From the North Country Fair”, just an astonishing array of powerful songs. I recognized him as the guy who played in the March on Washington, where he sang, “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, which started off being about the dead of Edgar Mevers.

And I thought, “Oh my god, this just happened three months ago! You can write songs about the news?” But it went on with this brilliant analysis telling the poor white man that he was a pawn in a game, too. It gave you a new idea. It thought, “Wow, you can put a new idea out in the world in this form.” So I started writing terrible songs. [Laughs]

HMS: You have to.

JMcC: That’s how you start. It was pretty daunting that a guy like Bob Dylan came from a town smaller than mine and yet there was this whole world in his songs. When I went on my Appalachian odyssey at age 20, and would get the occasional gig, I was studying all these songs from these people and I would sing them, and then I’d sing one of my puny little songs, and I’d say, “That sucks!”.

On the one hand, you had these beautiful songs that had been sung for generations, pared down to their bare-boned beauty, then you had mine. I recognized it as something that I wanted to do, so I approached it the same way that I approached learning how to play the fiddle. You looked at people who you thought were skilled, and you deconstructed it in a totally non-academic way.

You asked how those people who came out of these traditions could take these forms and use them to create new songs. I contend that Gene Ritchie is the best songwriter that nobody knows is a songwriter. Because you can’t tell that her songs aren’t traditional, by and large. They sound so traditional.

I was at a Folk Festival one time, and I was sitting next to Stan Rogers, and someone got up and sang one of my songs. And he leaned over and said, “Are you going to tell them, or should I?” And I said, “Shut up! That’s the biggest compliment you can get as a writer.”

My first songwriting teacher, really, was Woody Guthrie. On the first day I got my guitar, knowing I had no money for lessons, I went down the public library and checked out the only book that the Dewey Decimal System listed under “Guitar”, which was this book of Woody Guthrie Folk songs. I had no idea who he was, though like every American kid I had grown up singing his songs. His book, because it was arranged alphabetically, had a love song, followed by a historical song. It taught me that you write about everything for everyone.

Also, in his historical songs, he talked about a subject by not specifically talking about it. You had to surrender to the songs. You went to Calumet, Michigan, for the 1913 massacre. I’ll never forget hearing that line, “I’ll take you through a door, and up a high stair…” It was so cinematic. Bang, you were there, he had you. It was the power of being able to tell a story, and to welcome someone in using the first person. You also have to surrender your disbelief.

It’s that moment, when I say at my songwriting camps, “There’s a pebble in your shoe. You’re going along, you’re doing fine, and suddenly you notice there’s a pebble in your shoe. What is it? Get rid of it.”

HMS: Something that’s interrupting the success of the song?

JMcC: Something that doesn’t belong.

HMS: One thing that a song has to be able to do that some of these other forms do not is to draw people in quickly and secure their attention quickly. I notice that one of the ways that you can do that is to bring in a strong human element right away, and using names is a great way to do that. There’s no moment where you disbelieve, then.

JMcC: I learned that a lot from novelists, like with the line “Call me Ishmael”. You draw in unexpected senses or an out of place image. One of the exercises in my songwriting camps is, “Create a first line that makes me want to hear the second.”

HMS: That’s great.

JMcC: You only have three minutes, and you have a little novella here, so create a first line that makes me want to hear the second one. You want to establish the who, what, where, and how, right away. There’s that old form that in the first verse, introduce character, in the second verse, introduce conflict, in the third verse, resolve the conflict. And in the bridge between the second and the third, have the narrator step back and opine or have an internal dialog with the protagonist. That’s an ancient formula for songwriting.

HMS: Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

JMcC: And as the Dalai Lama says, “Get to know all the rules, it’ll be easier to break them then.”

HMS: Our readers are going to love this. I feel like they are getting a free lesson from you on some of this. The main thing readers seem to want to know is, “How do you write a song?” Because, of course, a lot of people who read about music want to know how to make it. Also, it’s a helpful demystification.

I’ll ask you about a few of the songs, specifically, from Cabin Fever. Some of the songs on the album are deeply relevant to our times right now and speak directly about them. But the other ones made me curious, that seem far removed, like “Bristol Bay”. It’s such a narrative song and it’s so far flung, set up in Alaska. How did that come about?

JMcC: I have toured a lot in Alaska, and one of the places I’ve toured is called Cordova in Prince William Sound. I met a young man there named Dan Strickland, who was a small, commercial salmon fisher. Dan moved to Dillingham in Bristol Bay, and he connected with my longtime best friend, Sy Kahn, who in his retirement is busier than he ever was in his job. He went up and started working with a group that was trying to resist the opening of a gold and copper mine, an open pit mine, prone to spills, and potential environmental disasters. Those would have affected the largest salmon fishery in the world. There was a movement to resist that. Everything seemed to be going well, and the current administration undid everything, surprise, surprise.

Sy started an organization called Musicians United to Protect Bristol Bay and I was his first call. This called on my long relationship with small fisheries in Alaska, having played in Dillingham several times. I created a character that I’m familiar with, using language that I knew. I did research on the names of the places.

HMS: That’s a tremendous answer, way beyond what I expected, with such personal connections for you. I also already know about your activism, so that fits well.

What about a song like, “Hallelujah Morning” which feels so traditional, but you’ve made it your own? What spurred that one?

JMcC: The birth of one of my grandkids. I hope this doesn’t seem like a “Hakunah Matata” moment, but there is this circle that happens when your children start having children and you realize, “Wow, this is a whole new world that’s being born.” Every child is that.

You mention activism, but something that has been in my mind and heart my whole life, but I realized once I became a parent, was that I had responsibilities that went way beyond my doorstep. That I had a microphone and most of us don’t get that, and that comes with privileges but also responsibilities. If you’re sending your child out into a broken world, your responsibilities extend there, too. I draw from stories taken from the news. Sometimes that makes people uncomfortable, but art isn’t supposed to be comfortable.

There are all kinds of ways we tell our stories, whether it’s on Youtube or iTunes. Pete Seeger, who was a luddite, used to tell me, “If you ever get a chance to do a TV show, do it!” Because that’s how you reach the most people.

HMS: I was going to throw TikTok into that mix. Musicians are starting to show up there more.

This album is special for a lot of reasons, but also because you have a pay-what-you-can digital release for it, where people can set their own prices. Is this the first time you’ve done that?

JMcC: Yes, and it was prompted by the realization that I didn’t have the money to make a CD. The economics of making CDs is suspect these days, anyway. I figured I’d do it on the cheap, record it at home, and send it off to my longtime engineer, who somehow makes me sound good, and that’ll be worth it. And there are a lot of people out there who, like me, don’t have any money, and they need music.

I have faith that some people are going to see this and want to support me. Somebody paid $500, and it was their way of saying, “I’m doing fine. Here, keep up the good work.” A lot of people have gotten it for free, and that’s fine to me. I’ve probably made more money with this than I have with some of my other albums.

HMS: This model has some similarities with Patreon.

JMcC: Yes, I recently started that.

HMS: Another is the paid livestream on Facebook, which is new, where people can put money in the “tip jar”. I’ve spoken to musicians doing both and for some, this is their main livelihood right now. It’s definitely increasing.

JMcC: It is. Patreon is interesting since it’s a very old model. It used to be that only well-heeled individuals or the Church could be patrons. This democratizes it. I have lots of people giving five bucks a month, and every little bit helps. There are models now that are far more than a tip jar, and they make things feel less like busking.

HMS: You mean full, paid concerts with tickets? It took a while to get started, but that’s happening more now.

JMcC: There’s a new platform called Mandolin that I’m looking at, which also includes virtual meet ups and conversations. It also avoids Facebook if you don’t want to use Facebook. But more to the point, making your living as a musician has a lot of moving parts. There are people who make it possible for you, including managers, agents, club owners, and the only part of that jigsaw puzzle benefitting up until now has been the musician. If the brick and mortar places close, there will be no workplace.

One of the things I’ve been doing is talking to brick and mortar presenters who have supported me over the years. We’re going to set up a concert and split the tip jar, and my agent arranges this, so he gets some income. These presenters get some income. I get some income. This delicate equilibrium that has to exist for any of this to work is, in some small way, maintained. Then people may realize that musicians don’t just appear on stage, it takes a lot of people to get them there.

HMS: There’s also an opportunity in there for global reach that wasn’t there before.

JMcC: It’s a completely new art form. You have to figure out how to make this work. What happens when you finish a song? That was the time I would always retune or get a drink of water. It’s a lot more transparent now. I’m seeing a camera lens, so I have to learn how to make it as intimate as I try to make my live concerts.

HMS: I think it can be done, though it’s hard to say exactly how to do it. I’ve seen some where musicians just go into a studio, purely by themselves, performing on their own with multiple instruments, amazing music, and the fact that they were on their own like that somehow made it feel special. You would have thought that the opposite would be true. But you kept forgetting there was no one else there because of the music. That made me think there is potential here.

JMcC: And I don’t think it’s going away. The economics of touring is going to change radically before it returns, if ever, to what it was before. There are going to be people who are never going to feel comfortable in a concert hall in future. The economics are not going to work out, and there are going to be to other ways for people to create community. Which is what I think all concerts are, as far as I’m concerned.

HMS: I totally agree with you on that. And I think this conversation has been really helpful and thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing your ideas, and also for teaching us stuff!

JMcC: When Pete Seeger died, he was my last great mentor, and I really felt unmoored in ways that I didn’t expect, because all my other mentors had died. My wife said, and I think she was right, that part of it was that I hadn’t come to terms with the fact that I had to be one of those people now. I’ve been much more intentional about it since then, realizing there’s an opportunity here. But you’re always still learning, and that’s the cool thing.

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