ON HIS RECENT albums, John McCutcheon has struggled to move beyond the lean, acoustic Appalachian folk sound that originally established his reputation. He has incorporated electric guitar, electric bass, horns, synthesizers and percussion with mixed results. On his newest album, "What It's Like," McCutcheon has finally gotten the handle on a new kind of folkie world beat sound that owes more to Paul Simon's "Graceland" than to the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man."
McCutcheon's songwriting still reflects his roots; he writes with admirable detail and contagious populism about the down- and-out: an aging truck driver, a laid-off Jersey factory worker, a Czech plumber, an East Berlin housewife, a homeless man, a Canadian fisherman and any number of farmers. His arrangements, though, abandon the simplicities of campfire singalongs for an elaborate mix of international flavorings: third-world percussion, Irish pipes, jazz sax and rock guitar.
The best measure of how far McCutcheon has come musically is "Ask Any Farmer," yet another song about the plight of the family farm. This time, though, McCutcheon spits out his protest lyrics to a thumping, onrushing rock 'n' roll beat, complete with an R&B horn chart by Bob Read and a squealing guitar solo by Pete Kennedy. Nothing else is that aggressive, but Read's Islamic- sounding soprano sax and Tom Jones's African talking drums make "Know When to Move" sound very un-Appalachian. Mary Chapin Carpenter's vocals help the bouncy country-music sound of "One Man's Trash," and Howard Levy's harmonica reinforces the jazzy swing to "No Turning Back Now."
JOHN MCCUTCHEON -- "What It's Like" (Rounder). Appearing Friday at the Barns of Wolf Trap.