John McEuen — Interview by Brian DeSpain
McEuen discusses Western Edge, his new book, band legacy and upcoming stage show in the Ozarks.
A spotlight shines on the origins and development of the country-rock music movement at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s new exhibit Western Edge: The Roots and Reverberations of Los Angeles Country-Rock in Nashville.
The nearly three-year exhibition debuted to the public on September 30 and highlights how the Los Angeles music scene transformed country music locally and nationally.
One of the bands which is a major player in this music history is the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
(NGDB). During one of the panel discussions, and within the Western Edge
exhibit, it was given credit for bluegrass music providing a foundation for the origins of country-rock music.
NGDB is certainly the embodiment of bluegrass and folk music traditions intersecting with country music along with their own early jug band flourish.
The musical beginnings of John McEuen, one of the founders of NGDB, were influenced by bluegrass.
McEuen felt the inspiration to take up the banjo at age 17 after seeing the Dillards perform at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, California. That musicality would progress to being on the Los Angeles music scene and forming NGDB. The band recorded their fifth album Uncle Charlie, and landed musical noteriety with a chart hit from their cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr Bojangles.” The band followed up with two more hits “House at Pooh Corner” written by Kenny Loggins and Michael Nesmith’s “Some of Shelly’s Blues.”
NBDB’s seventh album Will The Circle Be Unbroken provides the indelible legacy to country music.
Now as we’ve entered the fiftieth anniversary of the album release, McEuen passes on the legacy in written form, penning the stories behind the songs and the photos. This musical time capsule includes many previously unpublished photos from the album sessions in Will The Circle Be Unbroken: The Making of a Landmark Album. Additional photos of the band appear from early in their trajectory.
Americana Highways encountered John McEuen at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in between Western Edge events on October 1. A phone interview was proposed for after Western Edge weekend.
In the wide-ranging interview we examine bluegrass influence in the formation of country-rock in more depth than time would allow during the Western Edge panel discussion From Bluegrass to Country-Rock. The panel included Rodney Dillard, Chris Hillman, John McEuen and Herb Pedersen.
Then highlights about the Will The Circle Be Unbroken 2022 book and 1972 album, and NGDB band history are discussed. Then we talk about a first-time show collaboration between John McEuen and Rodney Dillard in the Ozarks on Friday.
McEuen and Dillard were two of the storied line up who performed at the Western Edge: Los Angeles Country-Rock In Concert at the CMA Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame on September 30.
The significance of this October 14 show at The Riff in Springfield, Missouri is two talents from influentially historic bands team up for the first time. The Dillards did more to expose bluegrass to a large audience via the Andy Griffith Show in six episode appearances between 1963 and 1966 (as The Darlings band on the show). NGDB brought bluegrass, folk and hill country music through a collaboration as a generational transfer in their seminal seventh album.
American Highways: When I took the preview tour of the Western Edge exhibit on September 29, Chris Isaak was next to me. One of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum photos from that night is Isaak looking at your banjo in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band display. Tell us how this banjo made its way into the exhibit.
John McEuen : This was the banjo used in Will The Circle Be Unbroken sessions. It’s a Gibson Mastertone RB-100. The banjo I was going to use was stolen two weeks earlier. I had to pick this one up in Gainesville, FL on the way to the sessions in Nashville. The banjo was in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I got them to ship it to the Country Music Hall of Fame for the Western Edge exhibit.
I also gave the Museum some photographs and I’m really pleased how they used them. The exhibit is wonderful.
Herb Pedersen is more important than he was given notice for in the exhibit. He worked with so many people. I’m really glad the Dillards were given their due. They’re the main reason I’m talking to you. I started playing banjo because of The Dillards and got into the music business.
The exhibit really covers the Los Angeles music community at this pivotal time and gives it the credit it deserves.
AH: In our earlier discussion you mentioned wanting to go deeper about bluegrass music providing early influences in country-rock. Would you elaborate on how bluegrass got into country-rock?
JM: When did 5-string banjo become important? Starting with “Flowers on the Wall” by The Statler Brothers in 1966. By the time “Dueling Banjos” came around, everybody was ready to hear the banjo played by Bernie Leadon on “Take it Easy” (1972) by the Eagles. And Rodney Dillard took banjo in and mandolin; and Byron Berline took the fiddle vibe on “Country Honk” from Let It Bleed (Rolling Stones).
It was exciting to me to put out “Some of Shelly’s Blues” on Uncle Charlie which had frailing banjo on it. It started the record off and for it to chart was a big achievement. Before that “Buy For Me the Rain” on NGDB’s first album had a 5-string banjo on it and I put a mute on the strings which made it sound like a harpsichord, kind of disguising the banjo. Then “Gentle On My Mind” was recorded by Glen Campbell with banjo on it.
Fiddle starts coming in and pedal steel starts creeping on some other people’s cuts. Every now and then you start getting hints of country music in some popular songs in 1968 and 1969.
When the Dirt Band comes along with Uncle Charlie, we had a few songs which were mandolin, banjo, guitar and fiddle with half-time drumming. It took changing the rhythm to make it not country music and the instruments made the songs stand out to where people started liking them.
On the other hand, Bonnie and Clyde’s “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was a smash. It was played on KHJ, the number one rock station in Los Angeles. A 1948 recording was a hit. Every time there’s a hit like that, people will say “Bluegrass is going to be big this year.” I heard that for a good six or seven years. But bluegrass did get bigger. It slowly grew.
AH: You mentioned on the Western Edge panel when the NGDB had broke up, you and Jeff Hanna watched Poco play at the Golden Bear and you drew inspiration from that show to regroup the band. What were the events leading to the breakup and the process of NGDB regrouping?
JM: We were in Oregon for a movie Paint Your Wagon. I loved every minute of it. We played the roles of musical miners in the movie. There were a couple of people [in the band]… it just didn’t [work out anymore]. We were young, ranging between 19 through 22 years old or so. It was like, “Yeah, this is enough. We did four albums, been in a movie and been on the road. Yeah, okay, it was a good run.” Then Jeff Hanna closed the bank account and shut down the business. Then six months later is when Jeff and I were watching Poco. And then we regrouped. Jeff got Jimmie Fadden out of the clothing store he was working at, which was next door to the Troubadour. I guess Jimmie wanted to stay close to the music business. <laughs>
Les Thompson was working for his father. I called him. Then Jeff and I met with Jimmy Ibbotson in Laurel Canyon. We were told, “There’s this new guy in town. He plays drums and sings and plays guitar.” So we checked him out. As soon as we met Jimmie, and Jeff started singing Buddy Holly songs with him, it was obvious they should be singing on a record together. He brought a new energy and the best voice a band ever had and it was recognizable. He sang “Fishing in the Dark” “Dancing Little Jean” “Brooklyn Waters” – several of the hits, and wrote a couple of them.
AH: And I’m thinking, without this Poco show, we never would’ve had this Uncle Charlie album and then Will The Circle Be Unbroken wouldn’t exist. But then I thought, if it wasn’t for a 17-year-old McEuen seeing the Dillards play, he wouldn’t have taken up the banjo and had this bluegrass influence, to even have a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in the first place.
So, I was just thinking of the influences that lead us to do things. When you go back through the history, to have such a seminal work as Circle and consider the events which moved it down a path.
JM: Yeah. It was several things. It was Gary Scruggs hearing “Mr. Bojangles” on the radio and going to get a copy of it. But they were sold out. So he bought the album and it had two other hits on it. “Randy Lynn Rag” his father really liked which made him go see us at Vanderbilt University in November of 1970. And in 1971, Earl Scruggs and I had become phone friends. I talked to him every couple weeks. By the time Earl came around, he was playing Colorado for five nights. I went every night and I asked him to record and he said yes.
And Doc Watson, well, ever since the Newport Folk Music Festival live album came out, I was a fan. He finger picked and flat picked on the album. Everybody was trying to play his “Black Mountain Rag” in the Sixties, and so it was a good thing they made that album and then having Doc Watson on the Circle album. It’s just interesting all the different things that went together to put people in the studio to make that happen.
My brother was very instrumental in making the record a beautiful package and a beautiful sounding record as a producer deciding to do it two-track instead of multitrack.And he was a photographer. He shot a lot of photos of the early Dirt Band from 1966 through 1978 or 1979 when he quit managing.
AH: What was your process in putting together the Circle book which came out August 1?
JM: I took his photos that he gave me eight years ago and started assembling them because I progressed to doing a backing video show on stage telling the story of the band and getting to the Circle album in a multimedia kind of presentation. And in getting those ready, Ken Burns comes along. About four years ago I did interviews with him for the documentary Country Music on PBS which appeared in September 2019.
Burns titled episode six Will The Circle Be Unbroken. I closed out the last 20 minutes of the episode talking about the album. It was really treated well. And I wish my brother had seen it. He passed away a couple years ago. Anyway, it took me two and a half years to put the book together.
AH: How many days did it take to record everyone for the album?
JM: It was done in six days.
AH: You know, getting four or five songs done in a day is a big deal. This is 38 songs. [Note: in the remastered version, four additional songs were added]
AH: So to get that many songs done in six days is really pushing it. And all recorded live.
JM: Mm-hmm. Yeah, the album was recorded live because it was only two tracks. We were recorded directly to what was going to be the master and my brother’s idea of running a tape recorder the whole time slowly at three and three quarters speed to catch all the in between stuff worked out great. He was managing and producing the Dirt Band at the time and he produced the Uncle Charlie album that led to the Circle album.
It was because Earl Scruggs heard the Uncle Charlie album that Gary, his son, played it for him, that he came to see us a month later. I asked him, “Earl, why’d you come see the Dirt Band?” Then he goes, “Well, I want to meet the boy who played “Randy Lynn Rag” the way as I intended to. And I thought, well, if you mean that record, that was me. <laughs>
Another bluegrass tune “Clinch Mountain Backstep” was on the Uncle Charlie album and, I didn’t know Doc Watson was from the Clinch Mountain area. That appealed to him.
It was written by Ralph Stanley of the Stanley Brothers. Doc Watson liked “Randy Lynn Rag” and “Clinch Mountain” that his son Merle had played for him. So that week in Boulder, Colorado little did I know that it was going to be such an important week. I asked Earl Scruggs one day if he’d record with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He said, he’d be proud to.
And a week later, Doc Watson was playing the same club and his son said, well, this will be great.
“Let me introduce you to Daddy. This folk music thing is dying out and this will really help.” And Doc said yes, and eight weeks later we started recording this album that ended up with 38, now, 42 tracks.
AH: I didn’t realize it was just an eight week space of time from the first two people to having a full blown masterwork.
JM: The first two people said yes. And then I said to my brother, “Doc and Earl said yes. They’re going to record with us. Bill, what are we gonna do?” He said he was going to get Merle Travis. And he got Travis and then with Earl’s help set up Roy Acuff to meet with him a few weeks later. And about the third week of the idea starting when Earl said yes, we told the Dirt Band, we were going to go to Nashville and make an album with Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis, and, now, Maybelle Carter.
And then by the fourth week, I asked Earl, “Have you found some fiddlers that can handle all this music?” “Oh, I found one man, he can do it all.” I said, “What’s his name?” It was Vassar Clements. Well, I didn’t know Vassar because they didn’t do album credits in those days.
I’d heard Vassar’s music without knowing it, playing for Jim and Jesse and Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe and all kinds of people. And I asked Earl if Vassar can he handle it all? And he just said, “He’ll do.” <Laugh>. And boy he did.
AH: So he became your house super fiddle player, so to speak?
Yeah. On the album, he’s the only one that played fiddle. And Les Thompson and I both played mandolin on different songs. I played on a couple and I played all the banjo that Earl didn’t play, which meant there were a lot of cuts. And we started recording on a Monday and we finished on Saturday. It was really exciting and fun.
And afterwards it took, eight months for that album to come out. It was finished around the first week of August. And it didn’t come out until end of March or April. And it was fine with me, gave me time to learn what I did.<Laughs> One of the songs, I played a solo that I thought I messed up and it was much better than I thought.
AH: I was thinking about how this Circle book is a written documentary because you’ve got the photos from the six-day session that your brother captured.
JM: It’s like clips from the movie.
Thanks to Dennis Hayes, he did a great job editing and assembling. I wrote a story for each photo and there are 148. Forty-five photos have never been seen before from the session. Early NGDB photos have also never been seen before. Even photos that have been seen were like 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches. In this book they’re in an easily viewable size. It’s really wonderful for people to tell me they feel like they are at the sessions when I read this book: “I feel like I was there. I feel like a fly on the wall.”
AH: That’s why I think of this book as a written documentary
JM: That’s what it is.
Thanks for talking with us, John McEuen.
Pagination Books in Springfield is hosting John McEuen for a book signing on October 13 at 5:30 pm. There will be a question and answer session at the event.
In following installments from the Western Edge opening weekend, Americana Highways will provide an overview of the groundbreaking country-rock exhibit, review the Western Edge: Los Angeles Country-Rock in concert show at the CMA Theater, and present an interview with country-rock trailblazer Richie Furay.
John McEuen interview