A Place to Feel at Home
A Place to Feel at Home
A Q&A with John McEuen
By Geoff Gehman
John McEuen made exactly the album he wanted to make in a former church in Brooklyn. The esteemed string player, producer and impresario hired a dozen of his favorite musicians, all of whom he knew could nail a song in one take, each of whom he knew needed no special effects to sound special. Gathered around a single microphone in a resonant room, they recorded American roots tunes from all over the map. David Bromberg sang “Mr. Bojangles,” a hit for McEuen’s longtime group, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. John Carter Cash sang “I Still Miss Someone,” one of his father Johnny’s calling cards. Warren Zevon’s “My Dirty Life and Times” featured the banjo of Steve Martin, McEuen’s banjo protégé and fellow Disneyland magic-shop alumnus.
Released last year, “Made in Brooklyn” (Chesky Records) is a snappy, hip companion to the Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the 1972 three-LP blockbuster collection of traditionals (“Tennessee Stud,” “Wabash Cannonball”) cut with some of the country’s most influential country veterans (Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff). Recorded in just six days, “Circle” belongs to the Grammy Album Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. Recorded in just two days, “Brooklyn” is a sparkling, sparking sanctuary for everything from folk to Dixieland, bluegrass to blues. To quote McEuen on “Circle,” it’s a musical “place to feel at home.”
McEuen, 71, will sample “Brooklyn” on Nov. 17 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, a village he knows well from his solo and Dirt Band shows at nearby Penn’s Peak. The guitar/mandolin/fiddle whiz will be joined by the String Wizards, including former Dirt Band bassist Les Thompson, and Railroad Earth multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling, who on “Brooklyn” plays mandolin on McEuen’s “Miner’s Night Out,” a bluegrass square dance rejected by his Dirt Band colleagues. There will be Dirt Band hits (“Dance Little Jean”), classic barnburners (“The Mountain Whippoorwill”) and archival footage of highlights from the Dirt Band’s 51 years, including a “Circle” session chat between Mother Maybelle Carter and Doc Watson about “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
Below, in a humdinger of a conversation while driving to Medicine Hat, Canada. McEuen yarns about producing an early concert by Bob Dylan; playing a prom the night after Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the same spot; struggling to get his songs recorded by the Dirt Band; campaigning for 20 years to get a first-rate singer to sing a first-rate song, and turning Warren Zevon’s “Excitable Boy” into yet another bluegrass murder ballad.
Q: Do you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that absolutely floored you and stuck you to the floor?
A: “Jambalaya.” My aunt had a little 15-seat restaurant in Reading, Calif. at the fork in the road and there was an old jukebox that had a recording of Hank Williams singing “Jambalaya.” I was nine when I first heard it and I must have played that thing five times a day and I don’t know why.
The other song I couldn’t get enough of was Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes Again.” I was 17 and I was learning to play the banjo when I first heard it. I went straight to the record store and bought the single; it was my first single.
Q: I’m talking to you from Bethlehem, where I live four blocks from the birthplace of Stephen Vincent Benet, who wrote the poem “The Mountain Whippoorwill,” a juicy slice of Americana about a champion country fiddler. You’ve turned the story into quite a fiddle showcase for quite some time. When and how did Benet’s poem settle in your fingers and guts?
A: In my senior year of high school we were reading “Adventures in American Literature,” which is where I discovered “The Mountain Whippoorwill,” along with [Benet’s poem]” “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” I didn’t play banjo or even guitar at the time but I thought it was really an intriguing story. Years later, when Steve Martin and I were friends, we both learned to play “Whippoorwill.” I taught him how to play banjo–according to what he says [laughs]. Anyway, it got to where I could back him up doing the solo. Keep in mind that no one knew anything about anything at this time. I remember we were playing a little college theater; I don’t even know how we got the job. We played “The Mountain Whippoorwill,” with the solo and all, and after we had finished it was absolutely silent for five seconds. We kind of looked at each other like: Did everyone leave? Then the place exploded with applause. They didn’t leave, so we had to figure out something else to do. It was my first standing ovation.
As Steve’s career in standup [comedy] got bigger and bigger, he had to quit doing “The Mountain Whippoorwill” because people started laughing when they heard [the opening line] “Up in the mountains, it’s lonesome all the time” and then they were waiting for a punchline that wouldn’t come. It was just too distracting.
Q: You were a whippersnapper in 1965 when you helped produce a concert by a whippersnapper named Bob Dylan. What stands out from your first professional producing gig?
A: It proves that anybody can do anything, even if they don’t know how [laughs]. I was friendly with a guy who owned a bar in Huntington Beach [Calif.] who told me he needed $2,000 to buy Bob Dylan; he had 2 and he needed a total of 4. I was 19 and I went to my dad and I told him that I needed a loan and he gave me the $2,000. I didn’t get to meet Dylan but I did get a front-row seat for the show. What stood out in my mind was Dylan arriving in a limousine carrying a guitar and a harp rack and going straight to the microphone at one minute to eight. He played for an hour and a half and he left with $5,000; he made more because the show was sold out. And I thought: That’s a good job [laughs]. This was about four months before “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” [album] was getting massive attention.
Over the years Dylan and I have crossed paths from time to time. Once we had a day off [from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band], so we went to see Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue with Kinky Friedman and Joan Baez and all kinds of people. We went to a sound check and they were having trouble making Joan’s guitar work. I was in front of the stage watching them messing around with the direct box, all hunched over. I told them to unplug the cord from the front and plug it in the second hole on the left in the back. I knew because I had the same direct box. Bob stared at me for about 10 seconds and then said “Do what he says.” And it worked.
Q: In your online interview with the Library of Congress you say that in 1968 you played a prom at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night after Robert Kennedy was murdered there. How eerie was that scene and how did you get through the gig with your sanity intact?
A: As you know, the ’60s were a very tumultuous time. There were a lot of things happening at once: the Vietnam War and anti-war protests were both raging. Four different high schools were booked for the prom and Robert Kennedy was killed the night before but I don’t remember anybody saying anything about “We’re going to have to cancel.” They taped off the [crime] area to keep us away; you could still see the blood on the floor. Back then, the feeling was: Wow, this is weird. Let’s do the set and get out of here. Today, that place would be on lockdown.
A lot of eerie things have happened in my career; I have been in the path of history so many times. For instance, we played York, Pa., the night of [the accident at the] Three Mile Island [nuclear power plant in Dauphin County, Pa.] We’re playing in the gymnasium at the college in York and in the middle of the show about 30 firemen show up at the back of the building. At the end of the show about 20 police were gathered backstage. We’re wondering what’s going on. “Well, Three Mile Island is having a meltdown.” We tried to make phone calls but we couldn’t because all the pay phones in a 30-mile radius had been turned off. The next day we drove past the plant and we saw it was smoking. Now, that’s eerie.
Q: It’s high time we weigh in on your latest album, “Made in Brooklyn.” Why did you need to make it, why did you make it the way you did, and how did it satisfy your soul?
A: I’ve been on the road with the Dirt Band for 48 years and for about 47 of those years I’ve been struggling to get them to play songs of mine, or other people’s songs I like. It’s very hard for a guy to go to an established band and say here are the 12 songs I want on the album. It was hard to do even one song unless I wanted to do it with somebody else. For instance, I wrote “Miner’s Night Out” and one day we spent four and a half minutes rehearsing it. The feeling was: “Nah, I didn’t like it.” When the group came together last year [for the Dirt Band’s 50th-anniversary tour] I said: “Hey, why don’t we do [the Earl Scruggs barnburner] ‘Earl’s Breakdown’?,” only to have a couple of the guys say: “I hate that fuckin’ song.” That takes the wind out of your sails.
For “Made in Brooklyn” I could do anything I wanted. I could record any song in any style with a certain kind of player I knew could play well with anybody and everybody, who could get it right the first time. For instance, I’ve sat in with David Bromberg many times. I also recorded one song on one of his albums and he did something with me on a TV show I put together. John Carter Cash, well, I’ve been working with him for several years. I don’t know, maybe he likes working with me because I gave his grandmother [Mother Maybelle Carter] her first gold record for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” I wanted him to sing “I Still Miss Someone,” which is my favorite Johnny Cash song, and he said “That’s my favorite song of my dad’s, too.”
I’m so honored to play on [multi-instrumentalist/composer/cultural pied piper] David Amram’s gigs. We play for cheap; we joke that we’ve been passing around the same 50-dollar bill for years. I asked him to play on “Made in Brooklyn” and he said “I’m there, Pops.” I don’t know why anybody 15 years older than me calls me “Pops” but it’s fine with me.
I first heard of Andy Goessling when I was playing New York about five years ago. I got an email from him asking “Can I sit in with you when you play the City Winery?” He sent me this list of instruments he plays in this band called Railroad Earth. I agreed to let him sit in, and he brought his dobro and sax and mandolin and guitar. I won’t rehearse with a new player; you have to know the music or be able to fit right in. I wanted to do “The Sheik of Araby” and when Andy took his solo, I thought Benny Goodman was sitting in with us. He played mandolin on another song and sounded like Jesse McReynolds.
I knew [singer] Martha Redbone because we had worked together on her album “The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake” [Blackfeet, 2013]. It sounds like what William Blake would have sounded like had he moved to the American West in 1840. For “Made in Brooklyn” we recorded another version of “I Rose Up [at the Dawn of Day]” and she nailed it just perfect
I thought Steve Martin playing a Warren Zevon song was a perfect combination of skill, interpretation and humor. Funny, after the session I asked Steve “Is your drive coming soon?” and he said: “Oh, I came in a Uber” [laughs].
Q: Why the hell did you decide to cut Zevon’s “Excitable Boy”? Did you think that the bluegrass community deserved a zany murder ballad about a fellow who greases his chest with pot roast and builds a cage with his victim’s bones?
A: Well, first off, I’m a Warren Zevon fan. He’s so concise; he says a lot with a simple phrase. And, second, “Excitable Boy” is perfect bluegrass. It fits in just right with all those bluegrass songs where somebody is killed. Let’s see, there’s “Knoxville Girl”: “I took her by her golden curls and I drug her round and round/Throwing her into the river that flows through Knoxville town.” There’s “Polly Von”: “She’d her apron wrapped around her and he took her for a swan/But it’s oh and alas it was she, Polly Von.” Then there’s “Streets of Laredo” and “Mack the Knife.” Do you know how many people die in “Mack the Knife”? I think it’s 13.
I wanted David [Bromberg] to sing the last three verses of “Excitable Boy.” When his wife heard that, she said: “I hate that song.” When she heard David singing it, she said: “You’re perfect.”
I wanted Matt Cartsonis to sing the first verse of “Excitable Boy.” He played with Zevon the last six years of his life and he’s been playing with me for 25 years. He’s one of my all-time favorite singers; he really raises the roof when he sings. Matt wanted to do “My Dirty Life and Times,” which Zevon wrote for him. So we decided to do both Zevon songs.
Q: One of the standout tracks on “Made in Brooklyn” is “She Darked the Sun,” which features the voice of John Cowan, lead vocalist for New Grass Revival. You lobbied him for a good 20 years to sing the tune, which was written in 1968 by Gene Clark, a founder of the Byrds, and Bernie Leadon, a future founder of the Eagles. Why did you have such a bee in your bonnet?
A: John and I first met in Colorado in 1973 or ’74; he stayed for a night at my house. I think he’s a great singer. The guy can sing the phone book and make you want to listen; you might want to throw in the dictionary to make it really interesting. I kept telling him “You ought to sing ‘She Darked the Sun’” but he wouldn’t do it. Finally, I got this record deal with Chesky and I asked him to sing and he said “I will, but you’ll probably want me to sing that song.” Part of the reason I wanted him is because it requires someone like him who could fit the project: no overdubbing, no headphones, one microphone, everybody playing at once. John can do that; not everyone can. Frank Sinatra could and so could Cab Calloway and so can Kenny Rogers.
We rehearsed for five days with everyone except John. The vocal part in “She Darked the Sun” is pretty high. Very few people can nail it; Linda Ronstadt is one of the few who has. In rehearsals we were saying “He’ll do it in D.” “No, he’ll go to E.” Well, when John showed up at the session, he said: “I’m going to do it in G” [laughs]. I said: “Impossible—you’re not Linda Ronstadt.” But he did it just fine in G; turns out he just wanted the rush.
Q: You know, John’s voice is so clear, crisp and fulfilling, he could be a male Linda Ronstadt.
A: Linda is amazing. She’s able to articulate the most extreme emotion without cracking. I’ve been a fan of hers since the first time I heard her at the Troubadour [club in Los Angeles]. I remember I was hanging out one night at the studio, half asleep in the control booth, when she told me: “I gotta do an overdub.” I said: “Okay, I’ll leave now.” “No, I’ll sing to you.” And then she sings [Carole King’s] “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” a cappella and she hits it in one pass. I’m the only guy there and I’m wondering: Why is the hair standing up on my arms?
Q: What did you learn about making “Made in Brooklyn” that you can apply to the studio and the stage?
A: That you can never do enough pre-production. And that if you’re going to use other people, listen to what they want to do, go talk about it, and then make your own decision. I learned that lesson from [actor/director] Tommy Lee Jones. I was doing a film score for [“The Good Old Boys,” a 1995 TV Western directed by Jones] and I had to write a song for Sissy Spacek to play on piano and then teach her how to play it. I told Tommy Lee: “I’m a music guy, not a film guy, but I’ve got an idea for you.” I asked him why he listened to me and he said: “Well, I’m the director; I listen to everybody’s ideas and if I like ’em, I use ’em–and I get the credit.” [laughs]
Q: I’m sure you’ve lost count of the number of times you’ve told the story of creating the “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” project with your brother Bill, who managed the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Would you mind giving a brief rundown for the initiated and uninitiated?
A: In the middle ‘60s I fell in love with the Carter Family’s songs and their chord changes. When I was 16 I went to the Grand Ole Opry with my brother; we drove out to Nashville from California. It was a hot August night and the show was sold out. The back windows were open and when I looked in I heard Lester Flatt say “Earl [Scruggs] and I are gonna bring on Mother Maybelle Carter.” It was Earl who brought her back into the public eye in the late ’50s, when at the time the feeling was the only job she could get in Nashville was as a nurse at the hospital. I had been listening to Flatt & Scruggs and the Carter Family and I stood there, somewhat arrogantly, and promised myself: I’m going to record with those people someday.
The Dirt Band had made only five albums when we came up with the idea for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” I asked Earl if he would record with us and he said “I’d be proud to.” And then I asked Doc Watson and he said something similar. And then my brother got Merle Travis and Merle got Roy [Acuff] and we were off and running.
Q: Is there anyone you didn’t book for “Circle” that you really wish you had booked?
A: I tried to get Bill Monroe but I found out he just wasn’t into our project. He had strong opinions about bluegrass, along the lines of: This is what bluegrass is and they’re not playing bluegrass. All he probably knew about the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was that we might use trumpets and we were on the pop charts along with the Beatles and the Doors. He didn’t even want to know us, which was fine.
Years later I was at a festival opening for Monroe solo and he came up to me and said: “If you ever do another one of those ‘Circle’ albums give me a call.” By that time he understood the record’s impact, its importance.
One of my favorite things about “Circle” is that it finally brought [fiddler] Vassar Clements out of the shadows into the spotlight. We were lucky to have him in the room with us. He had played on so many bluegrass albums with all these great people like Jesse McReynolds and Jimmy Martin but they never gave credits to players back then, so many of the people who bought those records didn’t know who he was. That was one of the things my brother did: he gave credit to great players like Vassar. And he put their credits on the front [the cover of “Circle”].
Q: Another one of your preferred musical partners is Mary McCaslin, who is renowned for her lived-in country voice, her dyed-in-the-wool songs about the dying American West and her open-tuned, open-minded versions of tunes by the Beatles and the Who. Why do you like working with her?
A: I was 18 or 19 and learning banjo and guitar when I first started playing with Mary. She and Penny Nichols were singing together and I’d back them up. What I liked about them is that they were doing real, honest folk music. They weren’t singing “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” My feeling is: well, who’s Michael and why is he rowing the boat so long and why do I care? I have the same feeling about “Maggie’s Farm”; if you don’t want to work on Maggie’s farm, well, okay, leave. It was depressing stuff. Mary was singing material more in the vein of the Carter Family and Carolyn Hester. She had an authentic country voice. She was one of the first people I heard who it was like you dug her out of a forest somewhere in West Virginia. And she was in tune with other music; I loved her frailing banjo version of [the Who’s] “Pinball Wizard.”
Q: In 2012 you released “The McEuen Sessions: For All the Good” [Mesa Bluemoon Recordings], an album with your sons Jonathan and Nathan. What was your coolest accomplishment as a patriarchal producer?
A: One of my personal coolest accomplishments is building a track around “Old Shep,” which Elvis Presley made famous. It’s a devilishly sad song about a kid who puts down his dog; it’s so sad, it makes people leave the room crying after three notes. I had Jonathan sing it when he was 25 and then overdubbed him singing it when he was 11. I wanted him to do “Old Shep”; he wanted to do “Leader of the Band” [Dan Fogelberg’s tribute to his band-leader dad]. [Fogelberg’s] widow told me that it was her second favorite version [laughs].
Q: So, John, what tops your Bucket List?
A: Musically, I’d like to record with John Fogerty or Paul McCartney someday. Fogerty says he has all my solo albums. I know because he’s asked me specific questions about them. McCartney I’ve met a few times; I ‘m a big fan. Non-musically, I wish that drugs weren’t so popular. Heroin has become such an epidemic. Once upon a time you couldn’t even say the word “heroin,” it was so scary; it was like saying the word “pregnant.” I wish that people would realize the only good the stuff does is to make the people who sell it rich–and they don’t care about anyone but themselves.
I also think that people should study history outside of school. Edison didn’t go to school to learn to invent a lightbulb. Mary Shelley didn’t study literature to write “Frankenstein.” School can be good, it can teach you some valuable things, but the rest is up to you. You should keep your eyes open and figure things out by, and for, yourself. That goes for all those people who were 22 when they signed a record contract with the provision “…until the world as we know it shall cease to exist.”
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: I’d like to go into a coffee shop or a restaurant or a hotel lobby and not hear [imitates hip-hop drone] “Boom boom chunk boom boom chunk boom boom chunk.” That’s not music, that’s noise.
John McEuen: The Scoop
He and high-school classmate Steve Martin worked in Merlin’s Magic Shop at Disneyland.
In 1978 he played in the band Toots Uncommon on Martin’s novelty hit “King Tut” (Sample line: “He coulda won a Grammy/Buried in his jammies”).
He produced Martin’s album “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo,” which won the 2010 bluegrass Grammy.
He produced and directed “A Night in the Ozarks,” a 2006 documentary about the Dillards, the progressive bluegrass band whose members helped teach him how to sway an audience with banjo licks and laughs.
His musical partners range from Dolly Parton to Al Gore, Phish to “Sesame Street” goats.
In April the Chicago Review Press will publish his memoir “The Life I’ve Picked: A Banjo Player’s Nitty Gritty Journey.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. One of his favorite stories about the significant impact of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” comes from fans faced with the painful challenge of dividing the three-record collection as part of a divorce settlement. He can be reached at email@example.com.