John McCutcheon has been on stage for folk music since the early 1970s.
He’s a master instrumentalist, and always packs guitar, auto harp, piano, banjo and hammered dulcimer for his concerts. His 38th album will be released early in 2017.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Eighth Step at Proctors, GE Theatre, 432 State St., Schenectady
HOW MUCH: $40-$28, $26 in advance
MORE INFO: www.8thstep.org.
That’s a lot of work and a lot of years — but McCutcheon understands why major league, household-name fame has never come his way.
“In the world of folk, people know who I am, and those are the people who are going to come out,” he said in a telephone interview from Denver last week.
They’ll come out Saturday, as McCutcheon performs at the Eighth Step at Proctors. The show in the Schenectady theater complex’s GE Theatre will begin at 7:30 p.m.
“I’m as famous as I want to be,” said McCutcheon, 64, who lives in Smoke Rise, Georgia.
“I’ve got friends who are playing to 60,000 people a night and I wouldn’t trade one day of my life for their whole lives,” he added. “I get to be a neighbor, I get to say ‘I’m going to take a whole bunch of time off because I want to be around when my brand new little grandbaby takes his first steps.’ As my friend Utah Phillips used to say, ‘I’ve made a living without making a killing.’ I get to play music I’m proud of, I get to be in the company of unbelievable mentors and incredibly talented young musicians.
“And people like the people at the Eighth Step who love this music enough to keep it going for 40-plus years and that’s a rare gift. I couldn’t buy those experiences with all the money I would make if i was significantly more famous.”
Composing music for 38 albums has been a life’s work, in more ways than one.
“There’s just so much to continually write about and I’ve found quite by accident that what I’ve been doing is really just chronicling my life,” McCutcheon said. “I did a series of eight children’s records that coincided with me having children, and by the time I did the eighth one my kids were graduating from high school. Now I’m a grandfather and I’m writing that. My father died about a year and a half ago, you write about that. It’s just an inspiring world.”
McCutcheon has written about the plight of the farmer and places where small, locally owned stores have been forced to close. There are songs about baseball and growing up on Grandpa’s farm. He’s into political and socially conscious songs for adult audiences. One of his most successful songs, “Christmas in the Trenches,” (from the 1984 Winter Solstice album), tells the story of the Christmas truce of 1914.
He loves his chosen genre.
“I started at a time when there were folk music groups around the country who got together for reasons other than presenting concerts,” he said. “They were really together to play music and have a kind of social activity. Every once in a while, maybe once a month, they might put on a concert of some migrant working folksinger and I was lucky enough that I was mobile enough and free enough, especially early in my career before I had a family that I could establish relationships with these people.”
McCutcheon said he built his audience from the ground up, not from hit songs or following trends. He listens to his audience, and will be talking to the group that comes to the Eighth Step. During intermission, he always asks people to write song requests and leave them on stage.
“It costs a lot of money for people to go out these days, and I want to make sure people get their money’s worth,” McCutcheon said.
That’s where working as a solo artist comes in handy.
“I don’t have to not play a song because the bass player doesn’t know it,” he said. “It also means I can just fly off on a weekend. For instance, the weekend I’m coming to Schenectady, I’m in Nelson (Madison County, Central New York) Thursday night, Rochester on Friday night, with you on Saturday and I’m in Beacon Sunday night. Then I fly home. If you’re a band, you don’t have that luxury. You have to go out for big stretches of time.”
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. His blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/wilkin.
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