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Performer brought springtime joy to NY Mills

Singer-songwriter John McCutcheon's baseball selections, in prose and song, were a highlight of the April 10 concert at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center.

Stuff that's right with America and East Otter Tail County was celebrated on the Regional Cultural Center floor April 10.

With the first week of the 2010 baseball season underway-and on the eve of the opening of the new Twins baseball park-singer and Grammy-nominated recording artist John McCutcheon was a springtime joy for about 100 concert-goers.

His rave reviews of the New York Mills Cultural Center as a performance facility were uplifting-particularly at a time when economics have pushed the center to the edge, financially.

"Usually, I play in a big theater, on a stage, with bright lights. I can't even see the audience," said McCutcheon, who last performed in NY Mills in 2007. "This is great. It's not often you get to play in a place like this. What a resource you have here. Thanks for coming out, and please, keep coming out."

A lifelong ambassador for American folk music and America's favorite pastime, McCutcheon presented a varied program. His love for the sport was reflected in several selections from his 2008 CD "Sermon on the Mound," an all-baseball collection.

"Talking Yogi Talk" is one of his originals, where he strings together a couple dozen of Yogi Berra's famous quotes-such as "you can observe a lot just by watching."

"The first thing in my life I ever did right was baseball," wrote McCutcheon on the CD notes. "From the second thing in my life I ever did right...I offer some small love songs for baseball, for hometowns, for fathers and sons, for those small things we each try to do right in this life."

The joy of fathers and sons playing catch was reflected in his heart-rending poem, "Catch," which he recited at the NY Mills concert.

A Wisconsin native, he was a Braves fan-back in the day before they moved to Atlanta. But he was excited about the cross-state rivals, the Twins, and the new era of outdoor baseball.

Like the best folk singers, McCutcheon blended upbeat and downbeat themes; along with some tactful and timely social commentary.

One of his songs was inspired by the mining disaster in West Virginia earlier this month.

Another was a Woody Guthrie song about "Pretty Boy Floyd," the Depression-era bank robber who tossed hundred dollar bills to poor farmers in Oklahoma. The "Robin Hood" theme was appropriate in the wake of the worst economic crisis since the Depression. He described Robin Hood's actions, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, as "the original economic stimulus package...At least the money was moving in the right direction-down."

Chuckling about his idiosyncrasies and attention deficit disorder, McCutcheon said "I grew up in a time before Ritalin...Imagine if I did have Ritalin-I might have become an investment banker...and who would have thought that today, a musician has more money than an investment banker."

One of his more unusual songs tells the story of the Christmas Eve "truce" that occurred in the trenches of World War I, where German and British soldiers celebrated Christmas together during the first bloody year of the war, in 1914.

This song, in part, resulted in a meeting between McCutcheon and the last living World War I veteran, who was 108 years old.

The song was an opportunity to invite the audience to Flanders, in Belgium, in 2014-when the government hosts a centennial observance of the Christmas Eve truce.

A gifted instrumentalist, McCutcheon performed on banjo, guitar, piano and the unusual "hammer dulcimer" which traces its origin to Persia, now Iran.

The string instrument is played with mallets, which strike the strings similar to a piano.

In step with his varied program, McCutcheon performed an unexpected selection on the rare instrument. Appropriately, it also projected an air of patriotic optimism for America: A John Phillips Sousa march, "Under the Double Eagle."