John McCutcheon: Making waves making music

John McCutcheon has a devilish twinkle in his eye as he describes the U.S. Postal Service's decision to use a song he recorded for his 1988 album, Mail Myself to You, for the USPS Christmas "mail early" campaign.

"I think it's perfect," he says with a grin, "that in the days of email and instant messaging, Woody Guthrie and I team up to promote snail mail!"

That's not the only current project that's causing the internationally known folksinger and five-time Grammy nominee to smile. His "front burner" activity these days is a collaborative project with famous area writers Lee Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, Rita Dove, and Karl Ackerman, among others. They're writing songs together.

"Barbara Kingsolver actually started it," McCutcheon says. "I love her books, and I said, 'Let me steal your ideas or get on board.'"

Of the written-word-put-to-music project, McCutcheon observes, "It's a brave thing for them to do. People who are more well known than I am are willing to enter into this whole new kind of writing."

The Wisconsin native hatches such schemes from a big house on Locust Avenue where he's lived since 1986 with wife Parthy Monagan and, until they recently left for school and jobs, sons Will and Peter. Those sons have been the inspiration for much of his work.

His Grammy nominations have been for "best musical album for children" category, although McCutcheon says he thinks of himself as writing for families.

"Howjado was written as a present for Will when he was one," McCutcheon says of his fourth CD, noting that as the boys have grown, so has his music. "I found myself chronicling the kids' growing up," he says, "and now the songs sound suspiciously like adult songs."

The familiar figure around town often uses Charlottesville people, scenes, and events in his music from ditties recorded with Peter's fourth grade class at Burnley-Moran to a lament for the closing of Williams Corner Bookstore on the Downtown Mall.

"Calling John McCutcheon a 'folksinger' is like saying Deion Sanders is just a football player..." says a writer at the Dallas Morning News. Nowhere is that more evident than in an new album of topical songs, "Hail to the Chief (and other short shelf-life classics."

In songs like "Ashcroft's Army" and "Talking Pat & Jerry Blues" McCutcheon tackles current affairs with the humor and bite apparent in the title cut showcasing the president's more memorable gaffes.

McCutcheon is about to embark on what he calls his "Left Coast Tour," which will take him down the coast of California from the Bay area to the foothills and up through the Central Valley, 12 concerts in 10 days.

But the talented songsmith seems most at home here in Virginia, and as his sold-out shows and large local following attest, his neighbors feel great about his being here, too.

Age: 51

What brought you here? My children were nearing school age, and we were looking for a good school system in a small town closer to grandparents.

What's worst about living here? Summer weather

Favorite hangout? I know it's corny and predictable, but it's true: my house.

Most overrated virtue? Obedience... the blind kind

What would people be surprised to know about you? I was in the seminary for two years.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I'd clone myself so that I could do all the things I want to do.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? Doing a tour of the Soviet Union and taking my kids... knowing that they'd grow up with a completely different view of that country than I grew up with.

What do people find most annoying about you? My ability to turn even the simplest project into a grand event involving lots of people, tons of time, and plenty of chances for possible train-wrecks.

Whom do you admire? People who never give up

Favorite book? One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

What subject causes you to rant? Ignorant people with no intellectual curiosity in positions of power. I've been pretty busy ranting lately...

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? Being able to communicate with my kids in real time from half-way around the world

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? Talk radio

What do you drive? A barely running old Ford minivan

What's in your car CD/tape player right now? Antologia by Guardabaranco, the most beautiful album I've ever heard. It's always in my CD player.

What's your next journey? A 10-day tour of California... my "Left Coast Tour"

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? I was 20 years old and playing for a Miners for Democracy rally in Clarefield, Tennessee in support of Arnold Miller's candidacy for UMW president. I sang "Cold Blooded Murder," a song by Hazel Dickens about the murder of Jock Yablonski. I was probably the only person there who didn't know the persons widely suspected of his killing were in attendance at the rally. (They were later convicted and sentenced.) I was quickly hustled off stage by some of the Miller people, thrown in the back of a pickup truck, covered with a tarp, driven wildly for about 45 minutes through back roads, and then spirited into someone's house where I was dressed down properly for being "a complete and utter dumbass who damn near got himself killed."

What do you regret? Nothing

Favorite comfort food? Whole Foods Lime Fruit Bars

What's always in your refrigerator? Half & half

Must-see TV? No such thing. But I do try to catch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and any Orioles game... both for comic relief these days

Favorite cartoon? The Boondocks

Describe a perfect day. Up early... strong coffee... acing the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle... morning fly-fishing on Montana's Bitterroot River... a good game of catch with my sons in the front yard... nice dinner with Gandhi... an after-dinner live concert by Mozart... a late night Cuban cigar with Pablo Neruda... and finally...

Walter Mitty fantasy? Catching for the Orioles

Who'd play you in the movie? Eddie Izzard

Most embarrassing moment? Asking a female friend I hadn't seen in years when she was due... and she wasn't.

Best advice you ever got? From Woody Guthrie: "Take it easy, but take it."

Favorite bumper sticker? "Lord, protect me from your followers"

John McCutcheon