As Española polishes its image as “The Lowrider Capital of the World,” it’s getting a lift from a local singer/songwriter with an international following.
On Jan. 4, Americana artist Boris McCutcheon released his latest album, “As Old As Española,” on Santa Fe’s Frogville Records. Among the songs on the album are “Where Have All The Lowriders Gone?” and “La Llorona and the Lowriders.”
A resident of Dixon, McCutcheon, 50, is a classic northern New Mexico hybrid – artist/agricultural worker.
When he’s not writing songs and performing at local breweries or touring in Europe, McCutcheon grows pears and prunes fruit trees. His musical and professional partner is Bard Edrington.
McCutcheon and Edrington have a band called the HOTH (for “High on the Hog”) Brothers whose 2019 album “Workin’ and Dreamin'” is a hit in England.
They also collaborate in tree pruning and brick businesses.
In the winter, Edrington helps McCutcheon, who studied practical organic farming at the University of California at Santa Cruz, prune dormant fruit trees.
In the spring and summer, when the trees are blooming and later bearing fruit, McCutcheon drives down to Santa Fe to help Edrington make bricks.
The trip from Dixon to Santa Fe takes McCutcheon through Española, and he often jots down notes and writes songs during the drive.
“I’m always working on songs when I’m driving to Santa Fe,” McCutcheon said. “There are no distractions in my car. When I’m moving – whether it’s hiking, driving or floating down the river – that’s when I get my best ideas.”
Asked how he chose “As Old As Española” as the title for his latest album, which includes a song of the same name, he said, “Española is probably the oldest place in the country. People have been living there for 8,000 years.”
With the exception of a couple of tracks, all 13 songs on “As Old As Española” were written in the car over the past two years, McCutcheon said.
The notable exception is “The Mighty Jemez,” which he wrote after stopping at an overlook to watch the blaze from the Las Conchas Fire in 2011. The conflagration, which started in the Santa Fe Forest, destroyed 150,000 acres and 63 residences, and even threatened Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“When you think of New Mexico, you get your orientation from the mountains, hence ‘The Mighty Jemez.’ Even though I had written the song a few years back, I felt like it deserved to be on the album,” he said.
Wax cylinders and puppets
A native of Massachusetts, McCutcheon first came to New Mexico when he was 20 on a cross-country trip to deliver a cache of wax cylinders, the predecessor to vinyl records, and puppets to Ojai, California.
McCutcheon made the journey on behalf of the late Ralph Rinzler, a mandolin player who was the co-founder of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Rinzler had a collection of wax cylinder blues records, while his wife Kate Rinzler had a trove of puppets from working during summers with the Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover, Vermont.
“I had to make the trip during winter otherwise the wax cylinders would melt,” McCutcheon said. During his mission for the Rinzlers, McCutcheon, like many travelers, became enchanted with New Mexico.
“I really liked it. I drove up Route 666 to Navajo Country because I thought the name of the road was cool. I got stuck in a blizzard in Magdalena by Pie Town,” he recalled.
In southern Arizona, McCutcheon was pulled over by the U.S. Border Patrol and forced to open up his truck. “They thought I might have migrants back there,” he said. “They were surprised to find a bunch of puppets and wax cylinders.”
Like many East Coast transplants, McCutcheon came and went from New Mexico before finally settling down. He spent five years in New Mexico during his twenties before moving to Boston when he was 30.
He recorded his first album, “Mother Ditch,” in 2001 at Zippah Studios in Brookline, Massachusetts. Even though his eponymous band was playing rock roots music for sold-out crowds, McCutcheon opted for Zippah, a quirky rock ‘n’ roll studio, rather than a folk studio, because it used 2-inch recording tape and had lots of vintage gear, he said.
Despite success in Boston, McCutcheon returned to the West. “After four and a half years in Boston, I didn’t want to be there anymore. My fianceé, now my wife, was in Utah. My career was going really well, and I thought it’s best to leave while the going’s good,” he said.
Off the grid
Back in New Mexico, McCutcheon got married and bought a house not far from Peñasco on the High Road to Taos. “We lived off the grid for eight years, making our own electricity with solar power. During that whole period, I was still touring Europe,” he said.
The McCutcheons moved to Albuquerque in 2013 when Laura McCutcheon decided to change careers after teaching math and science for several years. Following a stint in the Duke City, where Laura went to UNM Medical School to become a physician’s assistant, the McCutcheons returned to northern New Mexico for good.
The family bought a small farm on the Embudo River with an old orchard full of pear trees. These days, you can find McCutcheon pruning trees from Truchas to Abiquiu and hosting an open mic night nearly every Wednesday at Blue Heron Brewery’s tap room in Rinconada. He also sells his fruit to Blue Heron.
It’s a good life, McCutcheon said, especially with the addition of children – Jack, 11, and Niamh, 13. “Dixon is a really cool community,” he said.
If McCutcheon has any regrets, it’s that it’s “getting harder and harder to make money in the music industry,” he said. People don’t buy as many CDs as they used to and the generation that has grown up with the internet expects content to be free, McCutcheon said.
Fortunately, people still buy CDs in Europe, where McCutcheon continues to tour.
There’s also the issue of freelance musicians. “I wish there were a union here that required musicians to charge a minimum of $100 for each gig. The people playing for free are ruining it for the professionals,” he said.
“Every year, there’s less money. I think it has to do with people being more into their devices than entertainment. The casinos have also hurt bars and other music venues,” McCutcheon said.
One way McCutcheon is able to maximize his music revenues is through licensing his work to TV and film productions.
Still, with his agricultural endeavors, McCutcheon is able to keep his music career afloat. He’s playing the Cowgirl BBQ on Guadalupe Street every Sunday in March and will be appearing at Tumbleroot Brewery on March 21.
In October and November, McCutcheon has 18 shows booked in the United Kingdom. That European swing will be followed by another tour, of the Netherlands and Belgium, in 2021