Review: John McCutcheon Shares Songs of the Heart

John McCutcheon/Bucket List/Appalseed
Four out of Five Stars

It’s not unusual for an artist to take his or her music to heart, digging deep and gleaning the roots in search of a muse. John McCutcheon, perhaps more than most, has done that throughout the entire course of his career. He’s an academic in the strictest sense, an artist whose dedication to his craft is gleaned from years of study and, in turn, a willingness to pass the lessons he’s learned on to others.

Bucket List, McCutcheon’s emotive new offering, doesn’t veer away from that mantra, but in many ways, digs even deeper into a rich folk firmament. Boasting a generous 18 songs in total, it’s composed entirely of original material, and yet, it sounds more like a set of venerable traditional tunes plucked from the ethos. Mostly quiet, confessional ballads, it’s a sound shared by a devoted traveling troubadour. An inspired combination of violins, flute, guitars, banjo, and keyboards, its tender trappings ensure the delicate designs. It cushions McCutcheon’s evocative vocals, while also tugging at the heartstrings and perhaps even encouraging an occasional tear to flow. 

In that regard, there’s not a single song here that doesn’t serve the purpose, with “Used To,” “Sins of the Father,” The Other,” “Out Here,” “Peekaboo,” “It’s Not,” and the title track sharing singular emotions spawned from McCutcheon’s personal perspective. On the other hand, there are certain numbers—“Moonshiner,” “Farmer,” “Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon,” and “Medicine Game” chief among them—that recall vintage standard. It’s little wonder then that the entire effort boasts a reverential tone. Yet, at the same time, it possesses a sweetness and sincerity plied with modesty and humility. It makes this music as affecting as it is engaging, even as far as “The Hinge,” a decidedly less than a reverential homage to bodily noises that somehow manages to impart its own tender touch. 

Native American musician Bill Miller and multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan are among those that lend support here, but it’s McCutcheon’s melodious delivery that makes these songs resonate with such clarity and conviction.  A jewel of an album, Bucket List is as fulfilling as the title implies.

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