By Jeffrey V. Smith
After more than 25 years, multi-instrumentalist John McEuen is returning to his former hometown of Idaho Springs, April 13, for a solo performance at the United Center. He also plays shows at Boulder’s eTown Hall, April 14, and Loveland’s Rialto Theater, April 15, with Jimmy Ibbotson. The “string wizard” brings his banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar—and his more than 300 song repertoire—to the intimate United Center for a special solo night of music focusing on two of his career high points —the recording of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken album in 1971 and their travels to Russia in 1977. Both events occurred while he was living in Clear Creek County.
An introduction to McEuen’s career runs the risk of being unreasonably long. He has continually performed at more than 8,500 concerts and 300 television shows since 1964 and founded the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1966. He has made over 40 albums that have earned four platinum and five gold recognition awards, Grammy nominations and awards, CMA and ACM awards, an Emmy nomination, IBMA record of the year award, and performed on another 25 albums as guest artist. He’s also produced more than 300 concerts throughout his career, the first in 1965 with Bob Dylan.
Even if you aren’t familiar with McEuen’s solo work or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, there is a chance he’s worked with a performer you do know. He has performed or recorded with Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Steve Martin, Phish, Crystal Gayle, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Leon Russell, Pete Seeger, Dizzy Gillespie, The Band, The Doors, Foreigner, John Denver, Kenny Rogers, Little Richard, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Doobie Brothers and countless more.
Beyond performing, McEuen spends his time creating, producing and preserving original and traditional folk and acoustic music and taking it to new audience. He’s a veteran producer of albums, videos, shows, and film scores and creates his “Acoustic Traveler” shows on Sirius/XM radio.
“I’m really looking forward to going back to Idaho Springs, I feel like the Prodigal Son returns. That’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s a nice venue… they’ve got a good future there. It’s only 150 seats, but that’s a good size.”
At the United Center show, McEuen will be using a lot of video, film and still photos from the recording session of Will the Circle Be Unbroken and telling stories. He will be playing live music on stage with pictures of that song’s session projected behind him. “Like, when I’m doing one of the songs Maybelle Carter recorded, you’ll be watching pictures of her session going by,” he said. The artist also has an 18-minute section where he takes the audience to Russia with him. “I took an 8mm camera with sound, and cut that together. It’s a multi-media presentation.”
He explained he likes to make sure the audience is involved and part of what he does. “If they didn’t like what we did, we wouldn’t have anything to do,” he said. “I can’t sit at home and say ‘honey, want to hear Bojangles again.’”
McEuen’s solo performances are usually fairly loose. “I usually know about half of what I’m going to do, I’m just not sure what the order is,” he said. “The reason I say that, is people request things. I probably have 300 songs I can play, and if half of them suck that still leaves 150. Take half of those and that leaves 75. Well, you can’t play 75 songs in a night, so I try to pick the best of things and bring my guitar, fiddle, mandolin and some of the stories I’ve been lucky enough to have experienced.”
The musician and his Nitty Gritty Dirt Band band mates first came to Colorado in 1971 after “the big earthquake” in L.A. told them it was time to go. “We had been working a lot, traveling—I don’t think I’d changed my strings 20 times yet, but it seems like I was well weathered—and we had crossed through Colorado several times. Everybody just went, let’s go to that Colorado place, and we made it our new home state.” McEuen moved to Clear Creek County where he raised his kids. “I took my daughter to her first year of school in Idaho Springs, I played at the high school at benefits to raise money for band uniforms, stuff like that. It was really a good time.” In fact, McEuen credits a teacher at Clear Creek High School for inspiring his oldest son to go on and create planetarium shows that currently runs in 20 countries. “I also lived in Silver Plume couple of years, so I’ve spend a lot of time going up and down I-70.”
Much of McEuen’s success over the years has come from going with the flow. “It’s amazing. If you want to do something, you can,” he said. “The best thing when you’re trying to do it is to have a lot of people say, ‘who do you think you are, that’s not going to work,’ because then you know you’re doing the right thing… because they didn’t think of it.” Some situations come about simply by accident.
“We were recording Willie Nelson on Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. 3, when I heard Tom Petty was down the hall in another studio. I walked in and said, ‘hello Tom Petty, my name is John, I’m with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band… and he nodded like he recognized the name. I said, ‘Let me ask you one question, have you ever wanted to sing with Willie Nelson? All of a sudden it was a different conversation… So he came down the hall and we made a recording of Tom Petty, Willie and the Dirt Band. That kind of thing is looking at what’s in front of you.”
After so many years on the road and musical incidents, McEuen is full of humorous stories about his experiences. “I opened for Kenny Rogers once, solo, in Denver. I remember going out and saying I’m really proud to be here opening for Kenny tonight. I’ve been a fan of him and his brother Roy for many years,” he said. “Those things you never forget.”
Another time, McEuen was playing the Illinois State Fair and the talent buyer asked him to substitute for a headliner’s opening act that had to cancel. “You want me to go out there with a banjo and open for Kenny G?,” McEuen said. “I walked out on stage all by myself with a banjo and I said, ‘Hi, I’m Stanley Jordon, it’s been a rough year.’ If you can get 8,000 people laughing, which they did, they’re not going to hate you for a few minutes, and we got an encore.”
The hard-working musician says he is still working on his music after more than 50 years or touring and recording. “I’m working on trying to write new music that people like and perfecting bringing that to a stage,” he explained. “There is nothing more fun then playing that one-on-one chess game with the audience. You make a move and they do something, and then you try to figure out how to get a better reaction. I just want to play better. All the years I’ve done this, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’m trying to improve all that. Making sure things come out right. I feel like I’m just getting started. Things have really been looking good the last couple of years.”
Originally published in the April 2016 issue of the MMAC Monthly