John Hutchison, Ohio bluegrass legend and life-long musical renegade, died on November 2 from complications of colon cancer. He was 81 years of age.
John, also widely known as JD, and his brother, Bob, likewise recently deceased, performed together as The Hutchison Brothers Band, recording a pair of albums in Cincinnati for Vetco Records. Though they stuck mostly to the traditional bluegrass style, it was often fueled by John’s irreverent side and his wicked sense of humor.
His longtime friend and musical collaborator, Tim O’Brien, described Hutchison as a complicated man, well educated in both music and literature who often stood in his own way, never wanting to allow his obvious talent to lead to success.
Tim offered an example of the sort of oddness one might find at a Hutchison Brothers show.
“They’d do Muleskinner Blues, but chose the Fendermen’s version over Bill Monroe’s. JD would be chewing tobacco, and singing hard core grass, playing great flatpick guitar as his brother really strutted his stuff on banjo. Then John might sing Girl From the North Country, and imitate Dylan and Johnny Cash before singing in Popeye’s cartoon voice. He was the best kinda hillbilly who knew the real value of country ways and art, but could quote Shakespeare and Nietzche. He was a poet, actor, cartoonist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist.
John showed up in Athens, OH after his Air Force service and became a kind of fixture in that college town, appreciated by the students and academics alike. Anti-music-business, he would regularly walk away from open doors – offerings of movie roles, record deals, and more. He was reluctant to pitch his songs, and you had to tease them out of him. He once sang me a song Hot Rize later recorded just outside a honky tonk men’s room.”
Here’s an example of The Hutchison Brothers from their self-titled 1975 release.
John continued as a performer and songwriter the rest of his life, recording his music for a number of self-produced releases. Often he worked solo with just his guitar, or with his country rock band, Hillbilly Jive.
O’Brien also described the status Hutchison achieved in Athens, and the many people from across the spectrum of life he befriended during his time.
“He walked light on the earth in many ways, and was very well regarded as an artist in his hometown. Kind of combination court jester, bard, and philosopher. Probably never paid rent. His connections were far and wide… Jeff Bridges, David Bromberg, Robert Earl Keen, Terry Anderson (journalist who was an Iranian hostage).”
This video, created by Jeffrey deLaval, offers a fine look into the life and musical career of John Hutchison.
Tim described his final meeting with his enigmatic friend and mentor…
“My last visit with him was August 21. His spartan apartment was decorated with his collection of barometers, and probably about 100 Scrabble sets. He was wearing a t-shirt reading ‘Master of the Tiles.’ My wife, Jan, and I took him for fish sandwiches, had a wonderful conversation, and he sang us songs and played the piano (Red Allen’s She’s No Angel).
He also recited a new poem:
From the cold northern waters and the cry of the loon
Over mountains through the hot desert sands
With one eye for the sun, one eye for the moon
I have wandered the face of this land
The wind blows colder over yonder hill
And the gate that waits for me is open wide
But for a little I would ask of you
To keep you here by my side
Farewell all beloved that ever have been
All beloved that ever I’ve known
And follow me down in the black limousine
That taketh my long journey alone
As I make my long journey alone”
R.I.P., John Hutchison.