They both have decades of musicianship that has won them the respect of their fans and their peers worldwide.
Heck, their names even sound alike.
But when it comes to next weekend’s Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, John McCutcheon’s and John McEuen’s paths diverge.
McCutcheon will take the stage for the 35th consecutive year.
McEuen will be there for the first time in the 46-year history of the festival.
Although this year’s lineup includes Claire Lynch, Chris Jones and the Night Drivers, Marley’s Ghost and The Steel Wheels, the attention will be on two Johns.
McCutcheon doesn’t need to be reminded that this is his 35th straight Walnut Valley Festival.
“It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?,” he asked from his home in Smoke Rise, Georgia. “It’s that lack of an imagination that keeps me coming back there.”
But the festival’s Rex Flottman says it’s not the same without the man so synonymous with the genre that he has the website folkmusic.com.
“I think we’d have a mutiny of the fans if we didn’t have him on the lineup every year,” said Flottman, the media director.
McCutcheon said Winfield is “more than just a music festival,” calling it a “gathering of the tribe” with a separate “whole ecosystem” that camps out and doesn’t pay attention to what’s happening on the festival stages.
“It’s a place where people who love this weird little sliver of the music world – and it really is that, in the grand scheme of things,” the 65-year-old said. “They come together for a weekend, they get to be surrounded by other people who share that love. It doesn’t happen often enough for any of us. It’s also a real shared experience.”
McCutcheon said he feels especially close to the fans when he’s on the midway getting from one stage to another.
“It’s a good thing I like people,” he said with a laugh. “It would be a torturous thing if I didn’t. They’re not treating you like a star because you’re not one – let’s face it, this is folk music. It’s not like I’m Bruce Springsteen strolling down the boardwalk in New Jersey. They feel like they’ve got some connection to you.”
McCutcheon said he looks at the Winfield festival as more of a party than a concert, and that’s exemplified by his Saturday night shows, which have become a Walnut Valley tradition.
“I’m dragging all sorts of different musicians up there all the time, and people come to expect that,” she said. “It’s fun for the musicians, and it’s fun for the audience because they’re seeing things that have never happened before and may never happen again. And you’re invited into this experiment.”
His most memorable Walnut Valley Festival was in 2001, the weekend after 9/11. With his flight from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Wichita canceled as he was in line at the airport, he told his manager they could drive 22 hours to make his set – 24 hours later.
“We just drove all night and arrived fairly caffeinated and completely exhausted,” he recalled. He was so spent that he closed his eyes while singing, and when he opened them the audience members were in tears, with their hands clasped above them and singing along.
“It was a moment when I realized I’m not here because they need me, I’m here because I need them,” he said. “I don’t know very many festivals where that kind of thing could have happened.”
McCutcheon is at work on his 39th album, “Ghost Light,” due out later this year, followed by a tribute to the centennial of Pete Seeger’s birth in 2019.
But nothing will keep him away from the Walnut Valley Festival.
“I can’t imagine September without Winfield,” he said.
McEuen making mark
Booking John McEuen, Flottman said, is a thank-you to the fans who stuck with the festival even after floods forced several changes of plans during last year’s event.
“Everybody was so down in the dumps about the situation with the flooding and the campgrounds being closed down last year,” Flottman said. “We decided we needed to find somebody new, who hadn’t been here before, who was a fairly recognizable name who we thought would get folks of most ages who come to our festival excited to have an opportunity to get to see up close and get a record or CD signed.”
Flottman said organizers had heard second-hand that McEuen – a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and producer of his high-school friend Steve Martin’s Grammy-winning album “The Crow” – had wanted to play the Winfield festival ever since the Dirt Band was at another concert in town.
“We had decided over the years that it just wasn’t going to happen because we didn’t call,” Flottman said. “Quite honestly, the last few years we thought he would be out of our budget.”
The festival got McEuen’s email address and landed the singer.
Flottman said he was especially glad to bring McEuen to the festival since the latter was a part of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a pioneering 1972 bluegrass album.
“That’s kind of the 101 textbook for the kind of music that’s played at our festival,” Flottman said. “Any given night during the festival you can walk through our campgrounds and find numerous campsites where people are playing a song that comes off that album.
“It’s a perfect fit for us,” he added.
“They’re glad for it?,” McEuen asked in a phone interview from Glasgow, Scotland, “I don’t have to pay to get in.”
“Nitty Gritty Dirt Band often works that second and third week of September,” McEuen explained. “This year, I blocked it so we wouldn’t. I said I wasn’t going to be available in case this booking comes around.
“I’d rather play the festival than play a Dirt Band show, it’s that simple,” he added.
McEuen will share the stage with Matt Cartsonis, a collaborator for the past 25 years.
The set, McEuen said, includes Nitty Gritty Dirt Band songs and “music I shan’t get them to do on stage.”
“The Dirt Band is a wonderful thing that has reached a lot of people,” McEuen, 71, said. “But the music is the same every night, for 10 years. Some people think it should be that way, but one ‘people’ doesn’t.
“I think there’s too many songs to cover and address and the songs and stories behind them are equally important to many people as the songs themselves,” he continued. “I like to involve the audience in what has been a 50-year career.”
McEuen said his four sets will likely be completely different from each other.
“Winfield’s a special situation. In the middle of a Dirt Band show, I can’t break out into a classical number just because it’s too loud or because it’s a state fair or county fair or casino,” he said. “This is where I get to go play things that are more eclectic.”
With Cartsonis, McEuen won acclaim for his 2016 album, “Made in Brooklyn,” which will be a part of the show.
McEuen has an upcoming book that he stops short of calling his memoirs.
“I have been so fortunate to have played in so many combinations with folks from Willie Nelson to Gonzo the Muppet or the ‘Sesame Street’ characters or Tom Petty to recording with Marshall Tucker or the Allman Brothers Band,” he said. “I’m the luckiest guy I know.”
Next weekend’s festival will be the first since the death of longtime festival president and co-founder Bob Redford, who died in December at age 78.
A tribute to him, Flottman said, will come in the form of what was a clandestine show on the schedule called “Don’t Tell Bob,” a genre-breaking performance by one of Redford’s favorite bands, Spontaneous Combustion.
“They were sets that were scheduled, but weren’t on the schedule,” Flottman said. “Word of mouth is how they found out they’d be playing on the stage. He used to get a big kick out of those guys that we invited them to come host a tribute set.”
It’s scheduled for 11:15 p.m. Thursday.
46th Annual Walnut Valley Festival
What: Music, camping, arts and crafts, food
When: Thursday through Sept. 17
Where: Winfield Fairgrounds, 1105 W. 9th Ave., Winfield
Admission: From $15 for Sunday only to $90 for a full festival pass.
Information: See https://wvfest.com for a complete schedule and more information.