Posted by Jenks Miller
We spoke with John McEuen about his time with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – and about his plans for his first tour after leaving the seminal folk-rock group – in advance of his show at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro on November 10th. Get tickets for John McEuen & Friends present Will the Circle Be Unbroken here.
Interview continues below. Audio from this interview is streaming at the bottom of this post.
The ArtsCenter: Your tour this fall is a celebration of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s classic record, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Each show features stories and songs from the record. Storytelling has always been an important aspect of the folk tradition, and at this point Circle has its own mythology. What kind of stories should audiences anticipate at these shows? Are they stories about the recording sessions? Stories about the songs themselves?
John McEuen: For years, with the Dirt Band, I’ve been very frustrated by not having enough music reflecting the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album. In fact, the band only did one song from the album. And that is such an important record for my life and for many people’s lives that it just needs to be covered more. When I started doing that at my own shows, I found out there’s a real hunger for knowing about how it all came about. And I have all these photographs from the session, and stories behind it.
It’s always different every night, but what usually happens is I have the video running behind me and I might be talking about part of the album recording and I say to the audience, “Instead of trying to tell you what Maybelle Carter was like, let’s just go to the session.” And that’s when her voice will come up on the screen and say, “Well in the old days I used to play it like this.” Then Doc Watson says, “Do you remember the ending you put on that old song?” And she says, “Well I started it like this…” That’s when we start “Keep on the Sunny Side,” live on stage with the pictures going behind us.
And we go through the whole process of recording the album, with some sound bytes from the studio, from Roy Acuff and Doc and Merle [Travis] and Maybelle. But preceding that is also the story of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a group of young hippies in Southern California that had a dream of getting on the radio, and did against all odds. Our first review in Billboard Magazine, before we had a record company, was: “Very entertaining, but doubtful if they’ll ever be captured on record.”
TAC: Well, you proved them wrong.
JM: That review is in a frame with the first platinum album. [In this show] I try to take people through this strange path I’ve been on, the dream of an Orange County teenager. The first part of the dream was just to get out of Orange County — that’s Orange County, California. I’d spent several years working in Disneyland, then music came along and took over the pursuit, my passion.
TAC: So the music was kind of a ticket out of where you grew up.
JM: It became one, for sure. The pathway out. After I saw a group called The Dillards, I was driven to play the banjo. I went home and took the fifth string off my guitar and put a HO [scale] railroad spike at the fifth fret so I could tune it like a banjo. From that point on, I wanted to be on stage and travel the world as a troubadour, mainly in the folk tradition.
The first guy that I had a band with was Les Thompson. We had a group called the Wilmore City Moonshiners in 1965. That lasted about nine months. We probably did twelve jobs, then went our separate ways. Then he called me up the next year and said, “We’re putting together a new band — it’s called the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.” And in about the second month of the band coming together, I jumped in. I taught ‘em a song I’d written with my brother, ‘cause I’d wanted to play a banjo contest with more behind me than just me. And they did a good job! So I said, “OK, I’ll go with this group, ‘cause that might get me on the radio.” Nine months later we had our first single out, “Buy for Me the Rain,” with banjo on it.
TAC: Now, was that an actual banjo or were you still playing a modified guitar?
JM: No, that was an actual banjo. I put a mute on it so it would sound like a harpsichord!
We made four albums, then Jeff [Hanna] broke the group up after we did Paint Your Wagon, the movie. We spent four months on the set and when we got back a couple months later, we were tired. We split for six months. I went and worked on other things, including an album with [Eagles founding member] Bernie Leadon, mainly bluegrass. We worked for about four months on music, but he got a call to be part of Dillard and Clark. Then I ran into Jeff at a club and said, “We ought to get the band back together,” which we did.
All this story comes out on stage, with the photos behind us from the era. It kind of takes people on the path, as if they were there like a fly on the wall. And Les Thompson is part of the group that I have. He’s on stage with me fifty years later.
One of the guys in the group is John Cable. He was in the band in the 1970’s and went to Russia with us. We became the first American band to go to Russia.
TAC: I’ve read about that. How did that come about? How did they decide it would be you guys that went over?
JM: The Russians had to go look at a bunch of American groups and decide which one they would approve. It was in the agreement between the State Departments that America would bring over whatever they wanted, but they had to commit to bringing over a band — not a lead guy, a star with a bunch of musicians, but an actual, democratic band. They went and looked at a bunch of groups and they ended up picking us. We did twenty-eight sold-out shows.
I took an 8MM sound camera with me, in 1977, and when I have enough time — which I will, for this show — I go through the Russia trip a bit. John Cable’s up there in the pictures, but now it’s thirty years later. He has more hair than Les, though. Les has less hair. [laughs]
TAC: Besides Les, who else are you going to have on stage with you for this show?
JM: On stage with me also will be a guy I’ve been playing music with the last twenty-five years: Matt Cartsonis. He plays mandola, guitar … but I don’t let him sing till the middle of the show ‘cause he’s so hard to follow. [laughs] Matt just rocks out. It’s all acoustic, no drums: stand-up bass, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandola. We cover music from the early Dirt Band, music from my String Wizardsalbum, and the new album, Made in Brooklyn. Matt’s an integral part of the Made in Brooklyn album.
TAC: On your latest album, Made in Brooklyn, you play the title track from an earlier album, Acoustic Traveller.
JM: It’s a song from Acoustic Traveller with a different arrangement. Made in Brooklyn features people I’ve been wanting to record with for many years, like David Bromberg, Jay Ungar, John Cowan. Matt’s singing the song John Cowan did, and he’s killing it. It’s exciting every night. After we do some Dirt Band songs, and the Circle story, we get into that music — more bluegrass than the Dirt Band does.
What’s important about this trip — well, I think every show is important — but this particular trip is the first time I’m actually going out as an ex-member of the Dirt Band. I just departed at the end of October. After fifty-one years, I just need to do what I want to do. It’s awful hard to be in a band and say, “Hey guys, I’ve got twelve songs I want to put on the next album,” you know? It’s awful hard to be in a band and say, “I want to do these fifteen songs on stage tonight.” But my players — Les and Matt and John Cable — we like to play everything. They like to play everything. They like to follow my suggestions, and they have so many good ones of their own. Everybody listens to each other.
TAC: You have more creative freedom under your own name, I imagine.
JM: Totally. With the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, it had come down to where I wasn’t fingerpicking guitar anymore. I wasn’t playing enough bluegrass music or enough Carter Family songs, or our new music. The band basically played the same set for the last 11 years: “OK, the show started at 8. What time is it now? Oh, ‘Bojangles’ is starting, so it must be it’s 8:52!” [laughs]
At this show, we’ll play at least one or two songs that we’ve never played before together. Somebody might yell out a request, and I’ll say, “John, do you know that one? Matt, do you know it? I know it, follow me.” Or, “You know it, I’ll follow you.” And that’s not to be haphazard. It’s to capture that moment when music is for the music and not just because it was on a record – to put people to the test.
TAC: It sounds like you have a lot of flexibility on stage, a lot of spontaneity.
JM: Exactly. And keep in mind, the Circle album was thirty-five songs done in six days. And that was because everybody had studied what to do. The Made in Brooklyn album, with all the people I mentioned and several others like David Amram, Andy Goessling from Railroad Earth, Skip Ward on bass, John Carter Cash, Steve Martin plays banjo on a Warren Zevon song – we’re doing a couple Warren Zevon songs because I think he’s an overlooked guy. Made in Brooklyn has fourteen songs and was done in two days. We recorded it all in one microphone, and you had to be able to know the song and play it right once.
TAC: Tell me a little bit about that binaural recording technique, because it’s pretty interesting. In photos, everybody’s gathered around a model of a human head, and the mic kind of replicates how we hear the music in a room.
JM: You know when you drop your car keys, you hear ‘em hit the ground, right? A bird chips in a tree and you hear it above you. A car honks its horn while you’re walking down the street and you can tell it’s behind you, right? That’s the way you actually hear. But most stereo records are mixed right to left, as though everything is right in front of you. This binaural mic — in a dummy head with two split mics, one in each ear — it hears the way you hear. When my daughter first got the album, she said, “Dad, I wish you would’ve warned me. I was home alone playing the record and I thought somebody came in behind me.” [laughs] It’s like surround sound without the speakers.
TAC: I’m not sure I’ve heard another binaural record.
JM: There’s a bunch of ‘em on Chesky Records. They’ve made about four hundred albums over the years. When the owner of the company came to me with a proposal, it took a while to get it going, to get everybody’s schedules to match up. Then we rehearsed the songs for about five days — we rehearsed by email, too — and it came together.
On the “Miner’s Night Out” cut on Made in Brooklyn, the drum sound is one of my favorite I’ve ever had recorded with my music. And it’s all with the one mic, all in one take! It amazed me. I was thinking the drums weren’t going to pick up good enough, but no: it was perfect. That was also because of the drummer: he knew that he wasn’t playing rock and roll drums. He was a percussionist.
The engineer would come out after we ran a song once and he’d say to one person, “You move back two feet, and you move in a foot. And I gotta move you over to the left about four feet.” Because we were surrounding the mic. And dang, Skip Ward, the bass player — I used Skip Ward on The Crow, the album I produced for Steve Martin. I’d spent five days in the studio with him there and in rehearsal for this album, and I’ve never heard him make a mistake! It’s really disgusting! [laughs] He’s so good. One of the top New York bass players.
TAC: Did the setup in the room affect the arrangements of the songs themselves?
JM: It meant we didn’t need echo, because the room was a big, old, out-of-business church that had its own natural echo. That’s why we recorded there. Chesky records in that building all the time. It was a simple formula: the engineer said, “If you can’t hear the other guy playing, then you’re playing too loud. Play like you want to hear each other. If it’s your solo, and they can’t hear you, then they’re playing too loud.”
TAC: You’d have to have some disciplined musicians to pull that off.
JM: They certainly were. All these people have been recording for 40 years or more. They’ve gone through all the mistakes and the accomplishments of recording well. I told David Bromberg on “She Darked the Sun,” “Just play one of the solos that I used to have to buy the album for.” [laughs] Sometimes you’d hear a record back in the 70’s and go, “Geez, how did he play that?!” and you’d buy the album because of that one solo.
That recording attitude is reflected in the live show. It’s a wonderful thing. We feel at ease in what we’re doing but excited about getting out there. We’re playing all the time. The sound check usually goes long because we’re done in about fifteen minutes but we play for another hour. Then we go back to the dressing room and play because you can’t play in the rental car, you know? That’s the excitement I miss.
TAC: This is a Carrboro show, and The ArtsCenter is literally two blocks from where Elizabeth Cotten grew up on Lloyd Street. You told me you were thinking of doing a special tribute or acknowledgment of her at the show. Are you still planning on doing that?
JM: Yeah. The first song I learned fingerpicking was “Freight Train.” Years later, I was booking and producing a show for Austin City Limits, and I booked Elizabeth Cotten to come out and tell her story. That was a really neat thing, to get to meet her. At thirteen years old, she had written a song on fingerpicking guitar that has had as much effect on the guitar world as Maybelle Carter’s guitar playing did.
I was talking to Duane Allman’s daughter a year or two ago. She wanted to find out about her dad because she was only three or four years old when he died, so she was calling people that knew him. I’d spent time with Duane. When The Allman Brothers first came to LA — my brother had convinced the band The Allman Joys to come out to Los Angeles — they moved into the house that I’d rented up in the Hollywood Hills. We had one floor occupied by The Allman Joys — which was to become The Allman Brothers — and the other three by Dirt Band people. It was a mess. [laughs]
It was really fun. We were on the radio for the first time, and this group of great players had come out. They were set up and playing on one floor, and we were on the other three. They became The Hourglass, which lasted about a year and a half. Then that broke up, and so forth.
TAC: Looking back, that was such a magical time. You had an intersection of great talent, recording technology that was coming along very rapidly, and an industry with infrastructure that could support new artists. It’s incredible to think back on all the great music that was made back then.
JM: It was very strange: I was living in Laurel Canyon, in the middle of Hollywood, kind of. Across the street was [“San Francisco” singer] Scott McKenzie with flowers in his hair. Next door was Ian Whitcomb from England with a hit [“N-Nervous”]. Down the street were The Mamas & the Papas. Across from them were The Mothers of Invention. And at the top of the hill was Steve Martin, writing for the Smothers Brothers’ show, and my brother was managing him.
I had a young kid, a nineteen year-old, approach the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1969, and he wanted us to record some of his songs. So I had him come up to make a demo. I play one of those demos as part of the show and talk about how Kenny Loggins came into the radio world through the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which has always been nice to remember. We recorded four of his songs from that demo. You’ll hear him at nineteen years old and we’ll sing along with him, it’s really fun. You feel like you’re going back to that era, only the sound is better. [laughs]
John McEuen plays some licks during our Skype interview: