John McCutcheon Takes On Memory, Mortality With ‘Trolling For Dreams’

Jul 7, 2017

In early 2016, folk musician John McCutcheon was sidelined from live performances by a serious illness. Unable to tour, he decided to use his time at home to write a series of new songs. With his own health on his mind and the passing of his father in 2014, McCutcheon had some serious matters on his mind. The songs that appear on the resulting album, Trolling for Dreams aren’t all dark manner and ruminations on life’s cruelties. And yet McCutcheon couldn’t help but think about some of those matters over the last few years.

“I think one of the things that happens to human beings and especially men,” he says, “is that they sort of barrel along with their lives. They’re that immortal, bulletproof 21-year-old. That’s forever lurking in your mind. Then the moment comes when you’re reminded of your own mortality.”

One song from the new album is remarkable for its employment of shifting points of view. In the song “The Dance,” the tensions between a young woman, her parents and her prom date are drawn with a steady hand that McCutcheon is known for.

“There’s four really different perspectives, four important players. They all feel the same way and are described the same way and each have their own nuance they bring to it,” he says. “It’s this ultimate kaleidoscopic version of this scene from another person’s perspective.” Audiences, he says, often identify with the characters in the song. “I love the song. It’s really fun to do it live because you can see about 25 percent of the audience, in each verse, saying, ‘Oh, I remember that.’”

Another song, “Between Good and Gone” finds McCutcheon reflecting on time spent with his late father. The elder man’s passing at the end of 2014 came after he’d lived in an Alzheimer’s facility for three years prior. “This song is kind of a record of a road trip,” McCutcheon says. “I busted him out of the joint for a three- or four-day road trip. He used to be a traveling salesman. I took him to all the areas he used travel.”

He continues, “It’s a funny song for me because I have no recollection of writing it. I have a feeling that my dad gave the song to me as some sort of a gift. It was a bit cathartic. There was also this notion that his reality was as real as mine. Everything he was experiencing, no matter how fantastical, was as real anything had ever been in his life. Everybody in his life was trying to yank him back into some narrow little version of what reality was and where they thought he ought to live. I just went with him. It was amazing. Life changing. It deserved a song.”

John McCutcheon performs at the Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine Sunday.

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Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

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