An Interview With Founder and Member of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, JOHN MCEUEN!
Posted On 11 Jul 2016
John McEuen (founder and member of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), will celebrate the release of his newest solo project, MADE IN BROOKLYN (September 2016).
The project brings together a talented group of Americana icons and friends (Steve Martin, John Cowan, David Bromberg, John Carter Cash and many more).
Over the course of his 50-year career, multi-instrumental “String Wizard,” John McEuen has performed more than 9,500 concerts, covering more than three million miles globally with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and as a solo performer. McEuen has recorded over 40 albums (6 solo)–four platinum and five gold–garnering countless awards including GRAMMY and Emmy nominations, CMA and ACM awards and IBMA Record of the Year honors. As a musician, McEuen has built a lasting legacy including his seminal work on the
WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN album, recognized as “the most important record to come out of Nashville” (Rolling Stone) and “the most important record in country music” (2004 ZAGAT survey).
Beyond performing, McEuen has produced more than 300 concerts throughout his career (the first in 1965 in Long Beach Calif. with Bob Dylan). In 2010, his record production of THE CROW (Steve Martin) won a GRAMMY for “Best Bluegrass Album.”
McEuen has a rich history in creating, producing and preserving original, traditional folk and acoustic music and taking it to new audiences. McEuen’s THE MUSIC OF THE WILD WEST was honored with the Western Heritage Award; he scored a GRAMMY nomination for STRING WIZARDS II and earned the Uncle Dave Macon Award for “excellence in preservation and performance of historic music.”
John is show host of the popular “Acoustic Traveller” radio show on Sirius/XM’s The Bridge (now in its 8th year). He is currently putting the final touches on a solo project (MADE IN BROOKLYN) to be released in September (Chesky Records).
Learn more about him and his music in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time! How’s 2016 treating you so far? How’s your summer been going?
The 50th year of the band, the 70th year of life…all is not just well, it’s but better than expected.
What were some of the highlights of 2015 for you and your music? What are your biggest anticipations for 2016 and the coming months?
The release of my new CD (MADE IN BROOKLYN) is the most important current aspect of what defines ‘my career’ and, as such, I am honored Chesky Records has given me a forum to showcase and “instrumentalize” all the techniques I have been developing for the past several years (production technique, arranging new and classic music, recording original songs and lost gems that I think people will love to hear, playing all my instruments with a group of great players and singers who were all willing to go along with my vision of what the album could be). MADE IN BROOKLYN has been a lifetime in the making; it’s representative of my past and present and Chesky Records’ recording processes brings it to life for a grand future.
I’m curious to know what you feel is your responsibility as an artist?
I do feel a responsibility to perform and play as best I can. My goal is to take people to a different space where they feel relieved of their daily stresses–if only for a while. My hope is to bring them music that they can return time and time again for the very same reasons.
Have you always wanted to be a performer?
In my attempt to break away from being a dork and a nerd in my early teens, I began doing magic. Fooling others helped lessen the burden of the kids making fun of me. Instead, I became fun to watch. I knew then that I wanted to perform; now I try to make magic with the instruments that I play.
Can you recall your earliest musical memory?
When I was seven, I heard Hank Williams singing “Jambalaya” on a jukebox in my Aunt’s little 12- stool restaurant in the mountains. I must have played that tune a hundred times! Though I loved that music, it wasn’t until I saw Doug Dillard (of The Dillards) that I lit up and decided I wanted to be a musical performer.
Can you talk about how the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band first came together? How did you all meet each other and what made you decide to start this group?
Hanging around a guitar store in Long Beach, Calif., a bunch of musicians, just beginning, learned to play a bunch of old songs together… and then, we went out and played them live. The club scene in So Cal was the Greenwich Village of the left coast and we had all kinds of influences—we sought them out and plunked away to make a sound of our own. And so it began!
What made the NGDB successful and makes it “work” today?
It may be that all the band members have learned when it is a good time to talk and when it is a good time to NOT talk. Being well edited, seasoned, persistent, and performing the best shows that we can under various conditions is a mutual and respected philosophy.
MADE IN BROOKLYN is one of many of your solo projects. How is MADE IN BROOKLYN different then anything else you’ve released and why was it important for you to record it at this juncture?
The new project is the culmination of many aspects of what I have learned throughout the years just playing. I brought together people with whom I have wanted to record for many years… and they went along with all of it! It’s one of my proudest moments in music!
What inspired the new record?
Being 70, I can do anything I want (well with the boundaries of the law and my wife’s rules). Musically, I could put it all on the line; I had a lot of music and ideas I wanted to put out there.
I will be interested to see what people like.
What was it like recording it and putting it together?
All these talented individuals are well known in their genre and have their own music careers; juggling schedules was the hardest part of putting this project together. Once set, everyone jumped in to it with an excitement I have not seen in the studio in quite some time. We were like kids at an amusement park!
Do you think it gets easier or harder to create a record now?
It’s easier to make recordings that sound great and harder to get the music out to the people to hear it. While the Internet has been an avenue for all folks to hear new music, the pond is chock full with lots of fish. So it’s important that we as musicians have the right bait and get the word out.
Can you talk about working with the legendary Steve Martin on the record? What was that experience like and what did Steve lend to the project (from your perspective)?
Since our late teenage years, when we worked in Disneyland Magic Shop together, I knew Steve was a perfectionist. And since he was a cheerleader (who wore a pink tutu), I knew he might become legendary. When we started playing banjo, Steve gave it that same kind of focus. Producing his Grammy winning album (THE CROW), he would rehearse songs until his fingers were numb. It was the same with the Warren Zevon track that he appears on. I had him play on the album for 2 hours until he was happy with his part. That same week, he was scheduled for two out-of-town concerts with Martin Short, he received an honor from Princeton, and he had a new play open on Broadway. His focus, through the duration, was to get the banjo part right. …and he did.
We understand you have a longtime friendship with Steve (since childhood, correct?), any funny short story to tell?
Steve and I met in our senior year of high school; we played chess during lunch every day. By year’s end the score was 85 to 87, but neither of us knows who was ahead. THAT was the game that counted.
We understand that you play two extraordinary instruments as part of your stage performances (the banjo and guitar); can you tell us the “stories” behind these instruments? (where they came from, the sound and what these instruments mean to you)
My mandolin was made by Bob Givens. I asked him to pick out the best one from the batch of 14 that he had just finished. I’ve played it since 1976.