No one remembers when the neighbors started calling the McCutcheons to complain about the loud singing from young John’s bedroom. It didn’t seem to do much good, though.

For, after a shaky, lopsided battle between piano lessons and baseball (he was a mediocre pianist and an all-star catcher), he had “found his voice” thanks to a cheap mail-order guitar and a used book of chords. From such inauspicious beginnings, John McCutcheon has emerged as a respected and loved folksinger.

And now he gets paid to sing–loud or soft. And he’ll do so at the Unity Centre for the Performing Arts at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 12.

As an instrumentalist, McCutcheon is a master of a dozen different traditional instruments, most notably the rare and beautiful hammer dulcimer. His songwriting has been hailed by critics and singers around the globe. His 24 recordings have garnered every imaginable honor, including five Grammy nominations.

He has produced more than 20 albums of other artists, from traditional fiddlers to contemporary singer-songwriters to educational and documentary works. His books and instructional materials have introduced budding players to the joys of their own musicality. And his commitment to grassroots political organizations has put him on the front lines of many of the issues important to communities and workers.

Before graduating summa cum laude from Minnesota’s St. John’s University, this Wisconsin native literally “headed for the hills,” forgoing a college lecture hall for the classroom of the Eastern Kentucky coal camps, union halls, country churches and square dance halls. His apprenticeship to many of the legendary figures of Appalachian music imbedded a love of not only homemade music, but a sense of community and rootedness. The result is music, whether traditional or from his huge catalog of original songs, with the profound mark of place, family and strength. It also created a storytelling style that has been compared to Will Rogers and Garrison Keillor.

The Washington Post described McCutcheon as “Virginia’s Rustic Renaissance Man,” a moniker flawed only by its understatement. “Calling John McCutcheon a ‘folksinger’ is like saying Deion Sanders is just a football player…” (Dallas Morning News).

Besides his usual circuit of major concert halls and theaters, McCutcheon is equally at home in an elementary school auditorium, a festival stage or at a farm rally. He launched the first-ever joint tour of a Russian and an American folksinger with 1991’s US-USSR Friendship Tour, playing to packed houses in both countries.

The past several years have seen him headline five different festivals in Australia, tour Nicaragua on behalf of a children’s literacy program, record four albums of songs and music, perform in the first-ever children’s concert on the Nashville Network, give a featured concert at the AFL/CIO Convention, author a second songbook and a children’s book, score four videos, talk about songwriting with children on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” produce three recordings to benefit a community organizing group, garner five Grammy nominations and debut his work with symphony orchestras.

But it is in live performance that McCutcheon feels most at home. It is what has brought his music into the lives and homes of one of the broadest audiences any folk musician has ever enjoyed. People of every generation and background seem to feel at home in a concert hall when
McCutcheon takes the stage with what critics describe as “little feats of magic,” “breathtaking in their ease and grace…,” and “like a conversation with an illuminating old friend.” Whether in print, on record, or on stage, few people communicate with the versatility, charm, wit or pure talent of McCutcheon.

Tickets, are $18 and can be purchased online unitymaine.org, at the Music Gallery in Waterville, Mr. Paperback in Belfast, Cobbossee Coffee in Hallowell, Waldo County Oil in Troy and at the UCPA ticket office. For more information, call 948-7469.