You could never accuse Wisconsin-born McCutcheon of resting on his laurels. Over the course of a 50-year career he’s released 43 albums and during the pandemic outbreak he wrote some 54 songs, 18 of which appear on Leap!, his third release since 2020, co-produced by Bob Dawson with contributions including Pete Kennedy on guitar and mandolinist Tim O’Brien who shares harmonies with Kathy Mattea.
Cast in similar musical and vocal vein as Tom Paxton, Stan Rogers, Ramblin Jack Elliott and Pete Seeger with an occasional hint of Ochs and Prine, things get underway, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, with ‘The Ride’, a number that associates with the cover image of a normally reticent kid (“I’ve never been the sort/Accused of living on the edge”) leaping off a cliff into the waters of a quarry, spurred by his grandfather’s words “If you ain’t livin’, then you’re dyin’!”, the song essentially about taking chances because “There’s a surprise ‘round every corner” so “You’d best learn this from the start/Knuckle down and buckle up/And hold on to your heart” because “Most of living happens/‘Tween the things that you have planned” and “If you only pay attention/It’s amazing what you’ll learn”.
The scene shifts to Belfast for the Seegerish waltzing ‘The Troubles’ where, joined by Seamus Egan on low whistles, he relates Ireland’s bloody contemporary history when “Neighbors killed neighbors/For what they believed/Then they knelt in their churches/Prayed to the same God/Never once doubting/The path that they trod”, extending the conflict beyond Protestant and Catholic to that between “Palestinian, Jew/Hutu and Tootsi/Sunni, Shiite/Fascist and communist/The left and the right”, the last verse, adapted from ‘Ceasefire’ by Belfast poet Michael Longley relating the story of Achilles and Priam and how the latter “Knowing what must be done/Kissed the hand of the man/Who had murdered his son”, and sung by Northern Ireland peace activist Tommy Sands.
Indeed, McCutcheon’s stories travel far and wide. Drawing on his father-in-law’s first day at his first job in America, back in Georgia in 1964, ‘Third Way’ concerns an immigrant’s first day of work at a steel mill (“‘Carlos’ stitched upon the breast/He waited at the gates/With all the rest/He knows nothing of the language/Of millwork, even less/But a man must feed his family/Nonetheless”) where “He’s to be trained by Darnell/Hired twenty years before/The brown man and the black man/On the welding floor”, the track using a full bladder to slip in commentary on the segregation of the time (“Darnell presented Carlos with/Two different doors/One was marked for ‘Colored’/And the other ‘White’…After weighing both his options/He did the only thing he could/Went outside and pissed out/In the woods”. The point being “If you’re told you have two options/No matter what they say/It’s best to understand there’s often/A third way”.
Also relating to immigrants, but stepping back a few centuries ‘The First Ones’ concerns the original settlers in Georgia, from the Cherokee Eastern Nation, wondering “What was it set them roaming/Was it restlessness or fear/The burden of their history/That finally brought them here/Or longing for the peace/That wilderness provides?”, McCutcheon feeling that here he too is home at last.
Elsewhere, the moody piano, fiddle and fingerpicked classical guitar of ‘Shadowland’ is inspired by the story of CS Lewis’ late marriage to Joy Gresham, looking back as he faces death, while ‘Second Hand’ honours the passing of Esther Cohen, Greece’s oldest Holocaust survivor, who spent her life recounting her experiences to school children and notes the worrying rice of fascism on the streets of Europe once again.
‘Recess’ talks of feeling insecure in yourself through the snapshot of a young child reluctant to go out into the playground when the bell goes (“It wasn’t bullying or meanness/That made him awful and alone/Or that he was always last when sides were chosen/It was the easy way the others/Moved about their lives/That left him feeling small, apart, and frozen/For he’d learned the lesson early/That invisible was best”).
Indeed, such social commentary is never far away. ‘Sorry Land’ echoes the same subject of John Prine’s ‘Paradise’, of strip mining for coal destroying communities that are then left to fend for themselves when the industry moves on (“the lawyers, and a D-9 dozer/Took all we had ‘fore it was over/Covered up the graves where our people sleep/Greed and power don’t come cheap/Each night upon my knees I pray/These rains won’t wash my dreams away/Right here is where I’m gonna make my stand/‘Cause I ain’t got more than this sorry land”), while the mental illness- based ‘Touched’ and ‘Nobody Knows’ share a common theme of homelessness and outsiders, the latter noting “We are all John Does/Each battle-scarred/From our private wars”.
One of the most potent is ‘You Used To Be’, a song about the aftermath of that moment when all the pent of range and frustration explodes in what seems like domestic violence (“It was suddenly so silent/Just an echo of the roar/Blood upon your knuckles/And plaster on the floor/The animal uncaged”) and how you can never again be the person you once were (“Every way you turn now/The only thing you see/Is you’ll never be the man/You used to be”).
Ageing, loss and mortality find their place too, wonderfully captured in the fiddle waltzing emptiness of retirement-themed ‘Work’ (“The gold watch sits shiny and useless/In the drawer with his mother’s old locket/His time, as ever, hangs from a chain/Securely tucked in his front pocket/He putters about filling his days/With the list of forgotten old chores/Marking his hours with silence he never heard”), another song related to his father-in-law, and the Rogers-like ‘Mistaken’ (“This room here on the second floor/Thinks it is there for guests/For the occasional visitor/A place to find some rest/It is the keeper of the memory/The child off on her own/Whose fingerprints are left here/On my heart and on this home”), the line “most of what I love mistakes itself for nothing” taken s from the poem Transubstantiation by Molly McCully Brown.
Mingled among the poignancy and the melancholy, there’s light-hearted touches and uplift too, the fiddle and piano ballad ‘Everyday’ a note of gratitude amid lockdown for life and love’s blessings, ‘Song When You Are Dead is an amusing response to being commissioned to write a pre-mortem eulogy (“It might be a solemn dirge or perhaps a talking blues/It’ll be a catchy song/Everyone will sing along/They’ll love you without even knowing why/When they hear the song I write the day you die”), ‘Listen’ remarks how love can be deaf as well as blind (“I tried to warn you/Tried to tell you he’s a jerk/I stuck my neck out/Though I knew it wouldn’t work”) that comes with the wry metaphor that “if you’re made of sugar/The ants are gonna feed on you”.
And then there’s ‘Fuller Brush’, a piano waltzing snapshot of a door-to-door salesman that deftly returns to notions of doing the best you can in hard times
“He stands at the door and straightens his tie
Nervously fingers his ring
Never imagined that he’d by the guy
With a briefcase of useless damn things…
For the times are a-changing, the work is so slow
He’s thinking of giving up here
For it’s few that will open for those they don’t know
These days it’s all deadbolts and fear
But a man’s gotta work and a man’s gotta eat
Feel the sweet sweat of toil at day’s end/And bring home the bread with his charm and his feet”.
It ends on a lovely note with Duncan on fiddle and Jon Carroll: on piano for ‘Kora In The Subway’, a moving reminiscence of being stopped dead in his tracks on hearing a busker at a New York subway station (“He played the plains of Senegal/The Veldt found to the south/The gathering each evening/Down at the river’s mouth/The color of new-woven cloth/The women at the well/The bustling of the marketplace/A world of taste and smell”), a song about the power of music to evoke emotions and memories (“My mother in the kitchen/My father in his chair/An August day as thick as water/At the county fair/The pungent smell of fresh-caught fish/A kiss behind the barn/Grandfather at the graveside/A child in my arms”).
Quite simply, Leap! is the work of a master songsmith and storyteller and one of my albums of the year. Take a leap of faith, it could prove one of yours too.
Artist’s website: www.folkmusic.com
Lots of McCutcheon videos on line but none from this album as yet so here is a live version of a recent song, ‘The Night That John Prine Died’: