Colin Cutler on the charts and on the road 

Posted on January 08, 2024

Colin Cutler and band at the Flat Iron, 2023

When you have a new album, you want to share it. When most of the guest artists on that album can join you on stage for one night, you want to play all night long. 

Colin Cutler’s “Tarwater” launch concert at Greensboro’s Flat Iron sported a rollicking vibe. With UNCG and Greensboro friends in the crowd, the place was full, as was often the stage.  

Great Triad musicians such as UNCG alumni Bob Worrells and Christen Blanton Mack joined with sacred steel star Dashawn Hickman, plus Wendy Hickman, Rebekah Todd, and Laura Jane Vincent. 

The new album quickly broke into the top 10 on the Alt-Country chart, and on the Folk chart it’s currently no. 13. His hauntingly quiet single “Run to the River,” just his voice and banjo, has risen to the Top 20. “No Depression” roots music magazine has given a glowing review

An English instructor at Guilford Technical Community College and freelance journalist, he creates strongly hewn songs. “A lot of my catalog I wrote in graduate school at UNCG,” the 2016 master’s graduate says.  

His focus as he earned his MA in English? “On paper, Anglo-Appalachian balladry,” which meant he studied Southern literature, medieval literature, music, and their intersections in literature and folk art, he explains. He had read the old ballads as texts. Exploring them as songs to be performed in the community of the UNCG Old Time Ensemble was an epiphany.   

Influential professors at UNCG? From Elizabeth Rosenthal Excellence Professor Karen Kilcup he learned a close-reading approach and also about “power structures – who holds the reins of power in what gets published.” From Dr. Tony Cuda he learned about how artistic communities develop and thrive, and Dr. Scott Romine exposed him to many more Southern voices than he’d known.  

“My master’s program had an interdisciplinary spin on it,” he says, allowing him to join the Old Time Ensemble with Revell Carr in the School of Music. Cutler discovered that the White recorders of American folk music, such as Alan Lomax, tended to have a Eurocentric lens. So he also delved into the African roots of American music. “There are all these streams to the river,” he says. 

His own musical roots? Contemporary Christian gospel in his early teens. Then he became what he calls “a metal head,” enthralled by Metallica and Iron Maiden as well as Christian bands like White Cross and Stryper. (You can hear a righteous blues rock influence on his new album.) He delved into the everyday music of pre-WW II America – and earlier decades – as he got a bit older. 

He took up the guitar at age 16 (bagpipes too, but obviously guitar had advantages). In 2013, he bought a banjo. “I traded my Marshall amp – and 50 bucks – for my banjo.” A year later, he started to get serious about harmonica, inspired by Old Crow Medicine Show’s Willie Watson. 

By this time, he was in Greensboro, and was pleased to discover that bluegrass in the Gate City was not king. “This is an old-time (music) city.” His clawhammer style on banjo (no bluegrass rolls!) has served him well. 

Flannery O’Connor, whose body of work has influenced songwriters such as Bruce Springsteen and Lucinda Willams, was a guiding light on Cutler’s new album. “She captured a snapshot of the South as it saw itself, and questioned that – in a moment of transition.”  

A teacher at heart, he gives presentations on O’Connor (who actually visited UNCG in 1955), and spent part of last summer in O’Connor’s Milledgeville, Georgia, at a National Endowment of the Humanities Institute on the celebrated Southern writer. She revealed a South that was real and vivid, he notes. “She did it in plain – though sometimes problematic – language.” 

Many of his songs are influenced by his lived experiences. His Fulbright Scholar travels in Romania. His Pentecostal church upbringing. His infantry training and later deployment in Qatar.

And he has been supported by many awards and grants, such as his Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Fellowship, UNCG Sink Graduate Fellowship, Village Fund Grant from Folk Alliance International, North Carolina Poetry Society Gilbert-Chappell Developing Poets Mentorship, and a project grant from ArtsGreensboro. 

And after all his travels, he has discovered Greensboro is where he feels most at home. 

“In 2020, I moved back to Greensboro.” Greensboro is just different, he says. “It has a great community not just of musicians, but of solid songwriters.” 

On the horizon? “Turning Dante’s ‘Inferno’ into Americana,” he says. Perhaps it’ll be a drama interspersed with songs, taking inspiration from “Hadestown.” He wrote a first draft while studying in England.

“Teaching. Music. Journalism.” Those will be his focus for the coming years. His national tour with his band cranks up soon. Concerts and presentations are already set for the University of Notre Dame and Folk Alliance 2024 in Kansas City. The full tour schedule will be announced soon. 

Before a national tour, Colin Cutler has a few North Carolina events this month: 

Jan. 12 – Scuppernong Books, Greensboro – Presentations and Performance with Abigail Dowd and Terry Kennedy 
Jan. 18 – Gas Hill, Winston-Salem, NC 
Jan.19 – Bowstring Pizza and Brewyard, Raleigh, NC 
Jan. 20 (afternoon) – Guitarfest, Washington, NC 
Jan. 20 (evening) – Brewery99, New Bern, NC 
Jan. 21 – Huron Stage, Durham, NC  

By Mike Harris, UNCG Magazine editor
Top photo, final set of launch concert at Flat Iron, Dec. 3, 2023, by Mike Harris. L-r, UNCG alumni Christen Blanton Mack, Bob Worrells, and Colin Cutler; Emmanuel Rankin on drums and Lu Furtado on bass.

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