John McEuen: Nitty Gritty to Hippie & Sons

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2007

String wizard John McEuen, co-founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and host of the monthly "Acoustic Traveler" show on XM Satellite Radio, admits, "I'm sort of an unusual DJ in that I only play people I know or have recorded with or performed with."

Fortunately, thanks to a ridiculously overpopulated CV, that's a substantial universe, "and that's what's really fun about it," says McEuen, who performs at the Barns at Wolf Trap on Wednesday with sons Jonathan and Nathan, "proving that the acorns, in fact, do not fall far from the tree."

The show, which McEuen jokingly refers to as "an old hippie-and-family affair," will feature the basics that have served him well for more than 40 years: superb picking, a rich sense of musical heritage, fine songs (mostly sung by his sons), dollops of good humor and storyteller specials. The last category includes a resurrected favorite, the Stephen Vincent Benet poem "The Mountain Whippoorwill (Or, How Hillbilly Jim Won the Great Fiddler's Prize)" set to McEuen's cinematic banjo accompaniment.

"I like all aspects of this business, from the making of something to telling people about it," McEuen says. "What's to not like? I'm very grateful."

Just how much will eventually be revealed in McEuen's autobiography, which, providence allowing, could come out around the same time as "Born Standing Up," an autobiography by Steve Martin. The actor-comedian has been McEuen's buddy since their days at Garden Grove High School and rose to stardom through his tours as an opening act for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Oh, to have been a customer, or a co-worker, at Disneyland in the mid-'60s when the teenage Martin and McEuen worked at Merlin's Magic Shop. Martin actually began working at Disneyland in 1956 when he was 10 years old and the park just one. Both grew up in Garden Grove, a small community about two miles from Disneyland.

McEuen says the Magic Shop was "a great training ground because you had audience turnover every 15 minutes, so you could work on jiving people: 'You want that in a sack or a bag? A bag opens on the top and a sack opens on the bottom, so you better take a bag, otherwise it will fall out!' "

You can see where McEuen developed his narrative skills and Martin his comedic spiels (alongside magic, juggling and the creation of balloon animals). After being blown away by a Flatt & Scruggs album, Martin learned banjo from McEuen, though McEuen had been playing only a few years himself. Both competed in Southern California's renowned Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest, with McEuen winning the advanced bluegrass banjo competition with a lively instrumental original titled "Dismal Swamp," which may have summarized his feelings about growing up in Orange County.

"When I started out, I just wanted to get out of O.C., which was a dream of anybody who spent time there at the time," McEuen jokes. As a teenager, his horizons had already broadened through frequent visits to the legendary Ash Grove folk club, where McEuen ingratiated himself with such local legends as the Dillards as well as the steady stream of visiting musicians. Bluegrass pioneers Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe did their first West Coast concerts there.

"I would see these people come through Los Angeles, and I knew I wanted to do that -- travel around and play and tell stories," McEuen says.

The Dillards, bluegrass trailblazers whose national profile would become much larger as the Darlings on "The Andy Griffith Show," were McEuen's first major inspiration, mentors and models, a debt paid last year when he produced and directed a documentary about them, "The Dillards: A Night in the Ozarks."

As a teenager, McEuen had a business card that read, "Have Wand, Will Travel," but an immediately apparent virtuosity on banjo, guitar, mandolin and fiddle proved a better calling card, first in a series of local bluegrass bands and, beginning in August 1966, in an enduring fellowship forged at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Long Beach. That's where McEuen, Jeff Hanna and Jimmie Fadden commandeered the coffee table "where people would sit around and wait for the new Doc Watson or Flatt & Scruggs record to come in," McEuen says. "Of course, I never had an idea I would meet those people."

Hanna and Fadden had been in the pinstripe-suit-wearing and cowboy-boot-sporting Illegitimate Jug Band with a youngster about to head east to pursue a solo career. McEuen replaced the departing Jackson Browne, the band name changed and six months after that August meeting, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band put out its first single, "Buy for Me the Rain," written by Steve Noonan, one of the "Orange County Three" songwriters hyped by Cheetah magazine (the others were Browne and Tim Buckley).

Nothing much happened with that single or an eponymous debut album that featured Browne's first two recorded songs. But in 1969, the band added singing drummer Jimmy Ibbotson and a year later had a Top 10 hit with "Mr. Bojangles," a breakthrough for the group and the song's writer, Jerry Jeff Walker.

One of the stories McEuen tells frequently comes via Walker, a native New Yorker who'd enjoyed little success up to that point. "He said he had given up and was headed to Florida when he pulled over in a rest area on 95 just south of D.C. at 5 in the morning and heard [the Dirt Band cover] on the radio," McEuen relates, adding that Walker told him, " 'Well, it might work after all, and I pointed my car to Austin and never turned back.' "

Walker would soon find success in progressive country; the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band went in the opposite direction with 1972's landmark project, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," instigated by McEuen and older brother Bill McEuen, the band's manager and producer. It was John McEuen who first invited Earl Scruggs and Watson to record with the band, and the project quickly grew.

It succeeded despite resistance from United Artists (the label was not gung-ho about what ended up as a three-disc album) and the Nashville establishment, which laughed at a bunch of shaggy West Coast rockers recruiting bluegrass and country legends it had forgotten about or dismissed, including Scruggs, Watson, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Mother Maybelle Carter and Jimmy Martin. Some artists were wary as well: Rock-hating bluegrass patriarch Monroe said no because the band's "hair was too long."

When an expanded 30th anniversary edition was released in 2002, around the time the soundtrack of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" was such a huge success, McEuen was dubbed "the father of 'O Brother.' " That's because "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" had broken that particular ground as a huge commercial and critical success, inspiring a resurgence of interest and respect for acoustic country music while bridging the generational and cultural gap between rock and country. Last year, the Library of Congress added the set to its National Recording Registry of works that are "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

As for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, it abandoned its original mission statement ("to figure out how to not have to work for a living") to follow an up-and-down path through country, country-rock (dropping the "Nitty Gritty" from its name in 1978), California rock and back to country: 1982's "Dance Little Jean" was the first of 16 Top 10 songs over seven years, including three No. 1 hits -- "Long Hard Road," "Modern Day Romance" and "Fishin' in the Dark."

McEuen must have felt as though he was playing in the dark as his instrumental features were gradually eliminated from Dirt Band albums. In 1987, he left to pursue a solo career as an acoustic instrumentalist and to write scores for film and television. The break wasn't totally unexpected: McEuen had always done solo segments within Dirt Band shows to showcase his string virtuosity and storytelling skills.

There would be additional "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" albums in 1989 and 2002, neither as acclaimed as the original. But the savvy McEuen did use the recording sessions for the last volume to bring together his oldest son, Jonathan, and Jaime Hanna, son of Jeff Hanna. As sons of identical twin sisters, Jonathan and Jamie may be closer first cousins than most.

"I married this lady, and Jeff married her twin sister six months later," McEuen says. "I always told the girls it was their job to tell themselves apart; if I mixed them up, it wasn't my fault."

The Hannas and the McEuens lived close to one another in Colorado, and though neither marriage lasted, the boys kept in touch personally and musically. For that last "Unbroken" album, the elder McEuen crafted a new family circle, having the cousins sing "The Lowlands" by Earl Scruggs's son, Gary. (McEuen calls it "the 'Walk Away Renee' of country music.")

"I thought it would be a clever way to get the two of them singing on a major label without a deal," he says. In fact, a major-label deal soon followed for the duo, which became known as Hanna-McEuen. On Wednesday, John, Jonathan and Nathan appear together as E=Mc3.

Twenty years on, McEuen reports that the solo shows "are drawing better than ever. It's very encouraging to think I'm doing what people want, from D-tuning on guitar to weird tunings on banjo, Dirt Band songs that people know to some very few of them know, and some jug band tunes to show the path we came from."

McEuen, who recently turned 61 but has sported his basic Saruman the White look for a long time (anyone for "Lord of the String Wizards"?), rejoined the Dirt Band in 2002 and remains aboard for the band's 40th anniversary tour. "There's a high respect level out there [for the Dirt Band], and I still love playing with the group," he says, "but, musically, this is the most exciting thing I've done."

John McEuen with Jonathan and Nathan McEuen

Appearing Wednesday at the Barns at Wolf Trap and Jan. 27 at Avalon Theatre in Easton

Expect: A whole lotta pickin' goin' on.

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