Multi-instrumentalist John McEuen has been playing music professionally for more than 45 years. A key member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for much of that time, he was the driving force behind their classic 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which had the band collaborating with bluegrass and country-western legends such as Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and Merle Travis.
McEuen has also recorded or performed with a staggering array of other artists over the years, and his production credits include the Grammy-winning Steve Martin album The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo.
McEuen and his sons, Jonathan and Nathan, recently released the wonderful album For All the Good, billed as The McEuen Sessions, which has been praised on Amazon.com and elsewhere as among the best of the elder McEuen’s career.
The following is an excerpt from a phone interview with John McEuen. Click here for the full interview.
Jeff Moehlis: What can the audience look forward to at your upcoming show in Santa Barbara?
John McEuen: Seeing something that is a very special evening, because the three of us don’t get the opportunity to play together that often. We’ve had 20 years of experience playing together, either as a trio, or me with Nathan, or me with Jonathan. The music these guys do is world class. And I get to hear it for free [laughs]. It’s an unusual combination of wonderful voices, not mine but theirs [laughs], and instrumental talents. I bring my banjo, guitar, fiddle and mandolin, and they bring what they do.
It’s not like a folk music show. I don’t want to say that. This is a performance-oriented show by a couple of young men that grew up in the music business and performing business, and they know how to play to an audience. So it’s really fun. I look forward to it. It’s really a good thing. These guys have their own reputations, especially in the area that you’re in, and I get to come in and do a show that’ll be unique to the Lobero. I’ve always wanted to play the Lobero. Never have, so this is a great opportunity for me, too.
If people like bluegrass, hot guitar, great vocals and the Dirt Band, then they’re going to be very happy they went.
JMo: What is unique to you about playing with your sons, as compared with other musicians you’ve played with?
JMc: One thing that’s unique is to see the acorns doing, in my opinion, much more than the tree. And earning their own positions. This is not a couple of my kids playing with me. This is a couple of players that when the times are right and we can have a show together, it’s one of the best nights of music of the year for me.
JMo: The album Will the Circle Be Unbroken is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. I know you’ve talked about this, probably, for the last 40 years. But could you describe what the recording sessions were like for that album?
JMc: To quote Roy Acuff, it was a bunch of longhairs from California that didn’t know if they were old men or young boys or what. Because they were all covered with hair.
A bunch of iconic musicians of country music, the people that created a lot of the form, got together with some people who they didn’t know, really. And the times of political unrest, much more than know ... I mean, Vietnam ... let’s just say, there was a lot going on. In the era of the Circle album, we had Kent State, we had marches where people were being killed, we had the body count on TV every night, things of that nature. But the establishment country music iconic people came together, and in the studio there were no politics. It was only music. It was a wonderful event, a wonderful joining.
JMo: When I was a kid I remember hearing the song “King Tut” by Steve Martin. And I’m guessing that’s probably the first time I heard you play. How did that song come together?
JMc: One night, Steve came to hang out at a Dirt Band show at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in L.A. We were playing a show there. It was a sold-out house, around ‘78, whatever year “King Tut” was recorded. He came in the dressing room and said, “I’ve got this idea for a song. Have the bass go dum-dum-dum-da-dum-da-dum. Then you guys go ‘King Tut. King Tut. And the chords are kind of like a ‘50s song. The feel, etc.”
So we spent about a half an hour, and we worked it up. We played it that night and the place went crazy. It was the first performance of it. And a week later we were in Aspen, and my brother produced the record. We did it in one day, recorded and mixed and finished it. And that was it.
The record company didn’t want to put it out, which was very common. Record companies don’t make records, they distribute them, and sometimes they don’t think they can distribute something because it’s not like other things they already have. My brother sent out 20 acetates — in the day, those were plastic records that would only play about 25 times. He sent 20 major stations acetates, and within a week it had reached the Top 30. The next week it reached the Top 20. It then became one of the most requested songs on the radio, and forced Warner Brothers to release a single. It did a million and a half units.
JMo: Where are you speaking to me from?
JMc: My room in Chico, Calif. At the end of a 95-city Dirt Band tour.
JMo: And going strong, it sounds like.
JMc: It’s never been better, I don’t think. The last 10 shows sold out, in all different size rooms. In Canada, the front five rows of the audience are women that are 25 years old.
JMo: You must be doing something right, then.
JMc: It’s the kind of audience where you can say, “Hey honey, if you were 10 years older and I was 10 years younger, I’d be old enough to be your father” [both laugh]. Because I have a 23-year-old granddaughter.
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.