John McCutcheon Brings Us Out Of Darkness With 'Ghost Light'

Apr 5, 2018

Ghost Light is John McCutcheon's latest album, a record that covers a broad range of topics, from familial life ("She Just Dances") to the ghosts of our pasts ("Story of Abe"). There's also a run-through of current events ("The Machine") and an appreciation of the hidden faces (the title track). McCutcheon remains his engaging, warm self throughout, telling stories with the ease of one naturally gifted in the matter.

He performs at the Bartlett Arboretum on Saturday.

Interview Highlights

Jedd Beaudoin: This is album 39. This may be an obvious question, but did you think that one day you would get to album 39?

John McCutcheon: Someone had to point it out to me. I just do what I do. I'm always one album ahead when I finally start talking about the one that people like you call up about. I'm in the middle of album number 40. I guess I've never really thought about it. I realized, early on, that my record company for many years, Rounder Records, was giving me complete carte blanche. They didn't even ask for demos of the songs. I would just say, "Hey, I've got this idea for doing this album, what do you guys think?" And they'd say, "When do you need the money?" I know now what a special kind of gift that was. To answer your question? No. I never thought I'd be at 39. It was always one at a time.

You've also written a song about events that have been on peoples' minds over the last year, "The Machine." Can you tell me about the moment between when you see something going on and how distant it is between when it happens and when you pick up the guitar or the pen?

Sometimes it's right away. It's visceral, it's an act of rage or catharsis or profound sorrow. In the case of "The Machine," this concerns events that took place this last August in Charlottesville, Virginia. I have a long and deep history with Charlottesville. I lived there for 20 years, longer than I've ever lived any place in my life. I raised my children there. So, I knew the area, I knew the statue, I knew the university where you saw the torch rally.

It's a small town, 35,000 people. I was horrified and heartbroken by what happened. The genesis of that particular song was that — about a week or so after it happened — I was playing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and had been asked to participate in a "Songs of the Times" workshop. I thought, "Golly, maybe this is an opportunity to write something about this. It's certainly fresh in everyone's mind."

I chose the voice of a World War II veteran witnessing these things, someone who had fought the Nazis, who had liberated concentration camps, who had an intimate view of the evil that was marching down the streets of Charlottesville. In an age where the term fascism is cavalierly tossed around describing people that you disagree with, I thought this fellow's perspective and history had a kind of moral heft that ought to be given voice because that certainly wasn't a generation that I was hearing asked about this particular generation.

Let's talk about the title song, "Ghost Light." I just love the narrative to that.

That was one of the last songs that got written, but as soon as I wrote it, as soon as I started writing it, I knew it was going to be the title of the album. I was driving to one of the songwriting camps that I do in east Tennessee and I purposefully take a long route there because it goes through the north Georgia mountains. I love that area and it's just a pretty way to get any place.

I was listening to some little community radio station some place, and there was a young woman on there talking about working at a theatre. She talked about the ghost light. It's a light that I have seen in theatres my entire life, most audience members never see it.

Before the theatre is closed up at the end of the night, a single, unshaded floor lamp is put in the middle of the stage and turned on.

It's obviously some kind of superstitious act. I've seen it everywhere in the world. The first person who shows up turns it off and moves it. The last person, before they leave, turns it on. They put it there in the middle of the stage. As a performer, I'm often there early enough or late enough to see it. I never knew what it was called.

I also have spent an awful lot of time with those people who work behind the scenes of the events that have thrust me, quite literally, to center stage. I know that, without people like those people, people like me can't do our job. The audience out there can't get to enjoy it, and these people who work behind the scenes seldom get the attention that they deserve.


Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.


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