By Kathryn G. Menu
Coined “The String Wizard” as a musician who is proficient in banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, lap steel, and piano, McEuen talks about his career with the famed Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, performing with his son, Nathan, and why East Hampton’s Guild Hall has become one of his favorite venues.
This will be your second year playing Guild Hall. What was it about last year’s show that made you want to return?
It was a great show, a perfect room, a great crew, and it’s what I like to do — play nice places. It’s what I dreamed of doing when I was 18, traveling around the country, finding nice places to play, bringing my music and some other players to the stage and helping people forget where they are for a little while.
You’re a founding member of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and that group’s classic album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is considered one of the great collaboration albums of all time. How did it come together?
I was taking Earl Scruggs back to a hotel one night in Colorado after a gig and was bold enough to ask him if he would make an album with us and he said, ‘I would be proud too.’ Two weeks later Doc Watson was playing the same club, and we asked him if he would like to make an album with Earl, even though it wasn’t happening yet, and he said it was a good idea. So my brother [Bill McEuen, the Dirt Band’s producer and manager] and I started talking about it with other musicians. Earl was instrumental in getting the other players, and when we got into the studio we found out everyone was equally excited to play with each other. Merle Travis turned to Doc Watson and said, ‘I have always wanted to meet you.’ And we were sitting there watching it all happen.
Your performance at Guild Hall, John McEuen and Friends, will feature Matt Cartsonis, who you affectionately refer to as a “badass gittar player” on your website. What is Matt’s sound like, and how does it jive with how you play?
I don’t think I ever used that word, although if I did it would certainly apply to Matt. How can you describe a sound with words? Matt has a background in bluegrass and he put the “tic” in eclectic. With his mandola and guitar and acrobatic vocals, he is even fun in the car.
I sat in with Matt in Phoenix one night about 25 years ago. I went out to a bar and he asked me to sit in with the band and we played a bunch of songs from “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” He knew them all, and he didn’t have to practice, and over the years we have worked up some songs of our own.
Another “friend” set to join the stage is your son Nathan, an accomplished guitar player in his own right. What does playing with him bring to the table?
Nathan is 30 years old, and I don’t turn him loose until the middle of the show. He does this because he loves it and this is his career. He is moving to New York, which is exciting for me because I live on the Upper East Side.
I think we have things we can do on stage together that no one else can. His songs reach people, as does his voice and his playing, and he is just a fun performer.
That is the other thing I like about Matt. I think of any audience that comes to a show, half are the people who came to see you and will take almost anything. We play to the other half of the room, because if we can reach them, we have won the room and that’s fun. I think that is why Guild Hall wanted us back seven months after we played there last year and it’s a privilege.
Michael Clark of Crossroads Music in Amagansett has used grassroots promotions to successfully build a community around music on the East End, including through sponsoring talent like yours on the Guild Hall stage. How did you come to know Michael?
I walked into his music store. I was visiting the Hamptons last October and walked in and met him. It was very organic, as people say, or maybe I can say that because I am from California.
Do you enjoy being part of that kind of environment as a break from big city promoters and record company contracts?
There are a lot of people in the industry wonderful to work with and a lot that are difficult, like any business, but when you come across someone like Michael Clark — he is the guy who makes things work in a way we all like. He is hard working, honest, believes in pursuit and has a wonderful store. Michael doesn’t know it yet, but 20 years from now people will be saying, ‘I got my start at Crossroads Music in Amagansett.’ It’s a cultural center. I have seen this kind of thing happen across the country. I had been to Amagansett before, played the Stephen Talkhouse, but until he came along there wasn’t that focus. It’s like McCabe’s in Santa Monica or the Folklore Center in Denver —there are places like this that can affect a community, and you are lucky to have him.
Steve Martin, who is also playing Guild Hall this summer, has credited you with teaching him how to play the banjo and is one of your oldest friends. It seems like you’ve influenced each other with your music. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to produce Steve’s latest album “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo,” which won a Grammy Award for best Bluegrass Album in 2010?
Forty-eight years I have known the guy, and he is nice enough to have said that, but the truth is we both started playing at the same time. I picked up some things faster than him, I showed him some things, but very early on he was coming up with melodies I wished I had written. When we made the album, I wanted to say to him, ‘I told you.’ I wasn’t just saying, ‘Real nice banjo tune Mr. Movie Star,’ I actually meant it.
I think of Steve as a complicated individual that has several avenues of expression and I always thought the musical and writing avenues were his strongest suits. That is just my opinion, but I knew I could put his music in the proper frame. If you took Aaron Copland, the Music Man, Disneyland and Flatt and Scruggs and mix them together you have a great Steve Martin album. After it came out, he wrote me an email and said, ‘You made a masterpiece out of my music.’ And again, all I wanted to say was, ‘I told you so.’
Your “Acoustic Traveller” radio show on XM Radio concentrates on how periods of musical history have affected different musicians and how one genre of music can influence another. What have been your biggest influences and in turn how do you think your music and the music of the Dirt Band has influenced musicians today?
The group The Dillards, the guitar player Merle Travis, and certain banjo players that were performers, like Victor Borga. Disneyland was a big influence on me. As a music man, I like the idea of putting such a powerful story together with different kinds of music.
My influences are many, those are just some of them, but ultimately I have been influenced by performance-oriented musicians, not the people who sit up on the stage and play, looking at their feet.
When I hear certain songs on the radio, I can hear an influence from the Dirt Band, whether it’s the instrumentation or the arrangement. Garth Brooks once said he used to perform three Dirt Band songs before he had his own hits.
People do not make hit records. They make records and the audience makes it a hit. We don’t always know what we are doing, but sometimes an album just falls into favor. The Dirt Band didn’t write “Fishin’ in the Dark,” but our version of the song sold 500,000 units after it debuted on iTunes. “Mr. Bojangles” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009, but we didn’t tell them to put there. It wasn’t like we sat there and thought, let’s record this song and 40 years from now it will be in the Hall of Fame. It’s just going out and doing what you do and hoping it finds ears and eyes and that people talk about it.