John McCutcheon- Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine review

John McCutcheon
Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine

One of my most extraordinary folk music experiences occurred in the spring of 2011 when I journeyed from Alberta to Chicago for a blustery weekend including attendance at a most memorable Old Town School of Folk Music concert. Ably aided by guest (and personal favourite) Tracy Grammar, John McCutcheon provided a couple hours of riveting entertainment inspired by the breadth of the folk tradition.

An acknowledged master, the stoutness of that evening ensured that—moving forward—I would make myself increasingly familiar with McCutcheon’s music.

The COVID-19 lockdown and self-quarantine have caused many musicians and troubadours to retreat from performance; others have pushed forward with online events. John McCutcheon? He decided to write an album’s worth of songs, many directly inspired by the last few months.

Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine reveals no sense of having been created in isolation over a period of mere weeks. As each McCutcheon album encountered does, it contains a set of songs reflective and insightful, universally moving, affecting, light, and silly in turns. As far as I am concerned, it stands among his finest.

Several songs speak directly to the ongoing pandemic. “Front Lines,” “Six Feet Away,” and “Sheltered in Place”—one a tribute to local heroes, the next—by McCutcheon’s admission—a ‘goofy song’ of courtship, and the final a reflection on homelessness in times of isolation—are each wee modern classics. Beautiful, really.

Also related to recent events is a heartfelt remembrance, “The Night That John Prine Died.” While feelings may remain raw around the unnecessary death of a master songsmith, this sincere elegy to a friend is significant as an expression of appreciation for a peer. McCutcheon sings,

        He seemed to pluck his songs
        Out of thin air
        They told our tiny triumphs
        And lives filled with despair.

        Complex in their simplicity
        So honest and so true                                                  
        Just what every writer
        Wished that they could do.

A remarkable description of Prine’s gifts, one that equally applies to McCutcheon.

It is incredible to me—someone who has found it increasingly difficult to locate inspiration to write of late—that these songs came to fruition in the few weeks of McCutcheon’s self-quarantine after returning from an Australian tour in mid-March. “My Dog Talking Blues” (“My dog don’t know no quarantine, She’s just happy I’m around”) and “When All of This Is Over” (“We learned how to be bored again, Found the time to dream”) are not only clever, they are poignant and eloquent, evidence of artistic mastery.

A challenging song of honest opinion, “Bristol Bay” is another highlight of the set utilizing imagery of those who spend their lives on the water.

Themes of acceptance (most notably within “Control” and “That’s All”), appreciation (“Beans” and “Vespers”), and faith (“The Donkey” and “Hallelujah Morning”) reoccur throughout the album, each a beautiful performance.

A pair of songs predate this spring. “One Hundred Years” examines mortality and legacy, themes McCutcheon has oft explored. “Traveler’s Rest,” named for McCutcheon’s north Georgia cabin, is a song of an aging seaman’s memories, realization that we all—eventually—long for home.

Available only as a pay-as-you-will download at McCutcheon’s website ( Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine is no throwaway. It is an important contribution to contemporary folk, an excellent set of timely songs and perspectives.

5 thoughts on “John McCutcheon- Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine review

  1. Thank you for the beautiful review of John’s latest collection of songs. I was a McCutcheon devotee while at & remain so to this day. I was fortunate enough to emcee a few of John’s shows between 1985-2009 in some of Seattle’s best venues. One year he needed a ride after the show to the SeaTac Airport. I offered to be his driver & was excited to talk with him about baseball, knowing he was a fan/player, on our 20 minute trip. Turns out he was a catcher, so was I. His favorite MLB catcher is Del Crandall, mine, Johnny Bench.
    I look forward to buying the collection.
    Keep up the fine writing.
    Best. Dru
    I’d love to be your guide at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, some year. Hopefully, they will survive.

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