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By Laetitia Claytonemail@example.com
ORKNEY SPRINGS-John McCutcheon was introduced to the songs of Woody Guthrie when he was barely a teenager, but he remembers it clearly.
And clearly, it changed his life. So much so that his latest recording -- "This Land: Woody Guthrie's America," due out later this month -- is a tribute to the late folk icon.
McCutcheon, who will perform Saturday at the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival, said he got a guitar in 1966 for his 14th birthday, but he didn't know how to play it. He went to the library to find a song book, he said, and a book of Guthrie's songs was the only one they had.
"There were 100 some songs in the book, and I would check it out again and again," McCutcheon said recently by phone. "Some of the first songs I learned were Woody Guthrie songs. He was the first person I listened a lot to."
McCutcheon not only learned to play that guitar, but went on to master it and multiple other musical instruments, including banjo, autoharp, keyboard and hammered dulcimer. He has released 34 -- soon to be 35 -- recordings since the 1970s and has earned seven Grammy nominations.
McCutcheon said the new album is one he had thought about doing for years, and since next year is the 100th anniversary of Guthrie's birth, the timing seemed right. The CD -- all Guthrie songs -- contains a mix of the more well-known ("This Land is Your Land," "Pastures of Plenty," Mail Myself to You"), some more obscure ("1913 Massacre, "Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done"), and some never before heard ("This is Our Country Here").
The last one is a spoken piece that McCutcheon found in Guthrie's archives, which Guthrie's daughter, Nora, invited him and other musicians to see, write and rewrite.
"He left a huge body of work that was either incomplete or not recorded," McCutcheon said. "Woody was writing all the time," some even have drawings, and some are poems or prose.
"He wrote about everything," McCutcheon added. "He also really gave voice to a lot of people who really didn't have voice. ... "He was Steinbeck with a guitar. He was one of the 'Grapes of Wrath' people."
McCutcheon co-authored three songs on the new CD from Guthrie's writings, and he said he tried to give all of the songs unusual treatment, like "an afro-Cuban beat on the hammered dulcimer for "Mail Myself to You."
"It's just what came to me," McCutcheon said.
The CD also has some big-name contributors, such as Kathy Mattea, Willie Nelson and Tom Paxton.
"It's Woody Guthrie," McCutcheon said. "It was great fun to do."
McCutcheon is performing as part of the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival's Folk Mini-Festival, which is back after a hiatus of several years, said Dennis Lynch, executive director of the SVMF.
"One of the earliest nonsymphonic genres we started to do here was folk music," Lynch said. "We used to do that format [the mini-folk fest] every year. Then we said, 'Let's try some different stuff.'"
But this year it's back, and it marks the fifth or sixth SVMF appearance for McCutcheon, Lynch said.
"John is an old festival favorite," he said. "He's so versatile and such a great instrumentalist ... it was just kind of a natural."
Over the years, Lynch said, McCutcheon has turned the folk festival into a "jam with some of the other performers," creating spontaneous shows. "It's been a different experience every time."
McCutcheon said he and Catie Curtis, who also is scheduled to perform Saturday, will likely do something together.
Performing along with McCutcheon and Curtis -- who opened for Mary Chapin Carpenter at last summer's festival -- are Stephens City duo Chatham Street, consisting of Christal and Peter Prout. Chatham Street earned the opportunity to play at the festival by winning crowd favorite at "Barrels, Barbecue & Bands," a SVMF fundraiser held earlier this year at Cave Ridge Vineyard in Mt. Jackson.
The Folk Mini-Festival begins at 6 p.m. Saturday in Orkney Springs. Tickets are $30 for reserved pavilion seating, $25 for adult lawn seating and $10 for under 18 lawn seats. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 459-3396 or go online to www.musicfest.org.