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John McCutcheon
This Land: Woody Guthrie's America
Appalseed Productions ( www.folkmusic.com)

July 14th, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth. While there will undoubtedly be a number of musical tributes leading up to that day, This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America from John McCutcheon will stand out.

The mix of songs here is impressive for a 58-minute CD. The well-known, expected songs are all here from “Pastures of Plenty” to “1913 Massacre” and of course “This Land Is Your Land.” Quite a few lesser-known songs are here too like “Deportees” and “Pretty Boy Floyd.” There are songs here of celebration and of mourning, songs of love and songs of injustice, songs that tell stories, and songs that paint portraits. Woody Guthrie is quoted in the liner notes as saying, “I’ve seen the pretty and I’ve seen the ugly... But there are still children to be put to sleep, lovers to serenade, outrageous boasts to shout, heroes to celebrate.” All of that ground is covered here.

John McCutcheon is more than simply a curator of Woody Guthrie’s songs. Guthrie left behind a number of lyrics that had no tunes associated with them, and McCutcheon has included two songs here that he wrote the music for: “Old Cap Moore” about a delivery man who gave out free bread to hungry children much to the chagrin of his employer, and the sweet love song, “Harness Up The Day.”

McCutcheon brings a strong voice to each of these songs and he delivers some impressive banjo and concertina performances, along with his work on guitars and dulcimer. The record moves about stylistically just as it does thematically, from the pop-sounding “Mail Myself To You” with electric guitar and soprano saxophone, to the quiet “I Ain’t Got No Home” with vocal and two guitars, and on to the powerful solo concertina accompaniment on the spoken word piece “This Is Our Country Here.” The guests are different from track to track, and a number of well-known American folk musicians are featured including Tim O’Brien on mandolin, Fats Kaplin on accordion, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and John Jennings on guitar.

Every cut on this record is solid and powerful with one disappointing exception, the celebrity version of “This Land Is Your Land.” This song has been done so often that it’s easy to see why an artist would want to stretch and do something different. McCutcheon relies here on vocals from a number of famous guests - Maria Muldaur, Tom Paxton, Willie Nelson - and in this case spreading the verses around to different voices detracts from the message.

But this one slight artistic overstep does not in any way keep me from highly recommending this recording. Woody Guthrie fans are going to find much to love in the old favorites and new finds. For those less familiar with Guthrie’s extensive output, this is a great introduction to his songs and will point the curious in the right direction for further exploration. For everyone, this is a great way to begin celebrating 2012, the centennial anniversary of the great Woody Guthrie. - Greg Harness

Listen to a live version of "Pretty Boy Floyd"

You can hear some of John McCutcheon's songs on his web site: www.folkmusic.com

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