John McEuen

String Wizard

Gemma La Mana

Noises of life: Multi-instrumentalist John McEuen gets gritty.

John McEuen knows no bounds

By Greg Cahill

IT WAS an earful. John McEuen, a virtuoso bluegrass picker and the founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, heard a lot of great music at the 1994 Grammy Awards show in New York, where he was nominated for the Best Country Instrumental award for a song from his String Wizards II (Vanguard).

What McEuen didn’t hear at the Grammys was his name called to the winner’s podium. “I didn’t win,” he recalls, during a phone call from Nashville. “I thought that Ray Benson (of Asleep at the Wheel) was going to win and I was glad that he did.

“I told him, thanks for using my acceptance speech.”

At least that year wasn’t a total washout. A Grammy nomination is nothing to sneeze at, and McEuen–who should get another crack at the coveted prize for Acoustic Traveller (Vanguard), his newly released and beautifully wrought collection of acoustic alchemy–did win a prestigious Western Heritage Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame for The Wild West (Warner Bros.). That ambitious two-year project grew from his musical score for the award-winning 10-hour Nashville Network series that featured music spanning from the 1850s to the turn of the century.

“Although a lot of the music I play comes from that era,” he notes, “I didn’t realize until I started researching and recording it that the period marked the birth of one of the biggest cultural influences in the world today, which is American popular music. It was the first time people could feel free to say and do whatever they wanted, and that explosion of enterprise led people to a burst of inventions after electricity came on line.

“That was equaled by what was happening musically, which has been overlooked.”

Brass bands, gospel, ragtime, country, blues, and minstrel shows–all were popular at the time and they’ve all seeped into McEuen’s strange brew of songs.

“In those days, brass bands were treated the way rock ‘n’ roll bands are treated today,” he muses, then adds with a knowing laugh, “Well, maybe not that poorly.”

MCEUEN knows a thing or two about contemporary pop music. In 1966, he formed the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with the intention of fusing traditional acoustic instrumentation with songs that could air on Top 40 radio. “I got to do it a few times,” he says.

That band scored crossover hits with such songs as “Mr. Bojangles,” a blockbuster single that set the tone for their easy folk-pop. In 1972, the band recorded the classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken (EMI America), featuring such country and bluegrass legends as Doc Watson, Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Roy Acuff, and Earl Scruggs.

But in 1987, McEuen left the band. “The difficulty came when the band decided not to record any more instrumental music,” he says. “I had a lot of stuff I wanted to play.”

He packed up his banjo and his score sheets and set out on his own. He found a receptive audience hungry to hear his particular brand of unplugged music. “I feel like there’s a real desire among people to hear acoustic music,” he says. “I’m excited by the prospect not just to bring people bluegrass, but to take the banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, put them in different frameworks, and see where it can go.”

His most recent albums show that his musical vision knows no bounds. Clearly, he’s not afraid to experiment, especially when it comes to lending his music a raw, live feeling. “You know, music doesn’t just live for me as a performance of notes by musicians in a room full of microphones,” he says. “Music always has been played on the street, or in a noisy nightclub, or on a train or a wagon train, or around a campfire.

“There always are the other noises of life that surround music, and onstage there’s always that chance that someone will be listening.”

John McEuen performs Friday, July 26, at 8 p.m., at the Sebastopol Community Center, 390 Morris St. Solid Air opens the show. Tickets are $12 advance/$14 at the door; preferred seats are available for $20. 823-1511.

From the July 18-24, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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