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What Keeps the Guitar Man Strumming

Jim McCutcheon has taught guitar to generations of local families
Jim McCutcheon has taught guitar to generations of local families

When Jim McCutcheon goes on vacation, he’ll most likely bring his guitar along. Not simply as entertainment for when there’s downtime, but because it’s an extension of who he is. Jim’s been a musical fixture in Dayton since 1978 -- he teaches guitar classes to people of all ages, he’s released two children’s albums, and has several awards to his name. On May 17th he’s adding another one -- the Governor's Award in the Arts for arts education. Culture Couch producer George Drake, Jr. spent time with him to find out what keeps him going.

Jim McCutcheon is known locally as the guitar man. Each week he teaches guitar at three colleges, educates hundreds of kids about different types of guitars at numerous school systems in southwest Ohio each month, holds private lessons at his own educational facility McCutcheon Music, and even hosts a local radio show on Dayton Public Radio. He says for him, a 40-hour work week is light.

“One of the reasons I can do this is that there’s a lot of variety in what I teach. I’ll teach everything from Bach and the classical guitar repertoire, to some jazz accompaniments for kids in high school, to little kids classes of kids who are, like,  5 to 8 or 9 years old. Teaching them ‘Hot Crossed Buns’ or ‘Twinkle Twinkle.’”

Jim started playing when he was 11. As he entered high school, he made a deal with his parents that they would keep paying for lessons if he practiced an hour every day.

“I could quit whenever I wanted," he says.  "And I quit often because I had other things I was doing like tennis team, when tennis team was in... I couldn’t have that hour a day. And i was working pretty hard on my studies.”

Jim "The Guitar Man" McCutcheon
Credit George Drake Jr. / WYSO
Jim "The Guitar Man" McCutcheon

He kept playing through his time studying Physics at the University of Dayton. But he had a decision to make after graduation: Go to medical school or sign his band with an agent and go on the road.

“How often does that happen? Well, the medical school gave me a two-year window, and what they said was, ‘When you decide what you want to be when you grow up, you can come to my school.’ And I guess I never grew up because I got more energy out of it than I put into it. And I figured that is something to listen to.”

That’s when he started down the path to becoming the guitar man. He came back to Dayton and got a music degree at Wright State, “And then they hired me. And UD hired me. Antioch hired me. Sinclair hired me. And it was just like, ‘Okay, I’ve put together all these part time jobs, and I can make a living.’”

Jim’s roots in the community run deep. Each year he has a float in Centerville’s 4th of July parade, he’s been hosting his radio show on a volunteer basis for over 30 years, and he’s played for people in retirement homes around the area. But more importantly, he’s building a community of his own.

“People are valuing the arts highly, I think," says Jim.  "And realizing how important it is, say, for the development of the children. Also for opportunities to interact with their children. I have one 7-year-old whose mother and grandmother are taking guitar lessons along with her. It’s a family thing.”

“We’ve actually done a recital with all three of us. [Laughs] My mom, and me, and Sonya. Three generations," says Amy Wert. Her daughter, Sonya, is Jim’s student.  “So that was all because of Jim’s encouragement. He’s so good at what he does, but he makes you feel, like, accepted and welcome at any level that you are playing.”

In a time when arts funding is in question, he uses this analogy to explain how important it is: If you consider a car -- the design, the shape, the sound system -- everything has an artist’s touch. Art is all around us, he says you just need to be open to it.

“Another thing that people don’t realize sometimes is that the arts make us more human. And these are things that bind us together, and the world needs more of that,” says Jim.

Although Jim is known locally as the Guitar Man, the lessons he teaches the community are much bigger. All you have to do is take the guitar away.

“I want to present someone who’s doing what they really enjoy and having a good time doing it, learning more about it, doing it better, working at it, doing it better, and just continually developing their skills along with their enjoyment of their craft.”

He admits that he’s at an age when many people he knows are retiring. But he says he’s having too much fun to put down his guitar.

“I feel like I’ve really hit my stride. I think I know what I’m doing. Finally!” 

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