“Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine” — as the title suggests — isn’t the album John McCutcheon originally planned on making in 2020.
He had another batch of songs already written, ones that he hoped to flesh out in the studio with the help of other musicians.
But that was before the acclaimed folk artist wrapped up a tour of Australia in March and flew back home to the U.S., only to find the country in the grasp of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He quickly decided that his best course of action was a self-imposed quarantine, in order to safeguard his family from any exposure he might have had to the coronavirus during his travels. So, he loaded up his car, grabbed his dog and headed off to his cabin, located just outside of the census-designated place of Cherry Log, in the mountains of North Georgia.
He spent three weeks up in those mountains, keeping himself busy by writing songs – a lot of songs. Then he returned back to his home — and home studio — in Smoke Rise, Georgia and began recording those tunes.
The result is what McCutcheon calls his most “naked” album to date, as the singer-songwriter-instrumentalist — widely known for being a master of the hammered dulcimer — recorded these tracks in the same kind of isolation that so many of us have known in last 10 months.
It’s an album that speaks to the times, as McCutcheon tells the story of life during COVID-19 through such songs as “Six Feet Away,” “Sheltered In Place” and “Front Line.”
And it’s an album that McCutcheon really wants you to hear, even if you can’t pay for it. “Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine” is being offered solely as a pay-what-you-will download through the artist’s website, folkmusic.com.
The Grammy-nominated performer will support the new album with livestream concerts on Jan. 9 and 16. Show time for both is 4 p.m. and tickets are $5-$20.
These shows also help support several local venues, many — if not all — of which have previously hosted McCutcheon during his annual January “Left Coast” tours. The Jan. 9 gig helps out the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, Sebastiani Theater in Sonoma and other groups. The Jan. 16. show supports St. James Episcopal Church in Fremont, Devil Mountain Coffeehouse in Walnut Creek, Montalvo Center for the Arts in Saratoga and other organizations. Again, see folkmusic.com for details.
We recently spoke with McCutcheon, whose many accomplishments include releasing the acclaimed children’s music album “Howjadoo” in 1983 and, one year later, offering up the popular modern folk tune “Christmas in the Trenches.”
Q Hi John, thanks for taking the time to chat with me today. Sounds like you found ways to stay busy during your self-imposed quarantine in the Cherry Log area.
A The problem is that it’s so inspiring up in Cherry Log that I just keep writing. And that’s a problem these days. I’ve got way too much stuff and we are living in an age – even in non-pandemic times – where trying to figure out how to get music out to people is a new challenge.
It’s a time when fewer and fewer people are buying CDs. Streaming is the ascendant medium for getting music out to people. I’m an old-fashioned-enough guy and still do albums.
Q At what point during your Australian tour did it become apparent that things would be very different when you got back home due to COVID-19?
A It became clear sort of in my last days there that things were progressing in the United States in much more accelerated rate than they were in Australia. I was playing at big festivals and concert halls and there really was no sense that we shouldn’t be touching or getting close to each other — things that seem de rigueur now.
My 89-year-old mother-in-law lives with my wife and I. So, a lot of dietary and health concerns are run through that filter. So, I knew when I got home after being overseas for three weeks and being in an airplane for 24 hours — which was like a flying Petri dish — that the only responsible thing to do was to sort of quarantine myself.
So, I got home and loaded my car and got my dog and headed up to Cherry Log. It’s a place I love to go.
Q It sounds like a lovely place, especially if your goal is to get a lot of writing done.
A I’m kind of an introvert anyway. After being in such a friendly and engaging place as Australia, I was ready to be alone for a little while.
I knew that (the pandemic) was something new and unusual so I decided to write about it. I had no intention of doing an album, or even completing songs. I just wanted to write and see what would come out. I just found that — to use an athletic metaphor — that muscle was really in shape. And so every day something would come out.
Q Then your self-imposed quarantine ended and it was time to go back to Smoke Rise and hit the home studio — once again, alone.
A I had never done an album quite as naked as this one is. It’s just me and an instrument — none of my pals playing with me or singing harmonies or anything.
It seemed to really fit the mood of the times: “Here’s a guy by himself making music.”
Surprisingly enough, it’s got a lot of airplay. Go figure.
Q Talk to me about the decision to make this a “pay-what-you-will” release.
A Once I got the songs together, it was figuring out what’s the delivery system now. I decided to do a download-only (release), but because I am an audio nerd I said that I don’t want it to be just MP3s. So you have an option of full WAV files or MP3s.
I knew that a lot of people were out of work and didn’t have any money. I knew that from firsthand experience. So, I thought, “Well, let’s make this a pay-what-you-can and see what happens.”
Q The cynic would say that if you give people the option of paying zero for an album then, of course, that’s exactly what they will pay. But how have the financials turned out in this case?
A My daughter, who works in my office, came to me and said, “You should do this with all your albums. You are making way more money.”
Q Now, the plan is to help others — ones who have been hurt by the pandemic’s impact on the live music industry — make some money as well. Tell about how the idea came about to take your regular California tour online and make it something that would help out local promoters.
A We musicians all started off kind of scrambling and freaked out (after COVID-19 hit) — “Wow, no concerts. What are we going to do?” Then we started dipping our toes into Facebook Live and Instagram and stuff like that. And there was this tip jar thing.
But the only people who are really set up to make any money are musicians. I mean, my agent was talking about going out of business. And I thought, “Well, out of nothing else but self interest, I don’t want my agent to go out of business.”
And there are a lot of venues that are brick-and-mortar venues. They haven’t figured out the whole online thing yet.
No workplace, no work.
Q That’s a scary thought.
A My agent Mike Green — who is a really thoughtful guy — and I started talking about how to be thinking beyond just trying to make it through the short term, but how to have us all there in the long term.
In this little sliver of the music world, it’s all about relationships. It’s a delicate equilibrium. I need the agents. The promoters need the agents. I need the promoters. The promoters need the musicians. And the audience wants to be there.
Q I suspect you have some pretty longstanding relationships with our local promoters — as well as with community radio stations and other organizations that support the shows — given that you’ve been doing this January California tour for 30-plus years.
A It’s almost Pavlovian — “It’s January, it’s California.” I think that and the audiences think that.
There are (promoters and groups) here and there and they are all depending on what happens at these concerts so that they can continue to do their work.
I thought why don’t we do a couple of concerts and we will take all the promoters who want to be involved and we will give each of them separate ticketing links. And we’re doing it through Mandolin – again because I’m an audio nerd. Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, to accommodate the limited bandwidth, compress everything — it’s the audio-video equivalent of an MP3.
So, a friend of mine was starting an outfit called Mandolin, which doesn’t do any of that compression. People see this and go, “Whoa! This sounds and looks so much better.”
We’ve done this a few times in November and it’s been tremendously successful.