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Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Founder John McEuen’s ‘I Picked This Life’

John McEuen, founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

 

By Tammye McDuff

John McEuen is an American folk musician and founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band [Dirt Band]. He was born in Oakland, and after seeing the Dillards perform in 1964, he began playing banjo at 17. “I was a dork in high school,” says McEuen, “I didn’t ever have anyone who would want it, but just in case, I used to practice my autograph. I can sign my autograph in the dark, while talking.”

During his career, he has performed and recorded with Alison Krauss, The Allman Brothers Band, America, Arlo Guthrie, Asleep at the Wheel, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Bill Monroe, Bob Dylan, Doc Watson, Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell, Jerry Garcia, John Denver, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Linda Ronstadt, Mark O’Connor, The Marshall Tucker Band, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Phish, Steve Goodman, Steve Vai, Vassar Clements, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s roots were originally formed by two high school friends, Jeff Hanna and Bruce Kunkel, during the early 1960s. McEuen came into the newly reformed band in 1966. In 1967, the band released its first album, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, on Liberty Records, with a minor hit in “Buy for Me the Rain”.

They had no hits from their next three albums until their cover version of “Mr. Bojangles”. McEuen suggested the band go to Nashville to record, which they did in 1971. The McEuen brothers came up with the idea of recording an album of traditional bluegrass and country music, different from the electric folk-rock they had been playing. McEuen asked banjoist and new friend Earl Scruggs if he would record with the band in June 1971 resulting in a triple album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken [1973] that featured guest appearances by country musicians Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, and Maybelle Carter. The album received critical and popular accolades and was certified gold. 

McEuen has known Steve Martin since high school, when he would give Martin occasional lessons on the banjo. In 1978, he was asked by Martin to provide the backing band for a comic, novelty song called King Tut. With Martin on vocals, the Dirt Band recorded the song under the alias the Toot Uncommons. McEuen produced and played on Martin’s album The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo and the album was number one for seven months winning the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album.

In 1986, after 20 years with the Dirt Band, McEuen departed to pursue a solo career,”It was too difficult to do what I wanted to do in life and music, with a group who didn’t want to expand.” McEuen added, “I felt that anything that I suggested would not be considered. They just wanted to stick with the iconic sound the band and the fans had become accustomed to over the last 50 years. Not that anything is wrong with that, I wanted more.”

From 1991–1997, he released four albums for Vanguard Records. He composed music for movies and television. He appeared as a guest on albums, but returned to the Dirt Band in 2001 only to leave once more in October 2017 and form his own group The String Wizards. When asked why he chose that name, he said “Because they are really good! I am creating my own situation, the music was too hard for them [Dirt Band] to play I think, too many 8th notes.” He says he was always performing and the last year he was with the Dirt Band, 2017, he realized they had done 65 shows and he did 65 more, “That was a turning point for me,” noted McEuen.

In the first 20 years of the Dirt Band, McEuen did 95% of the interviews, “They didn’t like going out to the radio stations or take interviews. They would rather sleep, which was fine, but after  tripped out four to five thousand interviews, people starting telling me I should write it all down.”

“I guess it was around year 35 or so with the Dirt Band, when I realized I had acquired about 8,000 interviews that I began thinking that I should listen to those folks.” By the time McEuen had 10,000 interviews under his banjo, he began to realize he had a knack for storytelling and had the ability to remember them all, “I think this is impart due to the fact I never did any drugs.”

McEuen has a delightful view of the world as rock star with a quick wit and sharp sense of humor. “I’m glad the band was there,” he adds,” because I had a great platform to perform own.” When asked how many instruments he played, he said, “Usually one at a time…”

“I have recorded with the best fiddlers in the world and I know how good they are and I know how good I’m not!” stated McEuen, “The book came about from my stories. I have had the privilege to meet, know and record with so many talented people … or share a dressing room with like Bob Dylan or Eddie Van Halen, sitting in with Willie Nelson, the Stray Cats or jamming with Leon Russell in his home studio on a Sunday.””

The Life I’ve Picked traces the memoir of McEuens personal journey through the roots of American music. “I am the best me I have ever been and what I am playing now, is the best I have ever played,” laughed McEuen, “Besides if people like it, I hope they will spread the word, and if they don’t like I hope they don’t spread the word. It’s that simple.”

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