By Lee Zimmerman
By his own admission, John McEuen is not a household name. Most people, he says, mistake him for Roger McGuinn, the erstwhile leader of The Byrds and an early forebear of country rock. The confusion is easily understood, given McEuen’s roots-rock resumé, which placed him on a path parallel to McGuinn’s.
Sadly though, McEuen and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band rarely receive the respect accorded to The Byrds — or for that matter, Poco, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, John Prine and other iconic acts of the ’60s and ’70s who blended rock ’n’ roll with heartland sensibilities.
Yet the Dirt Band, as much as any of these other outfits, played a prime role in the Americana revolution. Hits like “Mr. Bojangles,” “Fishing in the Dark,” “House at Pooh Corner” and “Make a Little Magic” helped the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band land on the pop charts. But it was the band’s seminal 1972 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” that assured the Dirt Band a place in the country rock firmament. The album featured a Who’s Who of traditional country artists — Doc and Merle Watson, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Mother Maybelle Carter among them — paired with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for a series of sessions that retraced songs from America’s folk and country music songbook.
The summit between these venerable stars and their young admirers went remarkably well.
“Roy Acuff was the only one who mentioned anything to the contrary,” McEuen remembers. “He said, ‘I don’t know if they’re old men or young boys or what. They’re all covered with hair!’ Merle Watson, Doc’s son, said, ‘This will be perfect for daddy, because his style of folk music is kind of dying out, and he needs to get in front of more people.’ Earl Scruggs was already out playing with his sons, and because of our ‘Uncle Charlie’ album, both of those men were already familiar with our music. It’s similar to when my kids introduced me to the band Phish. I didn’t want to listen, but when I did, I said, ‘Oh. These guys are good!’ Then I ended up sitting in with them. I’m on the DVD they did in Las Vegas. They’re such incredible musicians.”
McEuen recalls rehearsals took a mere five days; recording the album took only six more.
“Everybody came in and got down to business. These people recorded for a living,” he says. “The pressure was taken off of us, because we found out that they were as big a fans of each other as we were of them. I remember Maybelle saying, ‘Roy, I always wanted to make a recording with you.’ Doc was saying, ‘I always wanted to meet you, Merle.’ All that kind of stuff. We had opened the door to their house, it seemed. They had worked together, but it was mainly at the Opry. They were all passing in the hallways.”
Maybelle Carter agreed to the project simply because Earl Scruggs asked her to take part. But she reaped a reward of her own later on in the project.
“When I gave her her gold record for the ‘Circle’ album, it turned out it was the first one she’d ever gotten,” McEuen says. “I told her, ‘This means 500,000 people bought this album, Maybelle.’ And she said, ‘I didn’t think that many people liked those songs.’ I thought she was kind of kidding, but she was just like your neighbor who just happened to play the guitar. She started out that way and stayed there.”
Considering what they were able to pull off, it’s surprising that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band never really got its due as pioneers in the crossover to country, and by extension, a forebear of today’s Americana movement.
“The Byrds and the Burrito Brothers got into that whole country rock thing for a time, but kind of gave it up after a few years,” McEuen recalls. “We were doing it either before they were, or at the same time, and we actually stuck with it.”
Indeed, it was McEuen who came up with the idea to do the “Circle” album, which still ranks as the primary document tying together all the strains of true American music.
The Dirt Band went on to score 21 hits on the country charts and a star on the Country Music Walk of Fame in Nashville — “Next to Hank Williams Sr. What better place that be?” McEuen says. But it was the group’s groundbreaking tour of Russia — which was documented in a film McEuen’s has been assembling, tentatively titled “Rocking the Kremlin” — that put the band in the history books. In 1977, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band became the first American band to appear in the Soviet Union, performing 28 sold-out shows to enthusiastic crowds.
“That was a pretty big deal,” McEuen says. “I’ve been told over the years that it helped bring down the Iron Curtain. It wasn’t just about the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; it was because it was American music. It was the effect the music had on the people.”
The band continues to tour consistently these days, with three original members — McEuen on fiddle, banjo, guitar and mandolin; Jimmie Fadden on drums, harmonica and vocals; and Jeff Hanna on guitar and vocals — along with the band’s so-called new guy, keyboardist, bassist and singer Bob Carpenter, who joined the fold in 1977.
After playing with the Dirt Band since its founding in 1966, McEuen took a lengthy hiatus in the 1990s to focus on his own projects. The acclaimed multi-instrumentalist released several solo albums, scored a number of films, compiled the songs that accompanied the epic award-winning television mini-series “The Wild West,” performed as a sideman with dozens of other distinguished artists and produced “The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo,” the Grammy-winning album by funnyman and top-shelf picker Steve Martin, who McEuen has known since his senior year of high school.
McEuen rejoined The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band 10 years ago and now divides his time among touring on his own, touring with the Dirt Band, participating in a project called The McEuen Sessions with his sons Randall and Jonathan, hosting his own show (aptly titled Acoustic Traveler) on Sirius radio, producing concerts and serving as CEO of SyndicatedNews.net, which McEuen describes as “a combination of The Whole Earth Catalogue, Rolling Stone and The Huffington Post.”
McEuen jokes that there is an upside to his varied interests. “I said to my sons, ‘Here’s the good news: I’m not known as a singer, so you’re not going to be compared to me that way.’”
Likewise, at an age where many are settling into retirement — he turned 68 in December — McEuen is picking up his pace.
“I don’t think I’m doing enough,” he says. “I can knock out a one-hour radio show in three hours, maybe two-and-a-half. You can plan them out on airplanes. When I recorded Steve’s album, I did some of the editing on a plane with ProTools Lite.”
Still, when he’s complemented on his technical proficiency, McEuen is quick to downplay it.
“I haven’t updated my phone in a year-and-a-half,” he chuckles. “I just don’t want to read the instructions and mess it up and lose my phone book, like I did once. I finally had to update my Microsoft Word because I had two people in the same week say, ‘I can’t open that document.’ It was outdated, from, like, 1993. Oh, crap!”
Yet, for all those varied activities, McEuen’s first love remains his strongest.
“I toured solo even before the Dirt Band started, when I was 19 or 20. I was going to school and trying to figure out how not to work. So I got a job called ‘playing,’ as in, ‘Where am I playing tonight?’ I always tell people, ‘You’re paying me to get here. I play for free.’”
McEuen acknowledges that he and guitarist and accompanist Matt Carsonis both could easily play for audiences for four hours at a sitting.
“But we won’t,” he laughs. “One of the interesting things about this situation – I think they call it a job — is that it’s more fun than ever. For the last 10 years, the people that show up feel like they need to be there. They want to see you. They needed to get out of the house. They’ve listened to us 20, 30, 40 years ago, some of them. They appreciate the fact that you’re still around and not necessarily trying to prove anything, but just trying to do what people came to see. And it’s a real privilege to have any type of audience. In the past year I’ve played shows with the Dirt Band in front of 8,000 people and maybe only 60 on my own. Either way, it’s always going to be fun.”
McEuen is frequently on the road. For tour dates, cities and venues, visit http://www.johnmceuen.com. GM