I’ve told this story before.
In 2011, due to in-law connections and good fortune, I was able to travel to Chicago from Red Deer for a Chicago Blackhawks game. I got to see Teemu Selanne play for the Ducks and Fernando Pissani the ‘Hawks, but the game itself is rather unmemorable. I better recall wandering the stadium and admiring the Glenn Hall and Stan Mikita banners hanging from the beams of the ceiling.
What do I best remember about that fast-paced weekend? A too quick visit to the Art Institute to see American Gothic, The Old Guitarist, and Nighthawks certainly ranks ahead of the only hockey game I’m ever going to experience from a private box.
But the highlight of that journey was experiencing John McCutcheon in his element at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I wrote about that evening here, but I’m not confident that contemporaneous account fully captures that which currently inhabits my memory. It was an ideal presentation of (mostly) original folk music, stories and remembrances bridging challenging positions and brilliantly constructed songs reflecting (mostly) the best of humanity. It was an experience I will not soon forget.
Which brings me to 2022 and the new album from John McCutcheon, Leap! Now in his 50th year as a folk music professional, McCutcheon releases his third album written and constructed during this pandemic. The quality of his output is not surprising as over 43 albums (No, I’ve not heard them all. C’mon!) I’ve not heard McCutcheon take many wrong turns. The previous Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine (2020) was outstanding and invigorating while last year’s Bucket List spoke quiet honesty to a number of challenges. Incredible songs comprised these albums.
Leap! Is a fully-realized album, recorded with longtime collaborators including JT Brown (bass,) Jon Carroll (piano and organ,) and Stuart Duncan (fiddle) comprising the instrumental core with McCutcheon (guitar and a single appearance of autoharp.) Tim O’Brien (mandolin, bouzouki, and harmony) and Kathy Mattea (harmony) also appear on select songs, with Pete Kennedy (electric guitar) on a couple numbers.
“The Troubles,” about Then and Now features Seamus Egan (low whistles) and Tommy Sands (singing a verse) and is one of the songs that is most remembered when reflecting on the album. McCutcheon is a master, subtly weaving wisdom of the past into presentation of modern circumstance. Such is accomplished here, a four-minute reflection on history that captures today.
Running over an hour with 18-songs, there is much to absorb within Leap! As does McCutcheon frequently, humour is a path to greater understanding, and that route is taken several times including within “Third Way,” “Song When You Are Dead,” “Fuller Brush Man.” “Everyday” borrows a bit from Buddy Holly, while “The Ride” is a country song bearing evidence of intelligent development; glad to hear simple truths so well presented.
McCutcheon has the knack of finding universality within small detail, and that songwriting care is always appreciated, as here with “Mistaken,” “Nobody Knows” and “Listen.” “Sorry Land” is another song identifying the evil of shortsighted mountaintop removal mining (the late James Reams’ “Hills of My County, co-written with his late partner Tina Aridas, is another favourite folk song addressing this topic) with “Recess” gently exploring childhood anxieties.
The album’s closing suite of three songs brings Leap! to a gentle, meditative conclusion. “Work” examines another aspect of life, the endless days of as we approach the end, elements of which can also be heard within “You Used to Be” and “Kora in the Subway.”
While the album begins with the lightness of hurling oneself from a granite ledge (“I cannot be certain if I’m falling or if I’m flying…”) Leap! is a substantial and even, at times, heavy album. John McCutcheon, as did other legends of the folk world—Guthrie, Seeger, Prine, Griffith, Odetta, MacColl, Dickens—blends hard-hitting subject matter with gentle approaches and humour, offering honesty within daily observance. As those listed were, he is without doubt among the best who have attempted to follow their inspiration in this manner. We should be pleased he has done so. Leap!, a fairly gentle, quiet album, is another memorable, captivating collection of John McCutcheon songs.