When John McCusker was seven years old, a music teacher stopped by his school and asked if any of the pupils were interested in learning the violin. "When she heard about it, my mother immediately said that I was," he recalls. "I wasn't so sure, but she was. And so I began learning the violin, playing in orchestras and studying classical music." McCusker's mother had dreams of him going on to have a distinguished career as a concert violinist, and so he has. But instead of playing classical music, he confounded her expectations by growing to become one of Scotland's finest traditional fiddlers.
John McCusker is only twenty-nine years old but he has already put together a career that musicians twice his age would be proud of. He made his first record at the age of fourteen and joined the famous Battlefield Band at the age of sixteen and traveled the world and recorded with them for eleven years. He's released three highly acclaimed solo albums, played as a guest artist on 150 more, and produced tracks for some of the finest folk artists on the current scene including Eliza Carthy, Cathie Ryan, and Kate Rusby, who was so impressed with his work that she married him. In 1999 he won the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award for his contribution to Scottish music, and in 2003 he was named the Musician of the Year at the BBC 2 Folk Awards ceremony.
McCusker's mother may have wanted her son to play classical music, but she inadvertently set him on his path into the world of traditional music. "My mother is from Ireland and there were always traditional Celtic records playing around the house," he says. "She would play things by the Chieftains and De Dannan, which is where I first started hearing that kind of music. That turned out to be a good thing for me because I grew up in a small village outside of Glasgow and there were no traditional musicians there at all."
McCusker proved to be a talented violinist and he was accepted to Glasgow's Royal Academy, where he was trained in classical violin techniques. But even as was working his way through the Kreutzer studies at school, he was absorbing the intricacies of Celtic fiddling from records at home. "After a while I found the classical and traditional music started getting in the way of each other," he says. "My classical teachers would give me grief because I was starting to stamp my foot when I was playing Beethoven."
In 1986, when he was thirteen, McCusker and his school mates flautist Kevin McCarthy, guitarist Francis Macdonald, and singer Patrick Murphy formed their own folk band called the Parcel O' Rogues. At the suggestion of a teacher named Gordon MacPherson, they entered a national school music competition, which led to an invitation to play in London at the National Festival of Music for Youth. The Rogues spent the next couple of years playing concerts, when they could find time in their school schedules.
Three years after coming together, Parcel O' Rogues recorded an album for Temple Records, the home of some of Scotland's finest traditional musicians. The record included songs written by folk artists like Si Kahn, John Prine, and Peter Nardini as well as instrumentals composed by McCusker and Macdonald. The original tunes were of very high quality and were named for some of the people who inspired the band, including jazz great Stéphane Grappelli and Gordon MacPherson, who was honored with "The Blackbeard," a title that paid tribute to his ample facial hair.
Robin Morton, the director of Temple Records and the manager for the Battlefield Band, was extremely impressed with McCusker's musical gifts. "When I was sixteen, Robin asked me what I wanted to do with my life," McCusker recalls. "I told him I wanted to play with a group like the Battlefield Band and he said that the fiddler was leaving the band and did I want the job. I was stunned. I mean I was this little kid and all of a sudden I was touring the world with one of my favorite groups. It was fantastic. I traveled and recorded with them for eleven years. It was a great learning experience. When I joined the group Alan Reid, the keyboard player, had been with them for like twenty years and he taught so much about playing and how to survive on the road."
As much as he loved playing onstage with the Battlefield Band, McCusker feels that the best part about touring was getting to meet and play with some of his musical heroes. "I got to hang out at festivals and other gigs with players like Kevin Burke, Aly Bain, Martin Hayes, and Liz Carroll and play tunes with them," he says. "I learned so much in those backstage sessions. I grew up listening to these people and here I was playing with them. I couldn't believe how wonderful Martin Hayes sounded when I first heard him in person. I think his music is pure beauty."
McCusker began writing tunes at a furious pace, many of which were recorded by the band. Writing music had always come easily to him, and he recalls composing melodies even before he got his first violin. "I started writing my own tunes when I was seven or eight," he says. "I had a tin whistle and I was always making things up on it. I started writing more seriously when I was with Parcel O' Rouges when we were getting ready to make that record. I'm lucky that I've always loved writing tunes and it's great to record them with friends. I do love old, traditional tunes but sometimes I think my tunes are what I have to offer to continue the tradition."
After five years in the Battlefield Band, McCusker had quite a back catalog of tunes built up, so in 1995 he went into the studio to record his first solo album. "That session was where I first recorded 'Frank's Reel,'" he says. "It has since been recorded by Solas and Natalie MacMaster and has become my little well-known tune."
In 2000 McCusker released Yella Hoose, his second solo CD. That was followed in 2003 by Goodnight Ginger. Both CDs featured a generous helping of McCusker's compositions, played by some of the finest musicians working in the traditional vein. "I started working with people like the guitarist Ian Carr, concertina player Simon Thoumire, bassist Andy Seward, and flautist Michael McGoldrick when I started doing Kate's CDs," he says. "We've all become great friends. When it comes time to make a record we all gather at my place, work up a few arrangements and then go next door to the home studio that Kate and I have."
McCusker's compositions have a strong traditional melodic feel, although the rhythms and harmonies can sound quite modern. They also have a spare, stripped-down sound when compared to his work with the Battlefield Band. "I loved the wall of sound we got with Battlefield, with the pipe and keyboards and everything," he says. "But I also love the simple sound of a fiddle playing a waltz and backed by just a guitar."
[For the rest of this article, purchase the Winter 03/04 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Michael Simmons is co-editor of The Fretboard Journal (www.fretboardjournal.com) and the author of Taylor Guitars: 30 Years of a New American Classic.]