John McCutcheon says he was sitting down last Memorial Day weekend when he thought of the line, "Billy didn't come home last night."
"I've been doing this long enough that I know when something just comes out of nowhere, you pay attention," McCutcheon said. "It begged all kinds of questions."
"I just started exploring the song, and inside of 30 minutes I had this song called 'Dark Side of This Town' finished," he said. It begins with the line about Billy and the song is one of the tracks on his new album, "Ghost Light."
The Grammy-nominated folk artist didn't intend to record an album this year, but after 25 days of disciplined songwriting, he had 30 new songs.
"They're fewer things in life for me more satisfying, and in fact thrilling, than writing a song," McCutcheon said. "I'm just lucky I get to do it."
The 65-year-old released "Ghost Light" last month. It is the 40th recording of his 45-year career as a folk singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
Audience members going to McCutcheon's concert Friday night at the First Presbyterian Church in Corvallis may be among the first to see him perform those new songs live.
The funny thing is McCutcheon was invested in another project, when the inspiration to write songs for "Ghost Light" took over.
"I'm in the middle of making the album I had planned, which is in honor of Pete Seeger's 100th birthday next year," he said.
McCutcheon said the 13 songs on "Ghost Light" are almost all stories, featuring everything from mortality and memory to joyous abandon and being caught unaware.
"They're little snapshots. It's the kind of things, as I get older, I find myself focusing on, the particular to talk about the universal," he said.
One song, "The Machine," highlights last summer's violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, a place McCutcheon lived for many years. The song's story and lyrics come from the perspective of a World War II veteran in his 90s, who is watching this happen.
"What does he think, seeing Nazis in the streets of America, and the President saying, 'There are good people on both sides,' and all this crap," McCutcheon said.
Many of the songs are meant for listeners to imagine themselves in someone else's shoes, he said.
Another song, "The Story of Abe," came from a radio interview McCutcheon heard, where a guy met an old man at his synagogue. The old man offered to take the other man to lunch, and over lunch told him an amazing story.
"A fellow just decided to raise a part of his past in the most dramatic fashion," McCutcheon said. "I thought 'Damn, there's a song there.'"
One of the album's more lighthearted tunes, "She Just Dances," was inspired by McCutcheon's 1-year-old granddaughter's response to him playing the banjo.
"This was the most primal thing, and it's her response to music. It's what we forget to do. I thought this deserves a song," he said.
Having written songs for more than 50 years, McCutcheon thinks he's finally understanding how to do it.
"It's still exciting to love your job and to feel like I'm still learning how to do this," he said.
Though he has cut back on touring, retirement won't appear on his set list anytime soon.
"I want to retire one day before I can't do it well anymore," McCutcheon said.
McCutcheon plays a half dozen instruments on stage, including fiddle, banjo, guitars, and the hammered dulcimer, a percussion and stringed instrument.
He has performed in Corvallis 20 to 25 times over the years.
Much of that has to do with his appreciation of the musically educated audience.
"It's really one of the best folk music audiences in the country," McCutcheon said. "Part of that is you develop a relationship with an audience."
McCutcheon said he guesses that half of the audience members at Friday's concert will have already seen him perform at least a couple of times. He likened the experience of frequently playing in Corvallis to an ongoing conversation that is interrupted only when the show is over.
Audience members will hear new songs from "Ghost Light," the Pete Seeger tribute, and old favorites by McCutcheon.
"In some ways it will be a lot of new stuff, but in a really familiar form. And we will continue that conversation I've had going since about 1980," McCutcheon said.