Folk maestro tells stories in Shed

John McCutcheon comes to the Potato Shed on February 29. (Irene Young)

By Luke Voogt

With a repertoire of at least nine instruments, including his voice, US folk singer and storyteller John McCutcheon struggles to pick his favourite.

“I’ll be traveling with a brand new hammer dulcimer, so I’m playing her a lot these days,” he told the Independent from his Atlanta home.

“This week she’s my favourite.”

After a recent tour of California and a show in South Carolina a few nights ago, McCutcheon is set to embark on his latest Australian tour.

He returns to the Potato Shed for the first time in four years on February 29, on his way to Port Fairy Folk Music Festival.

“Since (then) I’ve released three albums and a book,” the 67-year-old said.

“I’m about to go into the studio to record a new album, so there’ll be lots of new songs this tour, but plenty of old favourites, as well.”

McCutcheon’s most recent album features artists from across the world paying tribute to his late mentor and American cultural icon Pete Seeger.

“He took me under his wing early on and we became friends and, sometimes, musical partners,” McCutcheon said.

“I would not be doing what I’m doing had it not been for Pete’s example and mentorship.

“He was a North Star, a shining beacon on how to play and deliver songs, how to reach audiences in powerful ways, and, not incidentally, how to navigate celebrity and come out clean.”

Seeger once described McCutcheon as “one of the best musicians in the USA”.

“(But) all the accolades mean nothing if you can’t entertain and move your audience,” McCutcheon said.

Seeger was instrumental in teaching him how to get crowds singing along, he explained.

“Pete had this remarkable way of turning an audience into a choir,” he said.

McCutcheon’s folk journey began as a 14-year-old learning to play guitar when he stumbled upon the Woody Guthrie Songbook, which taught to him to “open up my ears”.

He was learning to play banjo at university in Minnesota, where the instrument was “a weird curiosity”, when he decided to travel to Appalachia.

“I figured I needed to go where the music was a more natural part of people’s lives,” he said.

Appalachian locals greeted him with “unbelievable kindness, generosity and hospitality”, he said.

“I got to sit at the feet of, and play at the side of, some of the finest musicians and people I ever met.”

He went on to write songs about everything from Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany to 14-year-old Malala Yousufza, who famously stood up to the Taliban, in his half-century music career.

His music would take him and his children across the world, even once to the Soviet Union.

“I’ve survived this business for almost 50 years and I’m still curious, creative and writing more and better than ever,” he said.

“Every once in a while, in the middle of a song, I’ll think, ‘I can’t believe I can do this!’”

Storytelling is a huge part of McCutcheon’s shows, an art he learnt from musical mentors and his wife, a children’s author.

“I married the finest storyteller I know, Carmen Agra Deedy, and I get a front row seat to the way she can make even a trip to the grocery store epic,” he said.

McCutcheon described his past audience at the Potato Shed during a four-act show as “wonderful”.

“I’m glad I’ll be able to stretch out for an entire evening with them,” he said.

“I absolutely love coming to Australia.”

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