John McEuen – “Workingman’s Banjo”
No doubt, John McEuen is a lot of things to a lot of people. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, solo artist, producer, documentarian, film scorer, concert promoter, and XM radio host. In addition to being a husband and father of six, he’s also a close friend of Steve Martin, to whom McEuen taught the banjo (They met while working at Disneyland of all places.). More recently, McEuen produced Martin’s album, “The Crow,” which just won the Grammy for “Bluegrass Album of the Year.” As many things as he’s done in the sphere of music, I knew right where I wanted to start.
I had so many questions surrounding the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s classic, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” from 1972 – an album that Rolling Stone called, “one of the most important recordings ever to come out of Nashville.” This was their first time to record in Nashville, but somehow they were able to record with Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin, and Merle Travis, among others. How do you do that? John explains:
I had asked Earl if he would record with us in some club in Colorado. Ten days later, I asked Doc – and I hadn’t met him before. I said, “We’re making an album with Earl Scruggs,” which we weren’t yet. He said, “I’d like to be there if Earl’s gonna be there.” Then we lined up a couple more; we’re now in week three after asking Earl. By the middle of week three, Louise (Scruggs) and Bill (McEuen – John’s brother and producer/manager for the band) had talked – Can we get Maybelle Carter? How about Roy Acuff? Earl said, “Well, I can talk to Acuff.”
McEuen was especially excited when Louise Scruggs got Jimmy Martin to sign on.
Then, we told the Dirt Band that we’re going to record with Jimmy Martin, and they said, “Who’s that?” “You’ll find out.” And Jeff (Hanna) is so glad he recorded with Jimmy Martin. And I am too, but to me, Jimmy Martin in 1966 was a god of bluegrass – before our band had even started. So being able to stand next to him and play and have him say, when I kicked the song off and had to stop, “Earl never did that.” What do I say? “Of course, I know.”
Lest anyone thinks he’s being unfair to the rest of the band, McEuen also shared a bit of his own ignorance revealed as they were gearing up for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
I called Earl; I’ll never forget the phone call. I said, “What fiddlers have you decided to use?” “I’m gonna use one man – Vassar Clements.” I had known Vassar’s music, but I wasn’t familiar with Vassar because there were no credits for sidemen. And I said, “Well, can Vassar handle all the styles?” Earl just said, “He’ll do.” He said it with a smile on his face. First rehearsal, he said, “Vassar, play ‘Lonesome Fiddle Blues.’” “Yeah, He’ll do. But why are we here?”
For a little back-story, Vassar Clements had been a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and Jim & Jesse’s Virginia Boys in the 1950s, John Hartford’s Dobrolic Plectorial Society in the 1960s, and the Earl Scruggs Revue for about a year around 1970. He had just started doing session work about a year before the “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” sessions. His performances on the that album brought him work with names like The Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, Paul McCartney, Linda Ronstadt, and David Grisman. His debut as a recording artist in his own right came about a year after the Circle album, and he’s since been dubbed the “Father of Hillbilly Jazz.” He also played on five more Dirt Band albums and two of McEuen’s albums. I guess Earl was right.
Getting back to the timeline, McEuen wanted to make sure I understood how quickly this monumental record had come together. So, we’re at the first day of rehearsal with Earl (and Vassar’s “audition”):
Keep in mind, this is now probably the middle of week six when we got together and rehearsed with Earl for four days or so – then a day of rehearsal with Jimmy Martin and a day of rehearsal with Merle Travis. By the beginning of week ten this album was done. And in between me asking Earl Scruggs to pick a few tunes with my band and the album being finished, we also played about eighteen cities.
Ten weeks, and if things weren’t busy enough:
On the way to Nashville to do the Circle album, my really cool, great sounding banjo got stolen in Miami, and I had to buy one in Gainesville, FL – which just sucked. I had to pick that thing so hard I broke the bridge playing behind Jimmy Martin. Maybe I was picking a little hard. I wished I’d had a better banjo but that’s ok.
Still McEuen’s replacement banjo was important enough to hang in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – a banjo in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
With such a large collection of songs, I was very curious who chose them.
Each artist was asked for song suggestions. Although with Acuff, we asked him to sing a verse on “I Saw the Light” and a verse on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” We also asked if he would do “Wreck on the Highway,” and he said, “I’d love to do that.” Then Acuff had a couple of suggestions.
It was the same thing with Doc. He wanted to do “Way Downtown,” and I did, too because I wanted to make a 1938 record. That’s what it was like. We can now go back in time and sound like Clint Howard and Clarence Ashley. We can sound like guys sittin’ on the porch. We can try and sound like the Opry in 1948 or 55. My God, I actually got to ride in a time machine. When I hear those tunes today, I feel like I should be 105 years old – “Boy that’s an old record.”
One very special aspect of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is the dialogue that was put on the record – moments like Doc Watson and Merle Travis meeting for the first time and Mother Maybelle talking about what key they should play a song in. It’s an addition that added extra dimension to the record. I had wondered whose idea that was.
My brother Bill. He knew that it was important because he had heard a couple of albums like that – one called “Down South Summit Meeting,” which is a blues collection. But we also knew it was important because I remember when Flatt & Scruggs did that Carnegie Hall album. I’d play the talking parts between songs all the time. I’d play the part where Earl’s talking to his banjo. “What is it you want son?” (McEuen starts playing the banjo as he speaks). “I hear you callin’ momma.” I must have played that 200 times. I hadn’t done that in 40 years, so that’s how much I did play it. So on the Circle album, we knew that talking was going to be important to us and Bill knew that it was going to be important to other people. And when I remastered it in 2002, I went and found more talking. I got Jimmy Martin and Vassar Clements talking for four minutes about stuff I wish would’ve been on the original. “Hey Vassar.” “Yeah, Jimmy?” “Who wrote Uncle Pen?” “Well, you wrote the bridge Jimmy.” “Yeah, Monroe never gave me credit, did he?” “No, he didn’t Jimmy.”
McEuen speaks about the album with an unbridled enthusiasm that I did not expect – especially for a guy that’s done somewhere around 10,000 interviews in his life. It was such a high point for the Dirt Band – a band that’s accustomed to highs and lows. Things started with a bang. Six months after the band had formed, they had a record on the radio.
We made that first album when Jimmy Fadden was seventeen – a junior in high school. I was the old guy at twenty. We did not know what we were doing – other than we knew fourteen songs and recorded twelve of them. Some of the guys only knew eighteen songs in their whole life at that point and could play along with a couple of folky things – “Froggy went a courtin’ and he did ride,” you know. Six months after the band got together, we had our first record on the radio. That’s insane. Where’s the five years getting it together, a couple of divorces, somebody dies? No, six months, and I was wondering what took so long.
But there were difficult times. Over the course of the Dirt Band’s 44 years, McEuen estimates that the band has broken up at least 22 times. One of the worst ones came in 1969 – just three years prior to recording “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” They reformed a few months later and gained production control of their next album, “Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy,” for which they spent four months rehearsing eight hours a day, six days a week. It paid off with one of the best albums in their catalog, which included their hit cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles,” which was recently inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame.
McEuen took almost twelve years off from the band in 1990. When asked about his “time off,” he says:
I’m not quite sure I thought of it that way. I did a tv show with them, I was in the next two years of videos, I recorded on one album. In 1994, I had been gone from the band four years. I’m working on a film score, and I had to leave the studio on the West Coast at 2:00 in the morning. I’m driving to the airport; about a half hour into it – I’m going to fall asleep. So I turn on the radio, and the second I turn on the radio, I hear “Long, Hard Road,” our first number one record. And coming out of my speakers are the guitars in the back seat and the banjo in my trunk. I was in the band that night. It’s very strange. I was away, and when I came back into it I was back. It didn’t seem like twelve years.
There were a few reasons McEuen left the band. He had six children to raise and a “potential divorce – which became very potential and happened.” Because of his family, the lack of control over scheduled dates was becoming frustrating. He didn’t feel like the democratic process in the band was holding up and felt like the other guys were listening too much to the record company in terms of direction. Also, the Dirt Band no longer wanted to record his instrumentals. In addition to the obvious financial side of that, those instrumentals were very important to him.
I wanted to pursue the solo thing. I had a lot of music to record. I made seven albums (four solo albums, three collaborations). One got a Grammy nomination. One won the Western Heritage award. One sold a lot. One didn’t; it got the best reviews (laughing). I started a radio show of my own (“Acoustic Traveler” on XM’s The Village) – lots of stuff. I couldn’t put out what I consider to be four albums of good stuff within the framework of the band. In that time, I think they did four albums. I would’ve had one recorded song.
During his time away, McEuen also produced two documentaries (“Paul Williams: I’m Going Back There Someday” and “Night in the Ozarks”). He was excited when I asked about “Night in the Ozarks.”
It’s nice that you bring that up because the Dillards were my musical, and in many ways life, mentors – in that they gave me a musical direction. Right after I left the Dirt Band, I knew what I wanted to do – make a documentary on the Dillards. So I called Rodney (Dillard) and told him what I wanted to do – four cameras on film with live sound. I wrote the treatment and raised the money. That was exciting. It was like guerilla filmmaking, and I think it’ll stand as one the best things I’ve done.
My path with the Dillards is almost magical. No one would’ve written it unless they thought they were putting down the dream. To have people influence you when you’re in high school and get an influence that carries you through your whole life. And then to induct them into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame last year – how cool is that?
Given the amount of projects McEuen took on in his time away from the Dirt Band, it should come as no shock that the process with the band was just too slow for him, and since his return in 2002, dividing his time between the Dirt Band and his other projects has proven to be good for him.
The Dirt Band is a wonderful thing to be able to do. If you and I said, “Let’s start a band and have some hits and 44 years later, let’s go to Norway and headline a major festival,” it’d be kinda hard to do. And we’re headlining one in England in September – a bluegrass festival in England. And we’ve got a healthy schedule of road dates this summer. And I don’t have to worry about it. I know all the songs. For instance, I have a date on Friday. I have a 4:00 soundcheck to be at. I won’t talk to anyone or see anyone until soundcheck. I’ll eat dinner and practice for two hours. We’ll do the show, and I won’t see them until the next week at Bonnaroo. And we’ll go out and be the best Nitty Gritty Dirt Band I think we’ve been. It’s a pretty strange combination.
But, that strange combination is working, as McEuen says their last album, 2009’s “Speed of Life” was “the most fun we’ve had in 25 years – except for ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III,’ which was a special thing.” Interestingly enough, it does feature an instrumental from McEuen, as well as a musical tribute to Jimmy Martin. It’s been getting strong reviews, a lot of them mentioning a great cover of Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country.”
That song’s a good example of how a group can stay together for 44 years. I absolutely did not want to do “Going Up the Country.” I thought, “Come on guys. Can’t we do better than that?” And they said, “No come on, you’ve gotta give it a shot.” It’s a perfect example of how anyone can get out-voted, and I was. After we finished, I was really glad. One good thing about this band is that it can rework a known song in a way that sounds totally different. We made it sound like it was Willie and the Poor Boys playin’, and I thought, “That was cool.”
Continuing to play solo shows also affords McEuen the chance to play some shows with his sons Jonathan and Nathan. When he talks about it, you can hear the pride in his voice.
It’s really cool. You can play anything. I can’t play anything they do; they can play anything I do. I can start any piece of music they’ve heard me play, and they can just dive in with a harmony part vocal or sing the lead. And they do it better than the original, so that’s a nice thing. Then their original music is really good. I can go on stage with them and do an hour and a half show that nobody can touch – some Dirt Band stuff, a funny version of “Dueling Banjos” where the dad loses, blues songs, lightning bluegrass, a funny bluegrass version of the Prince song, “Kiss.” It’s good, but the tree learns more from the acorn than I ever thought possible.
Just in case he needed more to do, McEuen is also working on a book. Over the years he’s done a large majority of the Dirt Band interviews (As stated earlier, the total is somewhere around 10,000.). As McEuen seems intent on doing with everything, he wants to give good interviews, so he’s always tried to have good stories ready.
I had heard for years, “You ought to write a book; you should write these stories down.” I had already done some writing for a couple of magazines. I started writing the stories down because I wanted to remember them for one thing, and I wanted to see if could make them funny – not just some musician going, “And then, we went to the gig.” And I wanted there to be some kind of message that would be subliminal but not harsh. I don’t know if that message is there, but I sure like writing the stories.
After McEuen made a comment that there were a lot of new stories he needed to put on his site, I asked if he wanted to tell one. “Who do you want one about?” Steve Martin.
I knew that he was going to be important on the public picture as a comedian, but he didn’t have any of his own stuff – just jokes and things. He didn’t have a viewpoint. So he went the non-viewpoint route. But when he walked out on stage and said, “I dream of a land where all men are free – and some women.” That was a new way to look at a one-liner. It wasn’t really a joke with a punch line. It was a statement that a guy was making within a personality of a dodo kind of person that had forgotten to add that part. It was really fun watching that develop.
When we did “King Tut,” he came to the theatre we were playing in L.A. with this idea between the soundcheck and the show that he described to the band. “Play this. Now have the bass go like this. Jeff, you guys go, “Tut, Tut, King Tut.” Everybody worked on it for about an hour, we went on stage and did it, and we just blew the roof off the place. So that was fun. I would say that Steve has always been productive – making something. It’s not always good according to some sales figures. But the sales figures don’t always indicate what was good or not, and the critics often don’t know that some of it is so stellar that we’re really lucky to have him around.
One of the more interesting aspects about McEuen is that, in spite of all that’s he’s accomplished, he stills seems a bit surprised of whom he’s been able to count as friends. At a point in time of disillusionment, during the filming of “Paint Your Wagon” and shortly before their break-up in 1969, The Band’s “Music From the Big Pink” had a profound impact on McEuen and bandmate Jeff Hanna – so much so they listened to it every night.
It was an escape into a direction that we could make musically if we could figure out how. People didn’t play drums like that back then. And the other music was hot. It felt like a real good direction. I’m not saying we went, “Hey let’s steal that direction,” but it was a heavy influence.
Then McEuen got his first film score on “Man Outside” in 1986 – a film starring Levon Helm (drummer of The Band). It was a film that never did much. “But Levon Helm was in it, and I knew him from that.” Last month, Helm invited McEuen to play his 70th birthday bash, along with Levon himself and other musicians like Donald Fagen and David Amram.
To be able to go up and play his birthday – if I had a choice between that and another Grammy, I would choose this Levon thing.
As impressive as the list of musicians McEuen has played with over the years, I would have thought he would be completely confident in his abilities, but in a recent blog, McEuen said that, “although I felt like the guy on the lowest rung of the music ladder, they treated me like it was my ladder while backing me.”
They made you feel hot. They did it for each other, so that was a really good thing. Besides, that’s just my normal insecurity.
It was an interesting comment, especially since, in an open letter to his kids posted on his blog he said, “I don’t know if I am really any good, but I’m the best me as a performer that I have ever been.” I had to ask about it.
Well, I know what I do. I don’t know how that’s perceived. And I understand, but this is my job. I’ve been doing this a long time. If I were a dentist, would I be the best one or the one that gets written up? I don’t know. I might just be the one that doesn’t have any lawsuits, so that’s pretty good. Nobody’s sued me for malpractice. I’m just saying I work at it. I love doing this.
It’s just encouraging to hear a guy who has been that successful still has those feelings. No time to dwell on it though. We were already into another story.
I was working on a demo of a young girl that I really love as an artist – Chelsea Williams. I’d been producing, recording, and pushing her in front of different people for the last few years. Last month, I was in L.A. working on a song for her, and I told my engineer, “This song needs bass.” He said, “I got my rig; use it.” I love to play bass. I’ve played bass on a lot of the Steve Martin stuff – whenever I can. If you listen to the bass on “Calico,” I think you’ll know what I mean, but I think the bass can be important if it does interesting things that you didn’t know were there. Anyway, I looked at my engineer and just said, “You know, this is so much fun, it’s hard to take.”
Honestly, I think that last line from McEuen says it all. After all these years, after all the successes, he is still just a guy who loves music and seems amazed he gets to do it for a living. In a rare moment, he was a little negative was when the band’s name came up.
If you say the name fast enough so it sounds like one word, I can take it. I never have liked the name, but thank God there’s bands with names like Umphrey’s McGee, Drive-By Truckers, and Donna the Buffalo. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is starting to make sense again.
That sent us into a discussion about how Donna the Buffalo was originally Dawn of the Buffalo until they stopped correcting people – which also got us talking about Iron Butterfly. I’ll leave that discussion for another time, but suffice it to say that McEuen loves to talk music – about his or anyone else’s. It’s a lot of fun to be part of the conversation.
You can hear John McEuen talk music on XM Satellite Radio, The Village, channel 15, on the first Tuesday of every month at noon and the following Friday at midnight (Both times are Eastern time).
You can catch John McEuen playing solo on June 30th at Infinity Hall in Norfolk, Connecticut. He’s also playing both solo and with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at the “Cowtown Ballroom Revival” on August 8th at the Black Oak Ampitheatre in Lampe, Missouri (It’s 20 miles west of Branson and, according to McEuen, is “the coolest venue in Missouri.”). Check www.johnmceuen.com for more dates.