Cormac McCarthy’s latest album is filled with tales of working hard while going broke. The details come from stories the songwriter and performer heard while touring the country during the Great Recession, as well as his own experience of economic dislocation in the mill country of southern New Hampshire.
“As a proud member of the working poor, I do know what I’m talking about,” McCarthy, 61, says with a quick but hearty laugh, savoring the sour taste of dark humor. “The good news, bad news answer is that you have some tangible details to use [in songs] about economic hardship.”
McCarthy’s family moved from Cincinnati to Lempster, N.H., when he was 10; after a detour to California, he got cozy in the music scene centered around Portsmouth. (These days, he lives over the border in South Berwick, Maine.) Though he gigs every week, he says, he’s recorded at his own meditative pace, releasing five albums since his debut in 1985. His income from music is supplemented in summer by part-time work with a golf course grounds crew, which he enjoys because it offers him plenty of outdoor walking, he says.
His clear-eyed style never positioned him near the commercial vanguard of the relative boom in contemporary folk, making him less of a crossover presence than peers such as John Gorka and Patty Larkin. But his effortless gravitas and conspicuously literary approach to songcraft have made him a presence on the scene.
He worked his way through the University of New Hampshire with jobs in woolen mills that tended to focus on “lifting and carrying” large objects, he says. “I had the jobs where when they laid off 150 people at the mill, I could keep mine because nobody wanted it,” he says. “Those jobs primarily teach you what you don’t want to do.”
Some of the day-to-day details from those days inform the songs on “Collateral,” the politically aware album he released in 2013. The theme is partly a move away from the more relationship-minded fare on his previous LP, but mostly a vital commentary on blue-collar life in 21st-century America.
The record spins stories of construction workers bankrupted by medical bills and heating-oil companies that only accept cash payments. A character in the ironically titled “Cadillac Man” lives in a car parked in a campground and spices up Saturday nights with fried bologna and beans. “And every time you hear the word of a place that’s givin’ out jobs / You show up a day late, standing at the edge of a mob / It’s back in the car like it was some practical joke,” he sings in “Gotta Keep Moving.”
Though McCarthy says he had John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie in mind as he wrote this batch of songs, the record is far from a stark, harrowing affair. It feels warm and inviting, its sound rounded out by guests such as Duke Levine on lap steel guitar and dobro, and Joyce Andersen on fiddle. (McCarthy will be on his own for his show at Club Passim on Thursday.) McCarthy even has a go at a bluegrass-ish murder ballad.
A trip to see Hank Williams’s hometown of Montgomery, Ala., provided some downbeat anecdotes that filtered into the lyrics on “Collateral.” “I ended up in this little alcove of motel rooms, and after a day I realized that most of the cars in the spots in front of the rooms didn’t run. A lot of these people were really stuck. Their stories were right out of Steinbeck or the Depression,” he recalls.
McCarthy’s way with words gives rise to memorable turns of phrase that fall somewhere between bons mots and flinty New England truisms. “The bigger the bragging, the bigger the fool,” he sings in one new tune, voicing a phrase one can easily picture him having heard as a child in southwestern New Hampshire. He wryly mixes cosmic puzzlement with the malaise of a soon-to-end relationship in the older tune “The Asylum of Your Arms,” wondering: “Is there life after death? Hell, is there life after lunch?”
The fact that he shares a name with the celebrated novelist leads to the occasional confused fan (and a headache for anyone looking for information about him through Google), but he indeed has a touch for crafting songs that have been likened to short stories. “I’m equally in love with music and language. For me there’s just a magic connection between songs and lyrics that doesn’t exist in any other form, because poetry doesn’t make good lyrics and lyrics don’t make good poetry — regardless of what people say. They just don’t, because they have different needs.”
McCarthy continues to move at his own pace. He made a go at a commercial breakthrough on the West Coast before recording his first album, but found the regular gigging — and sometimes-obstinate attitudes — found in New England to be a much better match for his temperament. “It dawned on me pretty soon that the type of music I was writing was not going to end up on an Eagles record any time soon,” he says.
And as for the attitude?
“As curmudgeonly as New Englanders are, they’re very good to get into a conversation with. They can be argumentative and testy, and that’s good for your daily life, I think,” he says. “I couldn’t even get into an argument in California.”