John McCutcheon is one of America’s great traveling troubadours. For a quarter of a century, he has criss-crossed the country and circled the globe, delivering his signature brand of thoughtful, heartfelt folk music. In that time, he has averaged about an album a year, and Storied Ground is a worthy addition to McCutcheon’s canon.
McCutcheon first became known as a virtuoso on the hammer dulcimer, which in the late Seventies when he started touring and recording with it was something of an exotic instrument. He still occasionally takes one on tour, though it doesn’t put in an appearance on this CD. McCutcheon does play didgeridoo on a couple of tracks here, to good effect.
Anyone who likes folk music at all should see a McCutcheon performance at least once. The man is a consummate performer for the whole family — in fact, when he hits a town he often will play a kids’ concert in the afternoon and a public show that night. He’s a master at engaging kids of all ages, and bringing out the kid in every adult, with participatory songs like “I Like Peanut Butter,” and a routine in which he coaxes the crowd into making sound effects that resemble a rainstorm. He is also a master storyteller who can hold a crowd of all ages in rapt attention. And he’s tremendously skilled at playing the hammer dulcimer, guitar, banjo, and piano, so there’s plenty of variety in his set.
All that said, I have to say that John McCutcheon on disc isn’t as interesting as John McCutcheon in concert. At least, that’s the impression I have from listening to Storied Ground and a handful of his others over the years. Mostly, it’s a matter of taste. McCutcheon writes and performs in a very sincere, no-frills style that also, for me, holds few surprises.
Take, for instance, “Cross That Line” from this CD. It’s a ballad about the day a white baseball player, PeeWee Reese, went over and put his arm around Jackie Robinson, the first Black major leaguer, on the field during a game to silence the taunts of the crowd. In concert, following an introduction from McCutcheon and delivered with the kind of quiet passion he gives a song in person, this is probably a very moving moment. But on CD, it never really takes flight.
Which is not to say that Storied Ground is a bad record. The production, by McCutcheon and Bob Dawson, is flawless. And he receives fine backing from a good cast of musicians, particularly J.T. Brown on bass and harmony vocals, and T.J. Johnson on mandolin. And every one of its dozen songs is crafted, performed, and recorded with great care. They mostly tell the stories of everyday working class people who sometimes find themselves in extraordinary situations, like the auto workers who went on strike at Flint, Mich., in 1937, or the groundskeeper who retrieved Mark Magwire’s record-breaking home run in 1998.
At times he gets a bit preachy, as in “From Us,” which answers the question, where do our kids get the guns with which they shoot each other? And he gets a bit maudlin and sentimental in ballads like “Key To The City,” a love song from a blue-collar guy to his wife who passed up the chance to marry a millionnaire; and “Homecoming Time” about an unappreciated Vietnam vet.
The song “Vultures” is a choice bit of activist songwriting aimed squarely at the working classes McCutcheon so lauds in his other songs. It’s about trashy tabloids and TV shows, and McCutcheon was performing it under the title “I Just Don’t Care” several years ago, before he re-wrote it in the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana. “Vultures” bounces along with a funky R&B groove, as McCutcheon details what he doesn’t want to see any more of, including Frank Gifford, JonBenet Ramsey, Monica Lewinsky, O.J., and Marv Albert. And he points out that the news vultures wouldn’t print or broadcast such stories if the public didn’t buy them: “The next time you’re standin’ in the supermarket line/Just shut up your wallets and just speak up your mind.”
Storied Ground closes with a number that McCutcheon has been performing for a decade, “Piece by Piece,” a ballad about the Names Quilt, a national project to honor some of the earliest victims of AIDS. It’s a simple song, with only guitar and cello accompaniment, but powerful in its simplicity. “It’s a common thread that binds us/And our work will never cease/Till we stitch this world together piece by piece.”
If you’re a fan of unadorned, straightforward folk songs, John McCutcheon writes and sings them as well as anybody, and Storied Ground is a fine example of the genre. And if you haven’t seen McCutcheon perform, you owe it to yourself and to the spirit of American folk music to go see him if he comes through your town.