Singer-guitarist John McCutcheon is generally regarded as a master of the hammered dulcimer. But he really only learned to play the instrument by happenstance.
"I had a girlfriend back in the early 1970s who went to a summer workshop at a West Virginia college," he recalls in a phone interview. "One of the classes was instrument building. They built a couple of different instruments. A hammered dulcimer was the first one. They started with that because it was more like cabinetry than instrument building."
So on a visit to see her, McCutcheon learned to play it.
"Probably more than any other instrument I've ever played, I just took to it," he says. "I saw the logic of the tuning."
As McCutcheon explains, that was a time when you couldn't just sign up for a class or go online and watch a YouTube video that would instruct you how to play an instrument.
"Back when I was a kid, there was no place to go to learn how to do this stuff," he says. "You had to go off and find your teachers, who were, more often than not, not teachers in the true sense of the word. I came out of the academic world where you could distill the knowledge of a time period and someone who was a trained teacher would organize it in a logical manner. When I left college, I wanted to focus on the banjo. I would find players and they just said, 'Here, watch this.' I had to figure it out. It was a great experience."
Another formative experience involved a trip to Appalachia to learn how to play traditional folk music. McCutcheon was in college at Saint John's University in Minnesota when he decided to take a trip to Appalachia to spend time with some of the folk musicians there so he could learn the tricks of the trade.
"I spent my junior year abroad in Appalachia," he says. 'I'm still on that year abroad 42 years later."
McCutcheon admits that hitchhiking his way around the country as a youth could've ended badly. But he says he was fearless when he was younger.
"You do things when you're young because you don't know the risks," he says. "I hitchhiked probably 7,000 miles. People ask me if I'm crazy, but I was just poor and needed to get someplace. The audacity of youth is a great thing. As you get older, you know better. Plus, I was also universally met with generosity and kindness. A lot of kids didn't want to learn the old music. They were just interested in newer music. All of a sudden, here comes this kid from a thousand miles away who wanted to learn the old music. I didn't realize what a blessing it was for me and for the people. It wasn't my doing. I was just a beneficiary."
That kickstarted his career and he's now issued some 30 albums over the course of a career that stretches back decades.
"I arrived at the folk music world in the early 1970s and the halcyon days of that art form were really past," he says. "What's great about it is that I can play music I love and somehow make a living. When I was 20 years old, making a living was a very different proposition than it is now. It was pretty great. In the folk music world, there's a circuit of people who sit down and shut up and listen to you. That's really remarkable. If I had played rock music or country or blues, I would have had to labor in the vineyards of the smoky nightclubs. It's a real gift that you have this audience that pays attention. That means you had to be pretty good because people were actually listening."
McCutcheon says he makes "enough money to get by." The fact that other people tend to cover his songs also helps. This past Christmas was the 100th anniversary of the Christmas truce of 1914 that took place during the first Christmas of World War I. The whole affair was started because the Germans started singing Christmas carols. The British answered back. They laid down their arms and there was a truce. McCutcheon heard the story and wrote the somber narrative, "Christmas in the Trenches," some 30 years ago. He's said the song should be sung 365 days a year, and it's been covered by the Irish Tenors and Trace Adkins.
"It's a great story and having a song that tells it has turned it into my best known song," he says.
McCutcheon was on the folk imprint Rounder Records for many years but recently started putting albums out on his own. He cites Arlo Guthrie and Billy Bragg, both of whom have started self-releasing their albums, as inspirations for taking a DIY approach.
"About 10 years or so ago, it became increasingly obvious to most artists that the roles of most record companies had changed," he says. "So many of the outlets were closing. How many people are lucky enough to have a local CD store, the kind where the proprietor puts something aside for you? That kind of personal service is gone. Those are the kind of places that championed independent music. Today, the largest seller of CDs is Walmart. If you have something on your album about guns, they won't carry your album. It's very narrow."
McCutcheon is now in his 60s but he still tours relentlessly. So what keeps him going?
"I gotta pay my bills," he laughs. "There is that. I still love what I do. I get out of bed in the morning and I can't wait to do my job. I'm writing as much as I have ever written. I work on my craft and I feel like I'm doing my job. Of all the things I do, working in the studio, writing, teaching workshops and public speaking and organizing the musician's union, the thing that brings it all together is performing for people. I love doing it and will be happy in my later years to cut back. If someone said I didn't have to step on an airplane again, I would be a happy camper. The reward for going through all the shit you have to go through to get someplace is worth it when you get to perform."