John McEuen, the long-time banjoist for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (NGDB), has also enjoyed a distinguished career as a solo artist, composer, and producer. He recently published an autobiography, The Life I’ve Picked (Chicago Review Press), focusing on his 50-year career in the music business. Full of great road stories, encounters with music legends, and brushes with history, The Life I’ve Picked is a great read for music lovers, especially for fans of Americana.
I recently spoke with John McEuen, and he opened up about everything from the book to his influences and heroes to his nerd passions. Initially, John told me, “I didn’t think I had a book.” Comedian Steve Martin, a friend of John’s since high school who had been “reading my stories for years” insisted “‘there’s a book here but you have to find it.’” John told me it was important to him to present full, coherent chapters on important episodes in his career: the album Will the Circle be Unbroken (Capitol Nashville), and the NGDB’s historic trip to Russia.
John and I began our conversation with considering his musical tastes as a kid. “I didn’t listen to much of anything growing up,” he told me. “I liked ’50s music,” he said, and “what was on the radio, but I wasn’t a fanatic about it.” That changed when John heard bluegrass music: “It was my doorway out of Orange County…to a different world, a world that sang about floods and fires and lying in my sweet baby’s arms and rough roads, and had great harmonies. It just seemed to be the heart of America.”
The crucial event, chronicled in McEuen’s book, was seeing the bluegrass band The Dillards play live. Douglas Dillard had an especially powerful effect on the teenager. McEuen had been playing guitar for six months, learning songs like “Freight Train.” But after seeing Dillard, he switched to the banjo, and would spend “eight, 10 hours a day” in practice rooms at college.
While some artists make overblown claims of being “multi-instrumentalists,” McEuen really is one. Best known for his banjo work, he’s forayed into numerous other instruments. I asked John about the range of instruments he’s played. The answer is a lot: guitar, mandolin, fiddle, piano, electric bass, accordion, hammer dulcimer (“a good one to use for nice acoustic sounds”), and one song with the koto, a Japanese instrument, and this list may not be complete. John expressed his philosophy on instrumentation: “Usually you [can] get a sound out of an instrument that fits a lyric, and if I can do that, it didn’t matter if I couldn’t play anything but that one song.”
McEuen’s long career has included several brushes with history, musical and otherwise. I asked, “Of the people you’ve worked with, who do you feel impacted you most profoundly?” He answered, “Leon Russell, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Rodney Dillard.” “One thing they all have in common,” John told me, “is they all worked very hard for what they believed in in their music.” John added Steve Martin, saying, “Although we have known each other since high school and worked together, he’s always been an inspiration.”
There are still plenty of folks with whom McEuen hasn’t played. I asked John with whom he wishes he could or could have worked. “John Fogerty and Paul McCartney,” he answered. He said, “I’ve always been a huge fan of Fogerty, and I’ve met them both. Fogerty is a fan, he says.” John also mentioned John Denver, saying, “We never connected, although we were friends.”
In 1968, the NGDB played the Ambassador Ballroom in Los Angeles the night after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated there on June 6. I asked John about feelings that night. “Everybody was kind of numb,” he said. “We had a job to do. We wanted to get in and get out.” The band had a gig the following night, and they couldn’t linger on it. Today, John says, they would cancel, but “it was a different time. There was a high school prom that had to be done…It was just a different mindset.” Particularly eerie, John told me, he had to pass the yellow crime scene tape to get to the stage.
Another brush with history didn’t make it into the book. The Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the most significant in American commercial nuclear power history, took place on March 28, 1979, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. John told me, “We were eight miles away, in a gymnasium at a college and the room started filling up with firemen and policemen.” He asked someone, “What’s going on?” and was told, ““There’s been a problem at the nuclear plant.”
John tried to make a phone call, but discovered that “all the pay phones within 25 miles had been shut off. They didn’t want people calling out. They had no idea what was going to happen.” As the band “drove out that night…we were upwind from the plant. We could see it. It was really weird.” “Downwind,” he says, “a lot of people got sick and hurt,” and he feels that, even nearly 40 years later, it still hasn’t been openly discussed.
In 1988, McEuen got involved with presidential politics, supporting Democratic candidate Gary Hart. I asked John how he got involved. “Hart was from Colorado,” he explained, “and our manager, Chuck Morris, was based in Colorado.” (After living in Colorado for many years, John had moved to Utah to be close to his children following his divorce from his first wife.) Chuck called John and said, “Gary Hart needs some help in Ohio and Tennessee.” John asked, “Why are you calling me?” Chuck responded, “What do you think you can get done for him in Nashville?”
McEuen says, “I got some radio interviews set up, got him [Hart] on the Nashville Now TV show, got Roy Acuff to introduce him at the Opry, and I went out and played the rally at Chattanooga.” John concluded, “He was an idiot,” because “he was going to be president,” before getting caught with actress/model Donna Rice on an overnight trip on the yacht Monkey Business— after he had challenged reporters to follow him around and see that the rumors were false. “How stupid is that?” John said, laughing.
Since we were discussing politics, I asked John if he thought the traditionally conservative country music world was changing. In riposte, he asked me to define conservative, and I specified that I meant politically. He answered:
I don’t think I can speak to that, other than to some of the people I know, and most of the ones I know might be the ones I prefer to know. I don’t go along with the ones that are so outspoken that they write songs and put them on the radio: “We’re gonna put a boot up your ass.’” That country singer wrote that song after the 9/11 thing. It helped a bunch of kids get excited about enlisting. I come from a different era. Inciting people to go kill is not the thing I was interested in.
Having expressed his opinions about politics and country music, John then shared his views of the country music business:
Do I think it’s as conservative as it was, or more so? I think country music nowadays is more intent on finding the path to making the most money. It’s become like pop music, top 40 music was in the late ’60s and ’70s, finding the perfect lyric to get to the right people at the right time, to the general audience.
From there, McEuen segued into discussing how he sees himself and the role of the touring musician. “I like to think of myself as a more of an entertainer that plays music,” he told me, “a troubadour that brings songs out on the road, and I do something that can’t be downloaded.” I told John that I find of the performers have been around a while have a talent for stagecraft, which I enjoy. “I like the stagecraft aspect,” he says. “My favorite thing is performing, when I know that the people in the room don’t really know where they are for a little while.”
On the subject of the current music scene, I asked McEuen about the best bluegrass bands. “Del McCoury is always great,” he told me. I mentioned that I’d reviewed the new album by the Travelin’ McCourys (Del’s sons and their band), which was excellent. “They’re great,” John replied. “I’ve known them a long time.” He went to say, “Mountain Smoke is incredible. The Steep Canyon Rangers are really good.” He also added, “Jerry Douglas’s Earls of Leicester is really an excellent group.”
After 50 years on the road, McEuen has seen and done it all. I asked him about some of his toughest shows. “There’s different levels of tough,” he responded, telling me about various situations. One, in Arkansas, involved “going on in the middle of a forest” in the rain “with mud everywhere, but the audience was always willing.” “Playing when it’s so cold you have to wear gloves and cut holes for your fingers,” he said, “that’s a little tough.” Some shows, John said, “were really hard to get to,” like the one in Canada where the band drove “for 20 hours to play for 45 minutes.” It was tough, but “worth it. It was a good show.”
In his book, McEuen expresses a low opinion of Doors frontman Jim Morrison, describing him as moody and difficult. During our conversation, he said, “Opening for The Doors was really tough.” “It was easy to get there,” John said, “but it wasn’t the easiest show to get through.”
I also asked John about his favorite venues. He first said “any place that has great sound and light,” but then named two specific venues. The first, St. Louis’s Sheldon Concert Hall, built in 1904, is known for its perfect acoustics. The second, the Barns at Wolf Trap, is located inside of a national park in the DC Metro Area. With a chuckle, John told me, “I like playing Wolf Trap, but I really like playing the Barns. I’ve opened for Willie Nelson at Wolf Trap, which was fine, but I did my own show headlining at the Barns and that was more fun.”
I told John I lived just minutes from Wolf Trap and he brought up the film score he did for the park at the Manassas Battlefield Park (alternately called Bull Run, site of two Civil War battles). “The manager of the park tells me that people leave that film with tears in their eyes,” John told me. “He says that last song just kills everybody.”
In the ’60s, McEuen had his own brush with war, during the Vietnam draft. I asked him how he avoided it. “I had a deferment,” he told me. “I was in school, and then I had migraine headaches.” I asked if he still gets them, and he said he doesn’t. He laughed, saying, “It was a tough time. I was worried about getting drafted and I got my school deferment…And then, when the numbers came out, I had a very high number.”
McEuen and I touched on the sensitive subject of his why he left the NGDB in 1986. “Many things led to it,” he told me. “One was being excluded from a recording.” Additionally, “The song choices started falling in favor of what the record company wanted and not what was coming from the group.” Finally, John said, “I was getting divorced, and I didn’t want to deal with running the Dirt Band anymore.” John said this required “an average of 30-40 hours a week outside of what the other guys were doing” and “I never made a dollar from it. They didn’t think that would be right.”
McEuen’s years away from the NGDB were highly productive. John told me, “I did 9 film scores, a 10-hour miniseries, produced, maybe, 27 concerts, wrote a movie, did it for Nashville Network, made 2 DVDs, one that won awards, one film score got an Emmy nomination.” “I couldn’t make any of that,” he said, “if I’d been in the Band.” (McEuen rejoined the NGDB from 2001-2017.)
While McEuen expresses frustrations with NGDB, he does consider a number of their albums among his career highlights, in particular, Uncle Charlie and Will the Circle Be Unbroken? John considers Circle, a collaboration with many of the pioneers of country music, a “special project,” and said “that’s the one at the top.” He thinks of Uncle Charlie, which “Mr. Bojangles” and other hits, as “landmark for the group.”
Of his solo work, McEuen is proudest of his most recent album, Made In Brooklyn (By Chesky Records), which was made in a single “take around one microphone with a bunch of musical friends that I had wanted to record with for over 30 years.” Made In Brooklyn won best Americana album at the 2018 Independent Music Awards, and was named Recording of the Month in December 2016 by Stereophile magazine. “Even if you don’t like the music,” John said, “it sounds great!”
Before we finished our conversation, I have one item of special interest I want to ask John about. In the book, John makes a passing mention of reading a Ray Bradbury novel. I asked him if he’s much of a science-fiction buff. “I read a lot of science-fiction when I was a teenager and in my 20s.” I start to say, “Now it kind of makes sense, how in high school you were kind of a—” He finishes the thought, “Nerd.” I am a little flabbergasted and spit out “Yeah, yeah.” He says, “Outcast.” I regain my composure and tell him, “that was me in high school as well, with the science-fiction.”
I asked John if he remembers his favorite authors, and he named Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. “What I liked about Bradbury,” John said, “is that he had these stories that had a science-fiction basis but were stories about life…he talked about the human condition a lot through his stories, just they were in the future.” He also mentioned his love for Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone. I suggested that he probably missed the original run of Star Trek because he was on tour, to which he replied, laughing, “No, I saw it. Every chance I could.” John told me that his sons picked up his affinity for science-fiction, and they’ve been able to share it.