Album Review: John McCutcheon, ‘Bucket List’

Troubadour John McCutcheon delivers another gem of an album, spinning stories of moonshine, French villages, his musical mentors, and Zilphia Horton’s piano, among others, on Bucket List. Holed up in his cabin in the North Georgia mountains during the pandemic, McCutcheon wrote without ceasing, and when he got to 100 songs, he took stock of what he’d written and decided to spread the songs over a few albums. He released Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine, which featured McCutcheon alone on vocals and guitar or banjo, in June 2020. On Bucket List, he’s joined by Stuart Duncan on fiddle. JT Brown on bass, and Jon Carroll on piano, organ, and percussion, offering 18 gentle ruminations on the ways our lives intersect with others, the enduring lessons of love, and the ways that looking back keeps us anchored in the present, both for good and bad. McCutcheon’s rich baritone vocals and his folk songs of everyday life and events cultural events that shape them recall Pete Seeger, Si Kahn, Harry Chapin, and Harry Traum.

The album opens with the title track, floating on Duncan’s lilting fiddles, Carroll’s cascading piano, and McCutcheon’s own circling guitar picking, over which McCutcheon layers his resonant vocals as he sings of the proverbial bucket list of activities he dreams of completing during before he dies; the song’s ending comes a surprise. “Be Still” is an almost orchestral piece in which the instruments circle around one another as McCutcheon counsels practicing stillness as a way of anchoring ourselves to ride out the waves tossing us daily; he points out that “Thomas Merton and Buddha” offer us examples of how to be still. McCutcheon draws on a deep emotional well to sing a paean to his mentors and to the moments that shaped him as a musician on “It’s Not,” a sparkling musical performance and a poignant celebration of memory: “It’s each and all/That I recall/And hold here in my heart/What they’d share/Was rich and rare/I knew it from the start/All these women/All these men/I’m older now than they were then/But every day they live again/If I but do my part.” Indeed, McCutcheon does his part in this song and others to bring his musical mentors to life in his playing, singing, and writing. Floating along bright guitar picking, “Art” celebrates the crayon art of the singer’s child, while “Out Here” is a lively ode to small town life and its virtues: “Out here you’ve gotta know your neighbor/And you lend a hand/Seems everybody can out here.”

The somber “Used To,” with its lullaby quality, reflects on the things he once let worry him that he’s now let go of so that now he’s “used to sitting on the front porch every night.” The old-time song “Moonshiner”—fueled by circling banjo picking—tells an eloquent tale of the title character, while “Medicine Game” celebrates lacrosse and its origin as a Native American sport. The tongue-in-cheek recitative “The Hinge” opens with a creaking hinge that carries the singer back to his grandfather and the creaking and other sounds (“gastrointestinal jazz”) he used to make; the singer realizes, “as he dons the mantel of age,” that he has his own offspring, so he takes a “tip from his grandfather’s page in hopes they’ll have stories to tell.” As the singer regales: “I creak and I grunt and I snort and I fart/Not trying to be impolite/No, I’m leaving a legacy, doing my part/A memory sure to delight.” The album closes with the beautiful and powerful tribute to Zilphia Horton, the first cultural director of the Highlander Folk School (now known as the Highlander Center), who believed that music could transform and inspire people. As McCutcheon sings: “From the tobacco fields of Charleston/To the Cumberland Plateau/The Women brought their songs & stories/All those years ago/In 1947/The battle was begun/And Zilphia’s piano/First played ‘We Shall Overcome.’” Her piano was refurbished in 2020 and installed at the Highlander Center; McCutcheon wrote this song for the occasion.

The intimacy of McCutcheon’s vocals, the emotional honesty of his songwriting, and the spacious sonic atmosphere of the songs conduct us into McCutcheon’s presence so that we feel as if we’re sitting in the same room with him and he’s singing these songs just to us. Bucket List is another precious gift from John McCutcheon.

Bucket List is available HERE.

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