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Master and commander...

...of American roots music, John McCutcheon

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The Black rose Acoustic Society hosts the versatile John McCutcheon on Friday.
  • The Black rose Acoustic Society hosts the versatile John McCutcheon on Friday.

In its pejorative sense, the phrase "folk singer" has often served as a scathing indictment for modestly talented troubadours with a vaguely political ax to grind.

Make no mistake: John McCutcheon is no such "folksinger." With over two decades of albums and performances (not to mention, five Grammy nominations) under his belt, McCutcheon is a true curator of American roots music and a quintessential folk songsmith with undeniable talent.

On Friday, Feb. 6, McCutcheon will perform at the Benet Hill Center Auditorium in an event sponsored by the Black Rose Acoustic Society.

McCutcheon's commitment to traditional American roots music has been a lifelong endeavor, and the prospect of discovering and documenting indigenous folk instruments and techniques has led the multi-instrument artist from deep within Appalachian backcountry to New York's Catskill Mountains, in an attempt to locate folk's most pristine waters.

"John would seek out the masters of various folk instruments, wherever they would be," said George Balderose, McCutcheon's friend and promoter for the last 20 years. "He was always very focused on finding the authentic techniques and sounds for the music that interested him."

And yet despite mastering a dozen different traditional instruments, including the hammered dulcimer, McCutcheon's most surprisingly under-rated attribute is the one he had all along: his voice. In songs like "Laz'rus," McCutcheon's low-key baritone assumes a bluesy timbre that drenches the mournfully rustic slide-guitar intro, like gravy over biscuits.

And though fully adept at portraying the subtle melancholy of a Kentucky coal camp, like the ones where he apprenticed musical legends such as Roscoe Holcomb and the Carter Family, McCutcheon can also craft an energetic and engaging political satire. In many songs, including "Hail to the Chief," the title track to his recent 2003 release, McCutcheon employs a keen awareness of current events and the acrid wit necessary to convey his political perspective.

It is a testament to McCutcheon's musical versatility and artistic vision that he has released nearly two-dozen albums without showing any signs of age or creative stagnation. In addition to performing nearly 100 shows a year across the country, McCutcheon holds the only degree in American folk studies ever given by Minnesota's St. John's University, where he graduated summa cum laude after leaving school his junior year to experience the backwoods music of Appalachia firsthand. With his vast knowledge of folk traditions and several decades of experience in writing and recording music, McCutcheon is the perfect mentor for a new generation of up-and-coming folk musicians.

In addition to producing records for a number of emerging artists, McCutcheon imparts his unique experiences to younger musicians in a series of books and instructional guides that preserve the traditional techniques of his genre.

"John is really happy with where he is, both musically and in his personal life," said Balderose. "Achieving fame or success wasn't his motivation for playing music in the first place, and even though he's managed to stumble upon it, he plays music because he loves it, simple as that."

-- Joe Kuzma

capsule John McCutcheon in concert

Benet Hill Center, 2577 Chelton Road

Friday, Feb. 6, 7:30 p.m.

$12 Black Rose members; $15 general public

Call 633-3660

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