It’s odd that prolific songwriter John McCutcheon has not been more widely covered by mainstream artists, particularly in the country genre. Over the course of 38 albums, he has proven himself a master storyteller in song who celebrates the common man and advocates for small-town American values, the very things Big-Time Country Music alleges to pay homage to. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s never hid his liberal leanings. More likely, though, is that McCutcheon is a realist whose songs about small-town America and its hard-working denizens cut through the myths and simplified mantras of commercial country music.
McCutcheon’s small towns are not populated by people on porch swings sipping lemonade. Rather, the small towns McCutcheon sings of are sparsely populated: the factories are closed; downtown is abandoned; the young have run off in search of better options, and the only sign of life is in the Walmart parking lot. If there’s a pickup truck in a McCutcheon song, it’s not rolling down a dirt road on the way to a party; instead, it’s probably got a couple hundred thousand miles on it as its equally worn-down driver chugs along between low-paying jobs. If there’s a farm, it’s beholden to drought or the bank, probably both. And if there’s a respite to be found in Sunday church, McCutcheon’s narrators are as quick to spit a curse as offer up a prayer, having been burned too many times by hope. So, on reflection, I guess it’s not so odd that the custom-cowboy-hatted Blakes and Travises of the Nashville machine have steered clear from roping themselves to any of McCutcheon’s songs.
And that’s a damn shame because he is one of our great songwriters, a direct spiritual descendant of Woody Guthrie. Like Guthrie, McCutcheon is a chronicler of our intimate lives and gestures, the unconscious acts that collectively build identity, finding symbolism and great lessons in the complicated minutia of living, its collective joys and sorrows.
Ghost Light offers 13 McCutcheon originals that hit home with the weight of hard truths and harder-won beauty, their collective message one of perseverance over troubles and appreciation of the small triumphs found in family and a life well and truly lived.
Ghost Light opens with “Perfect Day”, a triumphant rollick that finds everything going right and ending with an invite from McCutcheon’s granddaughter, “Poppy let’s play.” We encounter her again as the doting granddad makes her the star of “She Just Dances”, a heartwarming appreciation of the innocence of childhood. Here, McCutcheon watches as the little girl loses herself to the beauty of music, bouncing and dancing free of the self-consciousness that eventually weighs us all down, the worries of who may be watching and judging that eventually confine so many to the glum peripheries of the dance floor. But then, a song like “Big Day”, where the narrator reflects upon the decline of his beloved small town while waiting for the homecoming parade of a local hero, reminds us that these moments of beauty and joy can be rare and hard-won, and a harder world is always waiting for us outside.
The struggles facing small-town America color many of these songs. In “The Road”, an old timer remembers the building of the Dixie Highway and its false promise of fortune: “They told me the 20th century was coming to the South,” he sings, but quickly realizes that “the treasures of this valley only traveled one direction” and the new roads provided easy escape for the young eager to leave the old home place. “Burley at the Bank Counter” tells a similar story of progress serving the few while draining the many of their meager fortunes. It’s a story made all the more poignant because the young go-getter is a local who realizes too late that his duty to his job betrays his own neighbors. “Dark Side of This Town” encapsulates both the opioid crisis and our country’s failures to serve its returning servicemen in its story of “Billy” whose best friend, the song’s narrator, sings “I drove him off to boot camp and they shipped him to Iraq / I met him at the airport but it weren’t Billy what come back.” And “Waiting for the Rain” portrays the growing hardships facing the independent farmer and serves as a metaphor for the growing national trend of simple people wishing for a simpler, better time now long past.
The album’s centerpiece is undoubtedly “Machine”, a song that evokes Woody Guthrie as McCutcheon responds to the rise of the alt-right and the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Portraying the perspective of a World War II veteran watching a nationalist march, he sings “Woody Guthrie had this guitar with the best sign I have seen / ‘This machine kills fascists’: we must be the machine.” Reflecting on his experiences, the old veteran says “I didn’t fight the Nazis to allow them in this place”, observing that “No one is born to hatred, they must be fed the lie / We’re left with the carnage and these bastards marching by” and concluding “No one can sit idly after what we’ve seen today / It’s stand up and be counted or get the hell out of the way.” We look to our great songwriters to step up in times of trouble, and McCutcheon does so here with aplomb.
Recorded with a revolving company of fellow musicians,
Ghost Light is a triumph from start to finish. Kathy Mattea and Tim O’Brien provide harmony vocals on several tracks, with the primary band of Pete Kennedy (electric guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), JT Brown (bass), and Jon Carroll (piano) providing nuanced and emotive accompaniment throughout the album. As always, McCutcheon demonstrates his mastery of the banjo and hammer dulcimer throughout. Ghost Light is a collection of songs that will, at turns, have listeners hunched in quiet contemplation or as often bouncing across the floor like an unself-conscious toddler.