With cancer scare behind him, singer-songwriter John McCutcheon returns to Sonoma
One year ago, on the eve of his annual tour to Northern California, singer-songwriter John McCutcheon was diagnosed with lung cancer. Fortunately, that diagnosis turned out to be wrong.
What McCutcheon actually had was a severe lung infection.
Still, his condition was serious enough to keep him off the road, and he was forced to cancel his annual tour to the West Coast, including his expected January 2016 appearance at the Sebastiani Theatre. Twelve months later, McCutcheon is now feeling significantly better, and is ready to hit the road.
“When you get to be my age,” says McCutcheon, 64, “even if you just stub your toe, the doctors says, ‘It’ll be a year until you’re back to 100 percent.’ Well, it’s been just about a year, and I’m doing really well. It was a scare and a bit of a hiccup, but I’m through that now, and I’m really excited to come back to Sonoma.”
At his delayed Sebastiani appearance – now scheduled for Monday, Jan. 9 – the multiple-Grammy nominee will be playing songs from his new album, one of his first collections of new and never-recorded songs in several years. Titled “Trolling for Dreams,” the deeply personal recording of 14 tunes marks McCutcheon’s 38th album to date. That’s a number that officially ties him with the remarkable output of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.
“And that is probably all I have in common with the great Bob Dylan,” he says, “that we have the same number of albums. But believe me, if the Nobel Prize ever came to me, which it won’t, I’d actually show up to accept it.”
As to the inspiration for the new album, McCutcheon says it just felt like it was time. He’s spent much of the last few years recording and performing songs by other people, including the late union organizer Joe Hill, who McCutcheon has played in Si Kahn’s one-actor play “Joe Hill’s Last Will.” The new album is a combination of new songs, written over the last year, and several others he’s written but never gotten around to recording.
“I keep a file of stuff that, for one reason or another, never seemed to fit on another album, or I didn’t think was ready, or any other of a dozen reasons a song goes unrecorded,” McCutcheon says. “So I put together a band I’ve worked with in the past, and we just had a ball recording these songs. I’m probably more excited about this album than any album I’ve done for a long time.”
Remarkably warm and personal, “Trolling for Dreams” is the kind of album that challenges listeners not to choke up at least once or twice while listening to it.
“This Ain’t Me,” for example, is a generously vulnerable and medically specific chronicle of his initial reaction to last year’s cancer scare – which he and his wife received on the day after Christmas – and the thoughts he wrestled with while waiting for results of his biopsy. In the song, he describes one of those moment with these words.
“The doctor comes in, says he’s got an answer/the whole world stops when he says ‘Cancer’/she takes my hand, I take hers/everything before us blurs.”
The song, like much of the album, is a wild emotional ride.
“Over the years, writing so many songs, I’ve discovered that the more personal something is, the more universal it is,” says McCutcheon, adding that when he played “This Ain’t Me” for some fellow songwriters, they responded strongly.
“They told me, ‘You might think this is a song about what happened to you,’” he recalls, “’But the experience you describe in it is really a very universal ride.’”
The same is true of his song, “Between Good a Gone,” inspired by a trip McCutcheon took with his father, then in the final stages of Alzheimer’s.
“We went out and just took a road trip for a weekend,” McCutcheon says, “and I got a window into his world, sitting there in a chair in the window of his room. The trip made a lot possible. He wouldn’t have opened up to me in the same way if we weren’t out driving around, and I wouldn’t have listened in the same way.”
The best songs, McCutcheon says, come from simple, true stories, stories that rise from experiences we all share in common, though described through the uniquely personal words of the songwriter.
“I’m a father and a grandfather,” he says, “I’m an orphan, I’ve had health scares, I’ve experienced a lot of things everyone experiences eventually – and I’m still writing songs about it all, writing about my world. And hopefully I have been writing about it in ways that opens it up to the universality of all these experiences.”
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