Musician:  JOHN McEUEN


Track Video Feature:  “I’LL BE GLAD (WHEN THEY RUN OUT OF GAS)”




by Rodeo Marie Hanson

Inside the sanctuary of anonymity, offered by a luxury hotel, a figure shrouded in mystique rhapsody is perched comfortably at a piano. Sojourners of the caravansary shuffle by the enigmatic presence amidst the grandiose surroundings, casting fleeting glances at the carousel of notes radiating from the clavier—oblivious to “the String Wizard” residing in the shadows—melding into the marble stonework and high-end aesthetics, his distinguished aura perfuses the opulent foyer.

On this eventide, John McEuen is in Reading, Pennsylvania at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel to teach a workshop/jam session and put on a concert, all free of charge to “The Pretzel City’s” residents. Promoted as Guitar-A-Rama, the festivities are presented by the Reading Musical Foundation, an organization which advocates for and supports music education. Also appearing with McEuen is talent local to the area Dave Kline & the Mountain Folk Band, along with Big Valley Bluegrass and guitarist Bryan Betts.

Commenting on Guitar-A-Rama and how he became involved, McEuen says, “It is a couple of people in a community that’s very dedicated to putting on a show that shows somebody that has influence or somebody that’s played, and they picked me this year. They called my agent and booked it. I’d been doing shows that are kind of instructional. The Circle show that I do onstage with the video footage—it’s like a history lesson with music, and I use my brother’s photographs and play in front of them. I guess they thought that I had some value to telling people some of what happened.”

Buried beneath this unassuming façade is a titan of the music industry. Bedecking musical altars from Moscow to Nashville and penning scores for Hollywood feature films, founding member of the renowned Nitty Gritty Dirt Band—musician, singer and producer John McEuen has left an inextricable cultural tattoo on Americana’s corpuscles.

McEuen’s carnal vessel is a reflection of his venerable métier—calloused fingers which have left latent prints spanning continents and crossing oceans of time, the protoplasm roadmap to a whirlpool of stories dance effortlessly across the ebony and ivory keys and galvanized steel wire. Cascading over his shoulders, an alabaster shock of hair reminiscent of an ancient sage from a bygone era; whiskers and bristles frame the beckoning ghost of his past.

Unpretentious simple 21st-century contemporary raiment, an ensemble of a gray t-shirt and casual pants belies the weight of his musical pilgrimage—a pair of comfortable shoes rhythmically tapping against the terrazzo, grounding McEuen to the modern world, temporarily. LAX baggage claim tickets dangle precariously like fragments of gossamer from McEuen’s guitar cases, his only retinue—an earthly reminder that this man is a visitant.

“Long Hard Road”: Young ‘String Wizard’ in Oakland, CA

McEuen reveals the genesis of his moniker and how he became interested in music, “I didn’t become ‘the String Wizard.’ It was in a few reviews, so I used it because I needed to use something—‘the man in black’ was already taken. I only lived in Oakland for a few years—I was born there. The first thing I wanted to say was get me out of here but I didn’t start with music until I was 17. My brother played guitar and I listened when I was 16. At 17, I got a guitar and he showed me what he was playing. Then I saw The Dillards at a club in Orange County. The Dillards were The Darling Family from The Andy Griffith Show and they were the best combination of comedy and music—they were like the Smothers Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs [Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs].”

“American Dream”: College, The Byrds, and the Beach

In art, artists draw from a well of inspiration and hopefully they then contribute to that well for someone else. Chris Hillman of The Byrds is one of the figures McEuen credits for having a band in the first place. He sets the scene for a life-changing event, “The first time I heard The Byrds they weren’t a big group yet, they were just getting on the radio. I was driving to college, my second year of college, and I heard ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ on the radio. What is that? Oh my God! I didn’t go to school that day, I went to the beach and waited for it to come on again because it was the best thing that I ever heard. It was just a lot of inspiration. I’ve played with Chris and his buddy Herb Pedersen—who is responsible for a lot of good things happening in L.A. music. I knew that Chris Hillman was the bass player and he was a mandolin player for The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers from San Diego, and they were a new group. I hoped that if I could get a group going then maybe the same thing would happen. If he can get on the radio, then maybe I can—but I better get a group. I didn’t have a group. I was a college student. Chris Hillman was a couple years ahead of me. At the time my bass player was 18, it was just very strange. I was 20, that’s not that much older than 17, and the other guys were 18 and 19.”

“Propinquity”: Linda Ronstadt, Chewing Gum, and West Point

Pulling back the curtain on the music business in the late 1960s, McEuen shares, “The record company situation changed to where the original songs created by these younger people had so much power and commercial success, that they started taking over the production of records and making of things. Before that, it was like we got a song for you, this guy sent this in, and here’s another one. Songs were fed to the artist. Sometimes the artist would control it a little bit and would choose to not do one, but when they were writing all their own songs this is what they were doing.”

Providing context McEuen observes, “Linda Ronstadt did not write. Linda did other people’s songs, but she chose really well. Linda was a big influence in that she was successful and she was great. At the same time Linda Ronstadt was starting to get noticed, she had to record. When one of our friends was recording in L.A. sometimes you’d go by the studio: ‘Hey, I’m recording next week at Village Recorders.’

A friend of ours was having a session, so I went by the studio one night because there was free food. I was lying on the floor of the studio one time and listening to her—this was in the late 1960s early 1970s. I was sitting in the vocal booth listening to what they were recording, and Linda comes out and says ‘Hey John, I’ve got to do a vocal’ so I gave her the headphones and said I’ll leave. She said ‘No, stay here—I’ll sing to you’ and she sang ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’—she sure killed it. I knew then. I listened to it with all the music behind it—she should be heard, she should get out there. Months later, her music was on the radio—she became the biggest selling female vocalist in the 1970s.”

Painting a portrait of Ronstadt, McEuen reflects, “Linda was always Linda. She was always just really nice.” He recounts a story Ronstadt told him several years later. Ronstadt was in New York doing a bunch of interviews and all she wanted was a stick of gum. She had to call the front desk to have them send up a stick of gum—it cost her $5, and she didn’t care. She figured she must be a star if she’s buying a stick of gum for $5. That was 1974-75, which would be almost $30 in 2024 money. She was in The Waldorf or some fancy hotel.

Reminiscing about a concert The Dirt Band did with Ronstadt, McEuen affectionately recalls, “We were doing a show with her at West Point. She was going to open for The Dirt Band. I said Linda, would you mind going on second instead of opening for us because there are 2000 guys out there and they’ve been trapped in this school for months. You’re the first female—we won’t have a chance if we have to follow you. She said ‘Yeah, I will,’ and she killed it. We did a fine set, but then she went on and it was great.”

“Face on the Cutting Room Floor”: 1969 Musical-Western Paint Your Wagon

Before achieving success in the music industry, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band gained recognition in the film industry by appearing in the 1969 musical-western Paint Your Wagon. McEuen elucidates with a Hollywood director’s skill how he earned a role in a film where Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin sing, “When we got the job on Paint Your Wagon, we weren’t really very good. We had only been playing a few years. We auditioned for Alan Lerner and Joshua Logan at the Paramount Studio in L.A., which had big gates—the ones I would sit across the street from in my car looking at in the years before the Paint Your Wagon audition. I’d go—how do I get through those gates.

My brother [William E. McEuen] was reading Variety one time, and he goes—this is it, this is perfect. He was the manager of The Dirt Band and he set up an audition for this movie that was looking for a bunch of young musicians to play the part of miners during a song. We went in and auditioned on a giant sound stage. It was just the two of them [Lerner and Logan) sitting there watching, asking us to do another song. We would do another song, and they said ‘This could be a big break for you boys.’ It was a lot of fun. We did four months on the set. We weren’t in the movie business, other than standing in front of the cameras, and getting makeup every day at 6 AM—sitting around on the set, waiting for our time.”

“Travelin’ Mood/Chicken Reel”: Earl Scruggs and the Grand Ole Opry

When McEuen was younger, he couldn’t attend Earl Scruggs’ sold-out performance at the Grand Ole Opry. But later, he got to play alongside Scruggs—someone who had been a musical inspiration and hero since his childhood. McEuen takes a trip down memory lane, “My brother and I had gone to the Opry just to see what it was. We were from California. There was no internet, there was no news of what was happening—I didn’t know if the Opry was still running. We got there on a Saturday, a sold-out night, it was a hot August night. Somebody said the back windows are up because it’s so hot. I looked in and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were onstage, and Lester said ‘Let’s bring out Maybelle Carter to do ‘Wildwood Flower,’ and the place exploded. I said to my brother, I’m going to record with those people someday. There wasn’t a Dirt Band then.”

Music Forms a New Circle:

Six years later McEuen was in the studio with Earl Scruggs. The Dirt Band started, and they had some hits. Framing Will the Circle Be Unbroken, McEuen calls to mind, “We got to the studio, and I asked Earl and Doc Watson if they would record in June of 1971, and they said yes. My brother got Merle Travis, and then the other people came along. Eight weeks later, the band started recording in Nashville—and five days later, we were finished with 38 songs. It was a good run.”

Offering insight into the recording process McEuen delineates, “It was recorded in stereo two-track. When you recorded in those days, you were usually recording to a multi-track, which is a two-inch tape that had 16 or 24 tracks on it. You would maybe use 12 of them, or 16 or 18 of them, and then use a couple to overdub on. But if you record two-track, you can’t fix anything—that’s it. You’re recording like the old days, like they did up to the late 1950s. We were recording two-track, so it would go directly to the tape, and that would be the master. This was the master you would make the mother disc from—which would make the stampers, which would go for 25,000 units a piece. If you had a multi-track, that had to be mixed down to the two-track. You had to go from 16 to 24 tracks down to 2, and then make that. With this (two-track), you didn’t lose anything between these two—that’s one reason it went fast.”

“Mr. Bojangles”: New York’s WABC Rick Sklar and Catholic Junior High

Harking back to the success of “Mr. Bojangles,” McEuen connects the dots between Rick Sklar at New York’s WABC radio station and how the floodgates opened after The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band wound up playing at Sklar’s daughter’s junior high school: “The charts were made up by how much airplay you got, how many stations, how many phone calls they got, and how many records it sold. Radio stations would make their decisions on what to play based upon what other people were playing. A lot of major stations like WBCN in Boston, KWKC in Atlanta, and WLS in Chicago—they would follow ABC in New York, you know, WABC in New York. If they were playing it, then Boston BCN would play it. If they weren’t playing it, then these other stations wouldn’t play it.

If ABC didn’t play the record, it most likely would not go to the Top Ten. And Rick, the guy that programmed ABC—his daughter went to this school in lower Manhattan, and we were told when “Mr. Bojangles” was number 17 or 15—well, the record company said it’s not going to the Top Ten because ABC has said they aren’t going to play it. Well, isn’t there anything we can do about that? You could play this Catholic junior high school in Manhattan. Yeah, why’s that? You see, Rick Sklar, the man that programmed ABC, his daughter goes to that school and that sometimes makes him pay attention more.

As we were setting up at nine in the morning to do the 11:30 lunchtime show for the junior high girls, I mean, I got nothing against Catholic female students, or even junior high. I have a lot of kids. But, as we were setting up there, the sister in charge walks in and said, ‘Do you boys need anything?’ I said, yeah, no, we’re fine—who else has played your lunchtime program for the girls here? ‘Oh, we’ve been very lucky. We’ve had Aretha Franklin, The Jackson 5, Paul Simon. Early in the year, we had that young British boy John Lennon.’ I thought, well, okay, thanks—we’ve got an important show to get ready for. And those people and many, many others did a concert for this Catholic junior high school, and I think it affected their careers. That show was on Friday morning and on Monday morning, ‘Here’s a new song by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band—ABC wants to bring you ‘Mr Bojangles’ by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.’ They played the record and it ended up staying on the air. At that point, it was in its 17th week, and on its way down, and it turned into being back on the way up—made it to the Top 10. It was on the charts for a total of 38 weeks. If ABC hadn’t played it, it would have just been heard in secondary stations, secondary markets. But as it was, they gave it that extra push, and a bunch of other stations jumped on the record and it became an amazing record.”

“White Russia”: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1977 Trip to The Motherland

A man named David Hess, who worked in the Cultural Affairs Department, was in Russia, and they were committed to bringing over an American group that made its own music decisions. Not a star with a band, but a group. Hess was a big Dirt Band fan, and he pitched the band to the Russians, who came to see them four times. The last time was in Aspen, Colorado. McEuen points out, “They quit looking at the other groups. They looked at Chicago and the Grateful Dead—no too much drugs—and the Eagles. The Eagles were not in the mix of what they wanted. It sounded too much alike or something. They decided on The Dirt Band.

We got the call from the State Department. The Russians are going to be there again tonight watching your show. When you were told that was going to happen and that you might end up going to Russia, it was like, okay. No American group had been there before. There was no knowledge of a lot of bands in America. We did songs when we went over there. We did 28 shows. It all sold out—2,000 to 4,000 seats. One place was 5,000 seats. We did four shows there, but we did these shows that people just went nuts. We were told that the audience would be very respectful. Well, they were respectful, and they stood up when it was illegal to stand up at a public event. These people were on their feet by the middle of the show.

My favorite memory is one of the shows in Leningrad—a woman that was one of the tour managers, ‘When we get to Leningrad, they will be respectful but not like in Riga or Georgia or Armenia. They would like you but you maybe get one encore.’ We were walking off stage after our third encore and the people were up by the front of the stage, hands in the air—you know, clapping and stuff—‘more more’. I’ll never forget Arina saying, ‘I never thought in Leningrad, this audience.’ We went out and did our fourth encore after a guy ran up on stage and played air guitar with Jeff [Hanna], and a woman had run up on stage on the second encore to catch one of the other guitar players and it was really exciting. I said, ‘Well Arina, it’s American music.’ We were doing songs from Chuck Berry, and we did a variety of songs along with our own music. We wanted to cover a bunch of different people, and we took a female with us—a woman who sang a couple songs, and then sang along on other songs of ours.”

“Buy for Me the Rain”: Bob Dylan and $2,500

McEuen hired Bob Dylan for a high school concert right about the time The Dirt Band was starting. He tells the tale, “I had this opportunity to put up money. This guy was doing a show at a high school and he needed $2,500. I had $2,500 and Bob Dylan only cost $5,000—and that’s pretty cheap. We sold out the auditorium. It got me a front row seat—that’s all I got. But even then, Bob was mysterious. I can remember sitting in that front row seat, looking at the stage door—I saw it open up and this guy gets out of the limousine with a harmonica rack and a guitar, and he walks out on stage and sings for an hour and a half. Then he walks back out, gets into the limousine and drives away. That’s a pretty good way to make a living! That drove me to continue to get a band, try to get on the radio, and all that.”

“Make a Little Magic”: Baez, Dylan Sound Check

Eight years later, The Dirt Band was doing a show in Florida, and McEuen booked a day off so he could see The Rolling Thunder Revue in Lakeland Florida. Comparing and contrasting Dylan’s 1975-76 concert tour to security measures in the 21st century, he vocalizes, “I went to the sound check—it’s easy to get into a sound check—you just go in. It might be harder now. Back then, if you were there at 4, you must be working. Most people didn’t know that everybody does a sound check because you have to check the mics. That was fun. Joan Baez was on that show, and trying to get her guitar to work. I’m one of three people in this 10,000 seat room, and I’m at the front of the stage watching them trying to figure out the guitar. She had the same kind of boxes that they were playing into that I had, and I didn’t want to say anything. I said plug that into the hole that’s in the back, not the one you’re doing, and then run that to the PA—that’s the way that box works. Bob was down there looking at this box with Joan, and looks at me and said, ‘Do what he says—that was the first recognition from Bob Dylan, but that was fun and it worked—her guitar worked fine. I was just a fan, but he went out and he killed it.”

“Partners, Brothers and Friends”: Steve Martin and “King Tut”

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band backed McEuen’s good friend Steve Martin on his 1978 novelty hit “King Tut,” which made it to #17 in the U.S.A. Tracing his friendship with Martin, McEuen explains, “Steve Martin and I got into banjo at the same time—we were 16 years-old, and trying to get jobs at Disneyland’s Magic Shop. We succeeded. We got the job, and celebrated by having lunch at Tomorrowland. I had a tuna sandwich—it was really good. I didn’t do any drugs. I don’t drink. I never could understand drugs and why people do them. So I didn’t have a lot of friends at the time. A few years later, when The Dirt Band was happening, then in the 1970s and 1980s, marijuana, cocaine, uppers, and downers, and all that stuff—it was kind of sad.

David Crosby was doing an interview in 2011. I really liked David Crosby from that point on—when he said ‘Drugs didn’t do anything good, it shortened my life, I’ve got liver problems and I can tell you a long list of people that are dead.’ It might have created some flashes of genuine genius or something musically but often it couldn’t be counted on.

Steve was not into drugs. I wasn’t into drugs. Some of the band guys were. Steve wasn’t into being a band member. Steve Martin is on his own—he didn’t team up with anybody really until Dan Aykroyd on SNL, and now lately Martin Short—that’s because they’re working together. Steve was being managed by my brother and he had this song “King Tut,” and we had done it with him. He came to see us at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in L.A., which is a real classy room—about 2,400 seats. He came into the dressing room and said he had this idea for a song, and we worked it out. We went out and did it that night, and the room just exploded. It was our audience and Steve wasn’t a big star. He hadn’t been on Saturday Night Live more than once, and The Tonight Show a few times. But the next week, we were in Aspen and recorded “King Tut” in seven hours—from start to finish, including mixing. It came together really fast, and was a good example of a hit record. Steve’s a fine banjo player.”

“Workin’ Man”: Music Education in School

As part of Guitar-A-Rama, McEuen was invited to lead a workshop/master class on playing the 5-string banjo, among other Appalachian acoustic instruments. Sadly, music education is often one of the first programs to be eliminated from public school funding. McEuen gives his perspective on the subject, “I think music education is extremely important. Music gives you a basis. When you understand how to read music and play it, the orchestra, backing up something that’s on the stage—it gives you a more balanced life than if you’re just a math major, and only know math. Music is very mathematical. If you have an interest in science, it’s scientific too—soundwaves. I just think it’s important—it gives people a basis to have a broader life.”

With 50 years of experience in the music industry, McEuen proposes that young people who want to pursue music as a full-time career—get a job, go to school—find something to supplant their income. He states explicitly, “It’s very hard to make an income in the music business—to feed yourself. Usually when I do a lecture for a music class or music school, there’s this story of a guy who writes a letter to his father. ‘Dear father, I’m not asking for money. I want you to know that everything’s going well now. I’ve got a new piece of music written, and I’ve got a concert at the hall in town. I’m getting the tickets printed, hiring musicians for rehearsal and people seem to like the music. I’m really looking forward to it. I got to get the posters made—and that’s Amadeus Mozart. He’s writing about, I did the music, now I have this other stuff to do and wanted to get word of that music out to people and it hasn’t changed.”

The NewsmanA Man of Record—10 Years in the Making

McEuen worked over a period of 10 years to bring The Newsman: A Man of Record [Compass Records] to fruition—slowly cobbling together pieces of songs. He saw News of the World with Tom Hanks, which was the impetus that made him finish the album. The premise of the film—a guy that goes around the country telling people things—they didn’t have any other way to find out. It sounded intriguing to McEuen, who has done several film scores. Drawing from his experience in screen composition, he approached the project like a film score, “I’ve done about 14 film scores. I was doing one for Tommy Lee Jones in the 1990s [The Good Old Boys]. On one music cue, he goes ‘That gets in the way. If somebody says—what a great score or I notice that score, you’re not doing the job, you’re not supporting the picture—you’re not supporting what’s happening. You’re dominating it. You have to be part of it.’ So keeping that in mind, I recut the cue and it worked a lot better because it had to emphasize the emotions of what’s on the screen—what the words are saying, without getting in the way of the dialogue.

Film scores can be really complicated, and there are different versions. One type of film score is source music. They’re in a bar, there’s a jukebox playing a Willie Nelson song, and they’re dancing. During their conversation (sings “On the Road Again”) and that comes in between what’s going on. Then there’s underscore—it’s all got to be supportive. Then there’s opening credit music, which is different than the closing credits. It’s like five different jobs. I took the job that’s in the middle with these stories, and added music that I hoped doesn’t get in the way of the story, but it helps support them.”

The opening track “The Newsman” finds a young John McEuen reflecting on West Hollywood California at Ben Frank’s, a restaurant that attracted the likes of Jim Morrison, Frank Zappa, and the producers of The Monkees television show when they did their casting. News of the World starring Tom Hanks ties into the thematic element of the opening track “The Newsman”—someone who neither writes nor makes the news but rather delivers it.

McEuen could’ve been part of the late 1800s’ traveling medicine shows, hawking elixirs and tonics to soothe and heal a nation sundered by “War of the Rebellion”—the serpentine rhythm of a wagon’s ponderous wheels delivering him like a much-needed mellifluent musical messiah to an unsuspecting little town in Pennsylvania—a place called Gettysburg. In another incarnation, McEuen would’ve found himself plucking strings of a banjo to “John Brown’s Body,” with bittersweet tenderness as smoke on the battlefield rose and receded behind spilt-rail fences to reveal a sea of crimson.

News of the World and “Killed at the Ford” both take place during the Civil War. McEuen articulates what he finds so intriguing about that era, “Well, ‘Killed at the Ford’ is a good rendition that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about somebody that got killed—don’t even know what side he’s on. I tied it in with a song that was written at the end of the Civil War, ‘Vacant Chair.’ The ‘Vacant Chair’ song was capturing what happened in that war for many people. He’s gone and we’ll miss him, and we’ll leave a chair vacant at the table because he can’t be here, and they just seem to go together naturally. When I heard that poem and recorded the song, it just—it seemed to be timeless—the message that it had. When you put that together with ‘Nui Ba Den’ which is a letter written to a man’s brother, who was in Massachusetts, and he was in the battle Nui Ba Den—writing about it. It just seemed to go together somehow, and that music was totally different. That was a hard one to read because you’re actually reading the words of the guy that was at the battle—not just making up what he thought his impression was—here’s your gun, you don’t have to win. If you want to stay alive just keep your head low and get through it, and stuff like that. It just seemed to resonate with me.”

“I’ll be Glad (When They Run Out Of Gas)”—the subtext of this track is deliverance from a petroleum-based economy and the so-called conveniences of modern technology. A typewriter appears on the cover of The Newsman instead of a laptop suggesting an analog existence rather than a digital one. McEuen elaborates, “It’s just somebody that is not in tune with what is going on with petroleum. It’s supposed to be a funny song. I’ve got to get my gas-powered turtleneck going here. It’s my gas-powered lawnmower, my gas-powered you know—and it’s just, it’s a silly song with somewhat of a message. It’s written by Hans Olson, a friend of mine in Phoenix.”

“The Cremation of Sam McGee” based on the poem of Robert W. Service is autobiographical in nature, and is ambiguous at the end—whether or not Cap, our narrator, sees Sam’s ghost or Sam himself.

“Old Rivers” and “Jule’s Theme” also deal with death. Getting a bit metaphysical, McEuen speaks his philosophy on the afterlife, “I haven’t been there yet. I’m hoping that it’s pleasant, but yeah—I don’t know. I can’t propose that you know—is it heaven or is it hell, or are we living heaven now or are we living it after we live? Houdini was a big influence on me. He put up $10,000 in the 1930s to anyone that can communicate with the afterlife—because mediums were a big thing. He put up the money to try and see if anybody could prove that they could talk to the afterlife—to people after they were dead, and nobody ever collected it.”

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