10 Albums That Changed My Life: John McEuen

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen performs onstage at the Americana Honors & Awards 2016 at Ryman Auditorium on September 21, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Americana Music)

Over the course of his prolific 50-plus year career, John McEuen has earned a stellar reputation by sharing his varied and versatile skills on a multitude of stringed instruments. A former member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, he demonstrated a prolific prowess that pushed the band’s parameters and enabled him to establish a solo career.

McEuen was responsible for creating the first firm bond between traditional Americana music and the newly emerging country-rock crossover crowd when he gathered the living legends of America’s hills, hollows and heartland and teamed them with the members of the Dirt Band. Those sessions birthed the landmark 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a set of songs that set a standard in its fusion of the old and the new. His latest solo effort, Made In Brooklyn, reaffirmed that dedication to past precepts, with a selection of vintage songs delivered with his own freewheeling finesse.

McEuen’s fascinating new book, The Life I’ve Picked, details his storied past and the innovative efforts he’s put forth with notable friends and on his own. Who better then to offer a list of indelible albums that leave a lingering influence? — Lee Zimmerman


Back Porch Bluegrass, The Dillards

When I first saw The Dillards in 1963 I knew my life was about to change. Doug Dillard took the stage and made me catatonic, and provided the perfect tonic for my future: be a musician and travel the world. Their first album — Back Porch Bluegrass — bought the next week, was a perfect set of originals and traditionals executed masterfully, and influenced thousands. I am one of them.

Last Night Blues, Lightnin’ Hopkins

Houston’s Lightnin’ Hopkins became my favorite bluesman. Fortunate to see him in the mid-‘60’s, he was captivating — a window into America that showed things not found in Garden Grove, where I lived through my college years. As one of Rolling Stone’s top 100 guitarists, it is safe to assume he influenced more on that list than most of the others.

The Original Sound, Flatt & Scruggs

This 1949 recording set the benchmark for what bluegrass should — or could — be. Recorded in a three hour Florida session as a hurricane was headed their way, it took me to a place I’d never been, but wanted to be. I knew I would play with them someday, but had no idea how. Recorded with one mic, their original sound became the pathway to bluegrass for many.

Songs of the Famous Carter Family, Flatt & Scruggs

Mid-‘60’s I fell in love with the Carter Family music and set to playing these songs as much like Earl (Scruggs) as I could. Earl played a lot of guitar. Maybelle Carter was a big influence on his overall music. Carter-style guitar became the second love of mine. I’ve often used it over the years. Carter melodies captured me first, then words of genuine Appalachian heritage.

Livin’ On the Mountain, Bill Keith and Jim Rooney

Second generation of pickers in a Boston library did some original songs and a LOT of original picking on one mic. In Bill Keith’s hands the banjo went to new frontiers and he conquered them. Their songs spoke of moonshiners, oceans of diamonds, and log cabins in the lane … English balladry with a different inflection than the other bluegrass I was into at the time.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles

It was great to hear just how much one can do recording! Sounds, lyrics that create whole stories, rock with orchestra…all of it. This album gave me great relief and time away from the other music I was into, but then I kept hearing licks that sounded familiar! I found that When I’m Sixty-Four” was a ragtime piano song from around 1915. It showed me that influences come from many directions.

Music From Big Pink, The Band

During the second month of filming on Paramount Pictures’ Paint Your Wagon in 1968, Big Pink came out. The remote Oregon forest where filming was taking place was 90 minutes from where we stayed during that four months, and every long set day was spent anticipating hearing the album again that night. When Levon (Helm) asked me to sit in on his 70th birthday show it was a high point.

The Music Man, The Original Cast 

In my teenage years working in Disneyland’s Magic Shop I somehow came across this album after seeing the film. Masterful writing and execution that took me away, I learned early from Robert Preston’s “Trouble” and found it a great way to warm up vocally in later years. It also had a song that would become one of The Beatles’ early hits “’Till There Was You,” sung by Paul.

Another Day with Reno & Smiley, Don Reno & Red Smiley

A bit more ‘raw’ than Flat & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley had killer harmonies and new style picking, thanks mainly to Don Reno’s multi-layered, innovative approaches to banjo: single string, many strings at once, unusual phrases that hearkened back to early rock ‘n’ roll, bluegrass rolls and (Merle) Travis style banjo breaks.

Made in Brooklyn, John McEuen and Special Guests

Not to be self serving here, I list this as one of my favorites because of what all the great performers did here in two magic days of recording in an old Brooklyn Church. Forteen cuts by acoustic and vocal masters was an idea formulating for years, and then I ran in to Norman Chesky. His label records audio the best, and their one mic process’ quality was what I’d been looking for.    

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