With the release of Spring Songs (Rounder Records, 1999), family favorite John McCutcheon completes the season-celebrating series that started with Autumn Songs (the hardest to write, he says) — a project born of nothing more than a boyish yearning to spend more time with his best pal.
“My buddy Si Kahn and I wanted to do a writing project together, so we wrote a few songs for the [first album] as a joint project,” he explains. “Then we thought, ‘Let’s make it a much bigger project, so we can spend more time together’ — as if two grown men need excuses to hang out with their best friend.”
Accessing his inner child, however, has been the key to McCutcheon’s success. Far from being silly or condescending, the songs in this series bespeak the wistful seasonal associations (Little League tryouts, for example, or watching your big sister get ready for the prom), that one carries throughout life.
“I call it family music, not children’s music,” McCutcheon clarifies. “People think of Barney when they think of children’s music, and a listen to any song on the ‘seasons’ albums can tell you this is different. Making these albums was a totally selfish thing; it was designed to be something that I would listen to myself. When I was growing up, AM radio was about the extent of the musical equipment we had in our house. I wanted to make music that would have more of the sophistication and intelligence that I saw in my own kids. … I want this album to be the one that will settle the argument on the drive to the Outer Banks of what everyone will listen to, which can be a huge battle.”
McCutcheon has enjoyed international recognition, playing to audiences in such far-flung climes as Nicaragua and the Soviet Union:
“Folk music is universal,” he points out. “It sounds like a cliche, but [the] kind of values and heroes [espoused by folk music] are part of every culture. If I sing “John Henry,” a classic story of man vs. machine, there’s going to be a parallel for that anywhere.”
Back at home, the singer/songwriter is known for considerably more than crafting children’s music. A hammered dulcimer virtuoso who was knighted “the most impressive instrumentalist I’ve ever heard” by no less than Johnny Cash, McCutcheon likes to blur the barriers dictating what kinds of rhythms different generations can groove on. McCutcheon’s classic “Christmas in the Trenches” — hailed as “the greatest anti-war song ever written” — is the subject of a yearly CBS television special.
“There’s a dearth of music today that families can enjoy together,” he declares. “I write real songs about real things. Parents and children can come to these songs through different doors and end up in the same place.”