The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Instrumentalist Recalls
The Early Days, Duane Allman, Steve Martin and a Lifetime of Music
by Derek Halsey
John McEuen has been in the music business for almost 35 years. He is best known for his work as a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He has also received recognition and awards for his film scores and solo CD's like 'Acoustic Traveller." He plans to release his new DVD this month, "Nitty Gritty Surround." I spoke with him from somewhere in Utah about the music business and being in the infamous 'singing western, "Paint Your Wagon," starring a singing Clint Eastwood.
Tell me about the early days of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, what were you doing during the middle sixties as a group?
The Dirt band was going through it's faze of the late sixties, acquiring a drum set; ended up in "Paint Your Wagon;" we ended up four months out of town in Oregon to film.
How long did it take to film?
Four months, it was a wonderful four months. The excess's of 'movie money', and it was fun.
Was this before or after being on the Jack Benny show?
Actually it was after. Strangely enough, the Dirt Band, we got together in August of '66, and by February of '67 we had our first hit -"Buy For Me The Rain." And in show business at that time, 'we had a'hit pop record', so that puts you- the places to play were much fewer then. And the people buying acts were different, and you would end up on shows with Bobby Sherman, (laughs), Jack Benny, and Bill Cosby. Carnegie Hall with Bill Cosby. We did two weeks with Cosby, and then ten days with Cosby. We did two weeks with the Doors followed by maybe two weeks with Bobby Sherman, followed by doing a show somewhere with some eclectic folky kind of people. And maybe we would end up on a TV show like the 'Tonight Show'.
You ended up on Johnny Carson?
Oh yeah, we did the Tonight Show several times. We did most of the TV shows that were available except 'Ed Sullivan.' But we did Bandstand several times; 'Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour;' 'The Sonny and Cher Show;' 'Laugh In;' we were on the third 'Laugh In' show; 'Playboy After Dark.' Just a long list of television shows and the reason I say that is other groups won't be able to have this career, in that this type of TV show doesn't exist any longer.
You mean the variety shows?
Yes, you don't end up being miscast quite as often. You know what I mean? In other words it happened in the seventies even, where we would do a show with Aerosmith and then we would go do a show with Maybelle Carter the next week. In the same time we'd end up doing some kind of hippie stuff in the middle of Ohio, and then end up at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center for the soldiers. It was just a wider variety, at the same time doing a straight TV show like Merv Griffin.' The 'Dinah Shore Show' I did by myself.
Do you have tapes of any of this stuff?
I have some of it. But you couldn't get tapes in those days. There was one TV show in L.A. called 'Boss City." Sam Riddle. Everybody would do that show. I think we made about 40-bucks per person. One show we did on 'Boss City" was Dirt Band, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Jefferson Airplane, all lip-syncing on a local dance show. It was a local version of'American Bandstand.' That was fun, around '67 or so. There were no dressing rooms, people would wait in the parking lot until it was there turn to get onstage. You had all these heavy, hippie, head musicians and stuff hanging out waiting to go lip-sync, expand their career a little bit. We ended up doing a concert at Birmingham High School, which is in San Fernando Valley, and the show was The Doors, Airplane, Springfield, the Byrds, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and it was six dollars admission. It was held on a football field of the high school. We were on third and I just wanted to get on and off that night because I was going to see Bill Monroe. I went to see Bill Monroe and then at the club I pull up and the club owner says, "You want to sit in with Monroe tonight?" I said, "Sure but that's not going to happen." He said,"I told him you were coming and you are going to be up in three more songs."
So Monroe agreed to do it?
Yes, the first time I met Bill Monroe was on stage. And then many times after that.
Bill Monroe could be a pretty intimidating guy.
Especially then, those were his intimidating years. Those were the years when he said things like, "Electric guitar? It ain't no part of nothing." But he mellowed out over the years.
How did it change for you guys after the song "Buy For Me The Rain" hit?
We could work, that was the first change. We could get work on a national picture. We could get state fair jobs or dates on the East Coast or whatever. It gave you credibility with people. It was unusual because it happened for us in the first six months. All of a sudden here was a group with-one was a senior in high school, one was a junior, one was in his first year of college, I was in my second year of college, and we were doing it. We were not making a lot of money, we were just surviving.
You were getting paid to travel.
Yeah, we were getting paid to goof off.
So what was the difference in that experience compared to when "Mr. Bojangles" hit?
"Buy For Me The Rain" was followed by three albums that didn't get much notice. The fifth album was "Uncle Charlie and his Dog Teddy," and it had "Mr. Bojangles " on it and that was a hit for something like 32-weeks in a time when most hit records lasted 12-weeks literally. The Jackson Five has three different hits in the time that "Mr. Bojangles" was on and off the charts. All of theirs went number one, but ours kept creeping up a point a week.
I guess the success of that led up to (the legendary album) "Will The Circle Be Unbroken"?
Well, Earl Scruggs came to see us when we played Nashville the year that 'Bojangles' was a hit and I asked him, I said, "Earl, why did you come see us?" Well, part of it was his kids, Gary and Randy who had been listening to our albums saying 'Daddy, this group is using banjo to make hit records'. So Earl said, " I just wanted to meet the man who played "Randy Lynn Rag" (from the Uncle Charlie album) like I meant to." So that put me on a cloud for a long time."
Earl was pretty open-minded though, yes?
He was interested in expansion, doing new things. He liked doing something different.
People like Roy Acuff were a little bit harder to persuade to get to play on "Will The Circle" I hear?
Roy Acuff had one particular sound and that was all he wanted to make. He was a little bit reluctant to record with us, but without Earl Scruggs- Earl was the first guy I asked to do a 'Circle' Album. One night when he was playing in Boulder, a few months after that Nashville meeting, I said 'Would you play on an album with my band', and he said, "I'd be proud to." And then two weeks later I asked Doc Watson the same question, he was playing the same club in Boulder, and thanks to Merle Watson telling him about the band, "Dad, it's a group that I played their album for you, it's got banjo and mandolin and harmonica all over it. I remember you liked some of those songs?" Some of them he didn't like, I'm sure. So then Doc was in, but as the album progressed it was Earl's credibility that won over Maybelle (Carter). He found us Vassar Clements. I remember calling him up and saying, "You find us a fiddle player yet?" and he goes, "I lined up a man that, well, he's just really good named Vassar Clements." I said "Vassar? I never heard that for a name. Are you sure he's any good?" Earl said, "He'll do!" He was so emphatic. I said, "OK, alright." I remember a year after the 'Circle" album I had Vassar on the road with the Dirt Band and even then I didn't realize how deep his riffs were. I asked Vassar if he could show me how to play "Uncle Pen" on the fiddle and he played it through and I said, "This sounds just like the record I'm trying to learn it off of. Did you learn that off that old Bill Monroe record in 1947 or '48?" He said, "John, that was me on that record." (laughs) "I wrote the bridge, Bill never admitted it." Coming up this year, 2002, will be the 30th anniversary re-issue (Of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken") using the original masters with the original artwork printed better, because the original artwork didn't last fifteen years because it was taken from a copy, like a tape, they were using the copy to make the album cover. But I got the master.
What did you do after the Dirt Band broke up?
Well, the Dirt Band didn't really break up. They had "Fishin' in the Dark" and a couple of other hits a couple of years after I left. The one thing about the Dirt band is it's always had this survival instinct or ability. For the 35-years it's been together there's been various points of success. When Jim Ibbotson left in the middle 1970's for five years we had two pop hits, when he came back his song 'Dance Little Jean' was the first country hit we ever had, followed by the first number one song we had which was "Long Hard Road." I just want you to know we didn't really break up. There was a couple of points when it stopped, a couple of years ago Jim left to work with me because we were having so much fun doing duo gigs, which were about two hours a night and every night was different. But even then Jeff (Hanna), Bobby (Carpenter), and Jimmy went out and did a few shows. But last summer we got back together with the original group of the five of us and everything has happened in a way that seems like it should of. It was the best version of the band I've ever been in or seen. People were telling us 'this is the best you guys have ever been', and they were turning out. It is really fun because of the old dream of having a band and going on the road and playing and having fun with it. It all became true. Now with me back in the group we could access a bunch of material that has not been played in ten years, go back to it and revisit it, and even then some of the songs that we played on this last tour were songs that we never played onstage for some reason. Then there were songs that we through in towards the end of the tour that we only did back in 1972-73 like a bluegrass version of "Get Back." It would kill people. Part of the Dirt Band's career was living on a sensibility you see today with groups like Phish or Leftover Salmon where we would go out and play an unpredictable array of music plus throw in songs that people have heard on the radio.
After 35 years as a band , how did you pick the songs to play from all that music?
That was the problem. We got back together for this tour and we have 300 songs from the albums we have recorded. And out of those 300 there are 30 hits, so it was like-" Well, we can't forget this, even though it was an album cut it's a Dirt Band anthem. What about this, we have never done it. Okay, we'll do it." It is that feeling of, 'we cant wait to get on stage,' we are really looking forward to the next trip. It's new and familiar at the same time.
You have a new state of the art DVD coming out this month called, "Nitty Gritty Surround". Tell us about it.
Last year I got a call from Mark Waldrep, who runs AIXrecords, and he said, "I want to make a DVD of your 'Acoustic Traveller' album." I said that I had a better idea. I called him back after thinking about it and said that I would like to put an unusual group of people together and do it in a theater in the middle of California that is a neat historic theater, so we will have a big stage to work with. So I put together on very short notice a bunch of players, and we recorded 11 songs in one day in the '96/24/5.1' surround format. It was shot with four, sometimes five cameras. It is the highest resolution possible for the music. When you sit in the middle of these speakers, 5.1 meaning five speakers plus the bass cabinet, it sounds like you are one of the people playing. When you throw the switch to turn it back to regular stereo, your like "what happened to the music? So, if all this stuff we've been talking about, from the junk band years to playing with weird groups, to doing TV shows where you're lip-syncing songs for no money to driving to gigs where there was no money, and doing all of these funny things over the years, if that hadn't been done, and Mark wasn't good at what he did, and if these players hadn't had the road experience that they had-We went in there and whipped out a cool DVD. I think it will be a big surprise to people.
Have you talked to Steve Martin lately?
Yeah, I had lunch with him just before he hosted the Oscars and he must have said three times, "I can't believe I'm hosting the Oscars." We went to high school together and I taught him how to play the banjo, my brother managed him, and if I would have said to him when he was writing for the 'Smothers Brothers Show,' "Steve I'll bet you a thousand dollars that someday you will host the Oscars and I'll give you ten thousand to one odds", he would have gone for it."
John, tell me about the first time you met Duane Allman.
The Dirt band was on it's first road trip, going through Saint Louis and my brother and I went down to see this group called the Allman Joys and they were absolutely incredible. Bill (Bill McEuen went on to manage the Hourglass in California as well as Steve Martin and Nitty Gritty) convinced them, later that month when we got back to L.A., to come out to L.A. to try and make it. They came out and moved in with the Dirt Band, we all had a house that we were living in at the time in Beechwood Canyon.
Was there a name for the house? It seems all band houses back then had names?
We called it the Dirt House, it's funny you should ask that question, it was a four floor Beechwood Canyon Hollywood house and they took over the top floor and spent a lot of time playing. They opened for us on a couple of shows and they were a new band in town so they could get some shows. Duane was absolutely incredible and Gregg was wonderful, you could tell he (Gregg) had the energy, he wasn't a 'wannabe,' and the band was real good. Johnny Sandlin played bass on a Dirt Band recording called "Collegiana" (on the album "Rare Junk", Liberty records 1968), a 1928 year song, from that time period, which was really cool.
The Allman Joys didn't work out. The record company said,'we think you need a different name', and they called them the Hourglass. They tried to make a sixties thing - you know, nobody knew what they were doing. Record companies didn't know what they were doing. They don't make records, they distribute records, and quite often they think they actually 'make' records, so they find a group with a lot of energy, and they think they should dress one way or another, or should record one way or another. If they had just gone ahead and recorded what the Hourglass was doing, what the Allman Joys were doing, and just called them the "Allmans' it would have been fine. That wasn't the 'pattern« to be in that time period, and possibly the group wasn't really ready.
Duane was absolutely great to the point where when they played at Whisky's (The legendary nightclub The Whisky a Go Go in L.A. that the Doors and others made famous) the place was packed. Three Dog Night would come in and sit there the whole night. In fact they (Three Dog Night) took- it might have been 'Try a Little Tenderness,' it was either that or some other song that they just lifted right off the Allman Brothers stage, and went into the studio that week, and put it out two weeks later and it was a smash.
The Allman's lived in our house for about a month and then they found an apartment, in the Mikado apartments, and they tried to make the Hourglass thing work for a while at Liberty records where they made two albums. But thanks to the drug scene of the sixties and the attractiveness of it, quite often Duane couldn't even play when he was in the studio because he was into Southern Comfort as well as the local drug establishment. And it would mess them up and so sometimes Pete Carr would end playing on some of those recordings. I don«t know if anyone kept track of who is on what songs, but Pete was a great understudy. But when Duane was on it you could tell that he was truly a great one. The last time I talked to him was at the Atlanta airport. He gave me an 'Eat a Peach ' shirt and said "Yeah, I'm clean now, I've been playing like I used to play." Then Duane said "Get that banjer out and play me a tune." "Well, Duane," I said, "Were kind of sitting here in the Atlanta airport". Duane said , "Anybody that doesn't want to hear a banjer can just walk off. I want to hear you pick." It was neat, we sat there for about half an hour and played. I usually would play at the drop of a hat anyway. There were a few people who gathered around, it was a nice little thing. It was just a different time back then. It didn't matter, we just sat there and played, I would play in waiting areas anyway. Those were different days of flying. I could carry my banjo on the plane.
Tell me the story about Gregg's song,"Not my Cross to Bear."
Back in 1968 it didn't work out for the Hourglass and they broke up and Gregg stayed behind and tried to make something happen with my brother managing him. Bill put him together with Larry Simms and Merle Bregante, bass and drums, who were from the group Sunshine Company and had three hits and had broken up.
Had Duane left California at that point?
Yes, everybody but Gregg had gone back to various parts of the South. Gregg stayed out in L.A. and was writing songs and trying to put them together. I recorded him, he came over one afternoon and he had a couple of songs- you know, it was just the way it was. It was two miles from where I was living, come by and set up my recording equipment his new song "Not my Cross to Bear" that he wanted to put on tape. A tape I still have. He had just written it that week, before the Allman Brothers had done it. Boy was it slow. But you could hear the voice there, you could hear the power of the song. Although things didn't work out with Larry and Merle being his rhythm section, those two went on to be in Loggins and Messina for the next 8 years and played on all those records.
What was it like playing with Toy Caldwell and the Marshall Tucker Band?
On 'Long Hard Ride' Toy called me up and said, "Why don't you come on down here and pick on this?" and I ended up picking on four tracks, mandolin, banjo, it was really fun. I liked playing with that group. I sat in with them several times on the road and had a lot of fun playing with them and he liked what I was doing so I went down to Macon for one long night and it worked out.
Your banjo playing turns up in quite a few songs that people remember over the years. Your picking on Michael Martin Murphy's "Carolina in the Pines" is an excellent example.
That was neat, when we worked that up, the two of us were like, "These two instruments don't belong together (piano and banjo)." That song was perfect for this instrument and it was really fun. Actually, I'm proud of that because I was able to get the five-string banjo on a radio, at the time that was a pop hit, 'Carolina in the Pines'. That was a nice little accomplishment. I like some of the other work I did with Murphy equally, but 'Carolina' was a good one.
How did you get into film scoring and what's it like to compose such music?
It's a real challenge to put music behind a picture, it's also very stimulating. In doing a film score, in an hour film you might have 35-minutes of music. In a normal length movie of, say, 110 minutes you will have maybe 60 different music cues. Sixty music cues is like making five albums. Out of those music cues you will have an opening theme, end titles music, something in the middle with a lyrical song, or 'well, the director wrote these lyrics and he wants so-and -so to put music to it', and you have to produce it. There's source music, there's an Armenian band in the background on one song and there's a Holiday Inn jazz band in another song. Do I want to use traditional, do I want to write something in that idiom?
Who cracks the whip as to what you produce for a movie? Is it the editor, the director?
The director is the boss. For instance, when I was doing the "Good Old Boy's" (1996), which was Tommy Lee Jone's first movie as a director and he wrote the screenplay, a movie he did for the Turner Network that had in it an unknown kid named Matt Damon, and Francis Dormand, great people, Sam Shephard- you«re in a team of absolute blood thirsty professionals. I get a call from Tommy Lee one day and he says, "John, you know that first cue when so-and-so is going into town, that's going to work great, the one at the rodeo grounds, that's working just like you said, and in the store that«s really good, that's perfect, I love that idea, but when so-and-so is leaving town, what the hell is that? Sounds like a bunch of *&&*%##@##@ Nashville elevator music. If I would have said, "Well that's the way I felt it, man", it would have been the last time I talked to him. I said, " Well, that's the one I'm just starting to work on right now. I wasn't happy with that either. I'll have it on your desk tomorrow morning." I got that call at five in the afternoon and I worked until three in the morning. And he was right. What I ended up with was better than what I submitted. It doesn't matter if you think the director is right or not. He is right for what he wants, and that's what counts because it's his vision that you have to pay attention too.
When you write the music for a period piece, like the western 'Good Old Boys', or the award winning music for the early 1990's Nashville Network series "The Wild West" that you wrote, do you write music that has authentic songs of that time period, or do you write music that makes people think about life back in those times, that projects an image in the audiences mind of what it was like back then?
When I was doing the "Wild West" I was tried to be as true to the time period as I could in the playing and the execution of the music, and the lyrics of the old songs that were used. In some of the underscore music, that was just supportive of what was going on, I tried to think of what would those players of that day played if they were scoring this picture, right here. I sometimes try to write something that sounds old. I have an album out called "Acoustic Traveller" and there's one on there called "Old Country" and the scenario for that one is its 1910, somewhere maybe in Ohio or western Pennsylvania where there is people gathered in a parlor and you got a piano with a flute, a violin, a banjo player that is up from Virginia, and they get together in the living room. What would they have played in 1910 because there was ragtime, there was traditional, there was folky music, there was classical? I like to create a little mysterious space, you might say.
On your 1996 album "Acoustic Traveller" you are recognized for your guitar playing more than your banjo playing. One reviewer said, "John could play a set of bedsprings if he could get them in tune."
You must have talked with my mother. I was very proud of that one. I was trying to make a different type of statement. I used open tunings, and good guitars, and tried to play a different style, a fingers style of stuff. One of the challenges there was to write as much of it as I could. That album got wonderful reviews. Unfortunately the record company couldn't get it distributed. Out of my albums that have sold it has probably sold the least. From the reviews that I got it should have sold the most. I've had great comments from people about that album and so I am proud of it.
Did your son play on that album?
Yes, he played a lot of rhythm guitar on it and played lead on other things. He was very helpful.
How is it that you know a kid with a famous musician parent is going to follow the same path? Do all of your six kids play instruments?
Only two play as aggressively as I do. Jonathan lives the life of a musician. So does Nathan. You can help them too much. If it's not worth them living in their van or living in a crappy room somewhere. And they don't have any money, and they can't believe in what they are doing enough to go under tough conditions to make it work. Then they don't believe in it enough. It may not work. In other words subsidizing can sometimes be the death of something. I do help Jonathan out but I did not buy him one guitar. I loaned him the money to get them and he paid me back by performing.