Album Review: John McCutcheon, ‘Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine’

John McCutcheon Cabin Fever Folk Alley Album Review

John McCutcheon wasn’t planning to make this album, Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine, but the chords and notes flowed out of his fingers and the songs rolled off his tongue as he sequestered himself in his cabin in the North Georgia mountains. Returning from an Australian tour in mid-March, he went into self-imposed quarantine and wrote one song a day for three weeks, fueled by long conversations with friends and long walks where he reflected on the past, present, and future. With his characteristic humor and his winning way as a storyteller, McCutcheon pays tribute to health care workers, offers an homage to John Prine, and ponders the ambiguities of human nature in this collection of moving songs that feature the spare atmospheric arrangements of McCutcheon accompanying himself on guitar or piano. The songs are expansive, welcoming us lovingly into their landscape with grace and inviting us to bask in their warmth.

Realizing many people are out of work now, McCutcheon wanted to make the album affordable for anyone. “It’s a new model: even broke people need music…maybe more than most, so they can have it for free, no questions asked. And, on the other end, we’re hoping that those folks who are a little better off might pay a little more. That kind of generosity, too, is really of this time.”

The album’s first track, “Front Line,” opens with a down strum that moves quickly into an urgent, almost staccato, strumming pattern that mimics the hurried stress of health care workers or other essential workers putting themselves at risk while working to keep others safe and well during the pandemic. The chorus echoes the relentless challenges of living on the line between life and death, even as it honors the tireless workers who put one foot in front of the other as the care for others: “On the front line/There’s no place to go/Facing the foe/Wherever it’s found/On the front line/No time to be scared/Pray you’re prepared/So you just stand your ground.”

The hymn-like “One Hundred Years” features a gospel piano as McCutcheon tenderly reflects on the legacy he’s leaving his grandchildren and great-children. With a simple shift of a pronoun, he cannily throws the responsibility for the care-taking of the future to his own generation (“I/we”): “Each day I am more of the past/The future is not mine/I know what’s been left me now/Is for the next in line/Have we packed well for their journey/Have we done all that we could/Or trying to be great again/Forgotten to be good?”

The somber “The Night That John Prine Died,” with its opening chords riding on a phrase from “These Days,” poignantly honors Prine, artfully revivifying Prine in the chorus: “There’s an angel from Montgomery/That’s finally taken wing/
And a place up there called Paradise/Where even Sam Stone sings/All the losers, lovers, loners/

Have gathered ‘round the throne/ And in a mighty choir/To welcome John Prine home.” The quiet opening measures of

“Control” blossoms into a nod-and-a-wink tune about the ways that we try to control life around us only to surrender such obsessive desires when we realize the only role we can control is “how it is with me.”

“Hallelujah Morning” scampers along in a celebration of life, while the Celtic-tinged ballad “Six Feet Away” draws comically on what happens to love when our lovers must be six feet away; the final lines contain a surprise ironic take on loving six feet away.

Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine offers us the simple pleasure of listening to McCutcheon’s warm vocals, his lyrical insights, and his ringing and clear music tones. The songs on the collection keep us good company in our own isolation, prompting us to laugh, cry, and reflect on our lives and times.

Cabin Fever: Songs of Quarantine is out now and available via his website – HERE.

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