The Acoustic Storm Interviews
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has been making music for over 40 years. These days, the group is a quartet, consisting of Jeff Hanna on guitars and vocals; Jimmie Fadden on drums, harmonica, and vocals; Bob Carpenter on keyboards, accordion, and vocals; and John McEuen on banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin.
The Acoustic Storm caught up with John McEuen of the Dirt Band on April 27, 2007 while he was in Wilkesboro, North Carolina for a performance at Merle-Fest.
ACOUSTIC STORM: What have you been up to lately?
JOHN MCEUEN: For the last five years, I’ve been out with the Dirt Band. We do about 60 shows a year, and on top of that I play about 50 of my own and take my banjo, mandolin and fiddle out on the road and see what we can do. I also have a film score I’ve been working on about Maynard Dixon, a famous western artist, kind of a notch below Remington. A few months ago, I did a Sesame Street project where I sang “Oh Susannah” with 50 goats and a cow, which will be released as a DVD in the summer. And I have a film score for a mini-series called “The Wild West” that gets released in June on the Varese-Sarabande label. It’s something I produced with a bunch of different artists, kind of like a “Circle be Unbroken” album of 1880.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Let’s retrace some of your career. How old were you when you got started playing music?
MCEUEN: Well actually, when I turned 18 I got my first banjo. I had been borrowing one for a few months, but my birthday present from my father was the only thing I wanted…a banjo.
He told me that he thought I was going down the wrong road, but he ended up giving my a banjo for my birthday.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Was there a band or artist that particularly influenced you growing up?
MCEUEN: The main influence that hit me was a group the Dillards that I saw when I was 17. And that’s what kind of drove me to being a performer. They were the perfect combination of Flatt & Scruggs and the Smothers Brothers… hot music and they were funny and a good time. And then as time went on, in ’66 The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band started and we were kind of an eclectic group in the beginning. The music was either old jug-band music or folk songs or songs that were written by people in the group.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Well before we get to talking about the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, I’ve got to ask you something. I’m sure you know where I’m going with this, but when you worked as a youngster at Disneyland you met another guy who shared some things in common with you and went on to become a famous comic actor, and that of course, is Steve Martin.
MCEUEN: When I worked in the magic shops at Disneyland for several years while in high school and a couple of years in college, Steve and I started playing banjo right around the same time. In fact, I think we both got a banjo at the same time… and I ended up showing him what I was learning because he didn’t have time to slow the records down. Steve went on to have a career and my brother managed him and produced his movies and I played along in his music. Did you know that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was the band on the King Tut record of Steve’s?
ACOUSTIC STORM: I didn’t realize that.
MCEUEN: My brother Bill produced that record and Steve needed a band. I’ll never forget that night. We were playing the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in L.A. and Steve comes into the dressing room and says,” I have this idea for a song…on the bass go, ‘thung, thunngg’ and you guys go ‘tut, tut’.” Well anyway, we worked it up in the dressing room and did it that night on stage and it just floored people.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Do you maintain a close relationship or at least stay in touch with Steve?
MCEUEN: Well, when you called me earlier I was on the phone with him. Yeah, Steve and I email each other probably every week or so. He gave me his memoirs that’ll come out in about five months to go over a rough draft and it was fun. He was saying, “… I’m having trouble with some of the time-line here, can you help me out?” Yeah, I stay in touch with Steve, he’s a good guy.
ACOUSTIC STORM: And early on, you worked with another Martin, Michael Martin Murphey.
MCEUEN: Michael Murphey and I played together about for six months before the Dirt Band started. Over the years I recorded on five or six of his albums….songs like “Carolina in the Pines,” Wildfire,” and “Cherokee fiddle.” Some of my best work is on Michael Murphey’s albums (laughs).
ACOUSTIC STORM: Then came the beginnings of the Dirt Band, which at the time was called the Illegitimate Jug Band.
MCEUEN: I had a group with a guy named Les Thompson. Keep in mind that everybody was so young, Les was a junior in high school and we had a band named the Wilmore City Moonshiners, a four piece bluegrass band, and that worked for a little while. He ended up playing mandolin and bass when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band started up. We started the band in August of 1966. I’d used the band to back me up at a banjo contest in Topanga Canyon, California and since I won, I figured, it worked with these guys maybe we should keep playing together. That’s how it started. Seven months later, we had our first record on the radio. At that time, one guy was a junior in high school, one was a senior, and one had just graduated. I was the old guy, I was 21. And when we went on the road, I became the road manager also, because I was the only one old enough to rent a car.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Wasn’t Jackson Browne in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at one point?
MCEUEN: Jackson was in the group for two jobs. I sat in with the band once when Jackson was there. It was mainly a group that was playing hootnannies and whatever. Again, keep in mind, it was the mid-late 60’s, and you just didn’t want to go home, so you went to the folk club. It was so formative. I’ll never forget one night at the club, I was going to play with the band and Jackson walks in from the parking lot and says ‘hey listen to this song’ and he starts playing this song, and I said ‘man, that’s really nice, where’d you learn it?’ Jackson says, ‘Oh, I just made it up.’ It was the song “These Days” and I was the first guy to hear it. And I realized then, that some of us are really good. He went out on stage and played it that night and people soaked up every word.
ACOUSTIC STORM: What year was that?
MCEUEN: That was ’66.
ACOUSTIC STORM: It didn’t come out until the album “For Everyman” in 1973.
MCEUEN: That’s right. Jackson had to go off and learn how to sing. He took singing lessons for a couple of years and got a record deal and started making his first album. In the interim, our relationship was always good with Jackson, and I moved into the group and we recorded a couple of his songs including “These Days” and “Shadow Dream Song,” and one called “Melissa,” on our first album, a kind of 1930’s sounding-song.
ACOUSTIC STORM: How did you guys come up with such an unusual name for the group, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band?
MCEUEN: It came out really quick. Basically, the band was playing a talent contest and needed a name to play the talent contest. And Jimmy said, “How about we call ourselves the Dirt Band because we’re playing earth music”, and Jeff says “Well I like Nitty Gritty Band.” So in under a minute we decided on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It ended up being a good thing, but only because of the longevity of the band, it finally worked out. I mean there were some years when it sounded like the Strawberry Alarm Clock, or the 1910 Fruitgum Company. We know that there were years like 1979, when we had records on the radio like “American Dream” or “Make a Little Magic” that the radio people didn’t want to identify the record by saying Nitty Gritty Dirt Band after playing something by Led Zeppelin or John Denver…it just didn’t sound right.