John McCutcheon may get called a Luddite for it, but the folk singer-musician still loves the album format.
“It’s an audio canvas,” says McCutcheon, talking in advance of his concert on Friday, Jan. 16, at Fresno’s Unitarian Universalist Church.
The format allows him to weave together something that is greater than the sum of its parts, he says, and over the last 20 years, he has used it to produce a number of project albums. There’s “Sermon on the Mound,” his ode to the game of baseball, and an album of Woody Guthrie tunes titled “This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America.” In 2006, he released “Mightier Than the Sword,” a collection of songs he co-wrote with contemporary authors, including the former poet laureate Rita Dove and children’s writer Carmen Agra Deedy.
Currently, he is working on a tribute to Joe Hill.
Hill was a Swedish-American labor activist and member of the Industrial Workers of the World during the early 1900s (he died in 1915). He was famous for writing political songs, many of which appropriated melodies from popular songs and hymns of the time. It was a template for modern protest music, McCutcheon says.
The album will be a collection of Hill’s songs as McCutcheon imagines the singer would have recorded them at the time. As one might expect, it is an outrageously noncommercial endeavor, McCutcheon says.
“Forty years into my career, for my 37th album, I’ll do something that has no chance of selling,” he says.
Of course, his real job is performing. McCutcheon has, over the years, established himself as a master showman, musician and storyteller who gets plenty of gigs. Along with his concerts, he’s made multiple appearances at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tenn.
McCutcheon began telling stories the first time his mother caught him doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing, he says.
He started incorporating them into his concerts early on as a way to provide context to the music he was playing. These were songs he learned by traveling and living with songwriters, mostly in the Appalachian region of the U.S.
“Playing the songs in New York, I found that you might as well be singing a song about Mars,” McCutcheon says. There was a world of context that couldn’t be explained in a three-minute song, he says.
Telling stories became his way of providing that context, McCutcheon says. His fans grew to like the stories as much as the music. That suited McCutcheon, too.
“As a lifelong reader and lover of language, this was like manna,” he says.