Like clockwork, 64-year-old folk singer-songwriter John McCutcheon has toured through the Bay Area annually, every January, for 30 years, except 2016, when an unexpected cancer diagnosis precluded the trip. But the Georgia native and six-time Grammy nominee returns to Berkeley this week, backing his upcoming 38th release, the dark, droll “Trolling for Dreams.” The album touches on his harrowing experience, and mortality in general, including Alzheimer’s that’s begun to affect his father. “This is like a victory lap for me, coming back, since I was supposed to be there a year ago,” he says. “So it’s been tough, but I’m doing really well.”
What happened with your diagnosis?
Well, I didn’t even notice it at first. But after I was sick for a month, my wife insisted that I see a doctor, and I agreed. And the doctor came out to see me after looking at my test results and said, “Well, you’ve got cancer.” And I said, “Uhh….don’t you have to do a biopsy?” And he said that 99 times out of 100, what he’d seen turns out to be cancer. But it turned out not to be cancer. It was an abscessed lung infection that they treated like cancer, so when they poked it during the biopsy, it exploded. So I went into sepsis, which was immediately more concerning. But I discovered morphine, which was really something.
That was a squeaker.
And it’s also an interesting thing. You go along and you’re healthy, then all of a sudden somebody says you’re sick, and then you live in a different universe. And you find yourself in doctors’ offices, surrounded by other sick people who are almost invisible to you when you’re healthy. So it was interesting fodder as a writer to all of a sudden occupy this different mindset, like, “This ain’t me! This is happening to somebody else!” But no, it is happening to you, and it happens to all kinds of people, all the time. And you just didn’t know. So welcome. Welcome to life.
After all these years of experience, is it easier to write an honest song now, or harder?
Well, when I sit down to write a song, I don’t have any intention or goal now. But over the years, I’ve learned that this is my job, so I’m always open to a melodic idea or a couplet. And I just stop whatever I’m doing when they happen — I pull the car over on the highway, I get up from the dinner table, I even get up in the middle of the night. Because the muse is fickle, and you have to grab every idea that you can, right when they occur.
IF YOU GO
Where: Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 6
Tickets: $18 to $20
Contact: (510) 644-2020, www.thefreight.org
cancerfolkJohn McCutcheonPop MusicTrolling For Dreams