After More Than 40 Albums, John McCutcheon Is Still in Love with His Instruments
On the other side of our Zoom connection, John McCutcheon is holding his custom-built single cutaway Huss & Dalton in front of studio-quality mics. Seeing him in a room full of instruments—which looks like a cross between a homey front parlor, recording studio, and broadcast set—it’s easy to imagine dozens more guitars stacked just outside the camera’s range. Surely, after more than five decades as a sort of folk music anthropologist with a seemingly limitless passion for musical traditions and the instruments that express them, McCutcheon has accumulated a warehouse of trophy guitars—not to mention banjos, fiddles, mandolins, dulcimers, and more.
But as I was to learn, the self-confessed guitar nerd—whose latest album, Leap, is the 43rd of a discography dating back to the mid 1970s and his third since the pandemic—doesn’t keep what he doesn’t play. Like the characters in his songs—for instance, the World War I British solider in “Christmas in the Trenches”—he wants his instruments to have a purpose, to lead active lives. From his choice of guitar to his stage setup, McCutcheon approaches his gear with the purposeful approach of the gigging musician.
Yet, as you might expect from such a narrative songwriter, each of his guitars has a bit of a story behind it, from discovering a new brand to ad-libbing through slotted headstock string changes to tracking down discontinued electronics and making an early 20th-century classic playable in the modern day.
You’ve recorded three albums since the pandemic: Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine (2020), Bucket List (2021), and now Leap (2022). How did you write that many songs during Covid?
I came back from an Australian tour in March 2020, a day or two after the United States realized something really weird was going on. They weren’t aware of it at all in Australia. So there were plenty of festivals—you know, big malarial tents with 3,000 or 4,000 people. I hopped off that tubular petri dish that is an airplane and felt like the only responsible thing to do was to quarantine myself. I have a little cabin in the North Georgia mountains; with my faithful hound, I repaired up there. And relieved of the daily chores of being at home, with no gigs and with no idea when I would have a gig again, I said, “Well, I’m just going to write every day.”
How did you get those ideas recorded?
I have a little studio setup at my cabin. I would make a simple demo of the song, then forget about it. And write another song the next day and the next day and the next day. It was a lovely kind of habit.
I did Cabin Fever, comprised of the songs I wrote during that 2020 three-week quarantine—just a guy and his instrument. But after about a year and a half, I realized I had way over 100 songs. For Bucket List, it was clear which songs belonged together. Leap has a lot of really complicated songs that didn’t belong on Bucket List, but I thought I needed to get out there.
Unlike Cabin Fever, Leap has full band arrangements. Did you finally get back to the studio?
I sent files around to my usual bandmates. They put their stuff together and then we sent one giant Frankenstein of a project to my recording engineer. And so it had a little more fleshed-out sound.
I find that surprising. The performances feel very interactive and sound almost live.
Well, it’s a tribute to these guys who have been my recording band for a long time. I love their work because they listen. And they’ll call me up and say, “Tell me about this song.” Studio guys usually don’t do that. Also, I’m not giving them charts. We collaboratively figure out the arrangement. And then fiddle player Stuart Duncan—what can I say about him? He was the prototype that God made when he said, “I’m going to create a fiddle player now.” He just really pulls everything together and knows when to play and when not to.
How did your guitar style evolve?
I came up as a teenager playing fingerstyle back in the 1960s. And then in the 1970s, I got tugged into Appalachian music. I moved into the Appalachian region. I was playing with more of a bluegrass-type group and I can go there if need be. Today, I tend to be more fingerstyle. But I end up incorporating some more hard-edged acoustic ideas with fingerstyle bass parts that are a little more bluegrass.
What was your first guitar?
On my 14th birthday I got a bright red Silvertone electric guitar. It was red and all up and down the neck had those big white blocks of inlay that my best friend dubbed mother-of-toilet-seat. We had been obsessed with folk music for years. This is North Central Wisconsin, you know—we’re not going down to the Gaslight in Greenwich Village on the weekends. We were lonely pilgrims out there in the hinterlands trying to figure out this folk music stuff. And I first saw it at the  March on on Washington when I was 11. My mom made me sit down and watch it with her. And there was Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez and Odetta. There was this music and they were playing guitars. So after three years of hectoring my parents, they gave me that Silvertone guitar and I was in heaven.
What about your first good acoustic?
I think the first was some kind of a Gibson—maybe a J-45. But then I got a Guild D-50, which was my guitar for the longest time. And that’s what I was playing when I first started playing professionally. I had a Guild 12-string. I had to have that because Pete Seeger was teaching all of us how to perform as solo artists. You’d go to see him and it was like going to school. But all of a sudden, he turned everything into an “us,” and I was really affected by that and wanted to do that. I don’t even know what the model number of that Guild was, but it had a giant body and was a great guitar that I had for many years.
What are you playing these days?
I’m holding a 2002 Huss & Dalton custom MJC. One of the things about being a traveling acoustic music performer is you can go into the upscale guitar stores. And there’s always the room with signs that say, “Please ask for assistance before you handle this instrument.” There would be Collings and Bourgeois and Lowden and Martin and Taylor guitars, and I would play them all. They’d often have a Huss & Dalton. I’d never heard of them, but I thought they were always the best guitars [in the room]. They just suited me.
Finally, after running into these strange-named instruments for the fourth or fifth time, I said, “OK, where are these guys?” I discovered they were in Virginia like 25 minutes from my house. I went over there and had them build me an instrument. They had a beautfully figured sapele board there. I said, “Let’s use that. I want a cutaway, I want this concert body, and you know I’ve never had a slot-head guitar. Why don’t you make it a slot-head?”
So they made this instrument, which is the best guitar I’ve ever played, bar none. It’s got a really thin neck and a Sitka spruce top. They set it up beautifully and they built-in L.R. Baggs’ Dual Source system, which makes it sound great through a PA. It’s almost the only guitar I’ve played on a big stage with the monitors cranked up and it never feeds back. I see other players that have to put a damper in the soundhole and I don’t like to do that—it just looks weird. And with this guitar, I don’t have to.
So the slot-head became your main guitar?
And then I broke a string onstage. With a regular guitar, every guitar player has their little schtick that they do. They can talk to the audience or tell a joke while they’re changing their string and voila, they’re ready to go in less than a minute. With a slot-head guitar, you actually have to sit down and look for the [tuner shaft] hole—you need a longer story!
So I went back to the shop and said, “Did you guys know about tricky string changes with a slot-head guitar?” And they said, “Yeah.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” They said, “Well, because then you wouldn’t be coming here to order a copy of that guitar without a slot-head.” Which is exactly what I had gone there to do [laughs]! So I actually have three of their guitars, including a rosewood dreadnought, which is my go-to recording guitar. My engineer absolutely loves it.
Any other special guitars in your collection?
I have a Clint [O.C.] Bear copy of a Gibson Nick Lucas and I have a 1914 Gibson L-1, which I got because I was doing a one-man play about Joe Hill and the last day of his life, in 1915. I wanted a period guitar and I found this. As many of your guitar nerds will know, it’s the first steel-string that Gibson made. The neck is a club—unplayable by modern standards. So I sent it out to my late, dear friend Paul Hostetter, out in Santa Cruz, California. And he just worked down the neck and set it up and put a pickup in it so I could use it onstage. It came back as a wonderful guitar, with a bit of a small sound compared to a modern instrument.
Is the dreadnought a cutaway?
No, no. I think if I showed up with a dreadnought cutaway, I would be drummed out of the International Bluegrass Music Association [laughs]. It is a regular, good, honest Clarence White guitar. It has a very different sound, plays really differently than my more fingerstyle guitars.
And those are all the guitars I have. I’m not Steve Earle—I don’t have 400 guitars, because I know the luthiers of every instrument I own. I know what they put into them. And if I have an instrument—banjo, guitar, fiddle, whatever—and it sits in the closet unplayed for longer than a year, it feels like a violation of some kind of ethics. This is an instrument that was made to be played and deserves to be out being played by people. So those are my four guitars—well, five with the L-1.
How do you record your guitars?
I record them in stereo. I use a Neumann TLM 49 paired with a KM 184 placed towards the 12th fret and just below the bridge, respectively.
How do you get your sound onstage?
Years ago, when I started playing festivals, I realized I was every sound person’s nightmare. I would show up with five different instruments, some of which they’d never seen before. And at the bigger festivals, the people doing the sound don’t do sound for very many folk music venues, right?
So we experimented with lots of different stuff and eventually settled on the L.R. Baggs Dual Source. I have bogarted lots of copies of that now extinct pickup—they call it something else now. It combines an undersaddle piezo with an internal mic that’s blended. I just love the trueness of the sound.
My stage setup includes an Audio Sprockets ToneDexter [see review from the August 2018 issue]. It’s a really remarkable thing: You plug in your pickup and then you plug in your favorite microphone. And it goes through a testing and altering process that [digitally] changes the wave structure of the pickups to match the sound of the microphone. So it kind of takes out that nasal piezo sound.
From there, I go to a small mixing board with an insert for the real magic piece of my setup: an old Boss VF-1 multi-effects processor. It lets me set the right sound when I switch an instrument. I’m also using a Peterson StroboStromp, which is a combination of a tuner, mute, and active DI. It has worked really well. And you know, what’s the point of practicing if you can’t deliver the sounds?
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.