The McEuen Sessions Keep the Circle, Truly, Unbroken
To understand the importance of The McEuen Sessions – For All the Good, you really need to review the history of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Drive-by fans often recall the band’s radio-friendly cover of the Jerry Jeff Walker “Mr. Bojangles,” released in 1970 and talk about the group launching one-time member Jackson Browne into international stardom. Those that have done their homework know that its not a stretch to say the band was one of the main forces that invented country rock, serving as the training grounds for not just Browne but musical guideposts for everyone from the Eagles to Alabama to Brad Paisley.
“It is more than a shock that it’s been 46 years than anything,” said John McEuen when asked to reflect on the years since the Dirt Band formed. “It’s a number that has a lot of impact because every show has to be better than the last because it could be the last show you do. Every show is the most important show you are doing whether you’re at a county fair or an amphitheater. Music is what your life is and you need to treat it that way. [My sons] feel the same way.”
Although Jonathan and Nathan McEuen, the sons of which John McEuen speaks, are only in their 30s, you can say their musical background began 46 years ago. That’s when their Grammy Award winning dad who has long been dubbed the “String Wizard” for his prowess on banjo, mandolin, guitar and all things string, launched a career that would find him collaborating with everyone from Bob Dylan to Kris Kristofferson to Donovan and Arlo Guthrie. It was only natural that he wanted to pass his love of music to his kids.
“He started us really young; he didn’t want until we were 17,” said Jonathan of his father’s influence. “He gave us guitars when we were six and we’d go out on the road with him.”
John McEuen said that working with his sons when they were young was fun, at first, but then sibiling rivalries and other childhood emotions got in the way so they took a break for a while.
Although Jonathan felt a need to also change musical styles — from acoustic to electric — it wasn’t too long before he felt the pull of the Dirt Band sound luring him back. About 2005 he formed the Hanna-McEuen duo with Jamie Hanna, son of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founder Jeff Hanna. “We love the Dirt Band and we got together as a duo to play their songs. We talked about the Dirt Band [to our audiences] and honor them on stage and we call it our last name just for that reason….I’ve made dozens of albums myself and finally said ‘Let’s get back to the family thing.’”
Nathan had a similar musical trajectory loving to perform with his dad from the time he was in grade school, but feeling he had to break away or risk becoming something akin to another version of his famous dad.
“Kids whose fathers are musicians are like that,” he said. “Although we grew up in the music industry and its our heritage, we [often] want to reach out. I wanted to find my own way and have my independence. When I was a teenager I was into Nirvana and Green Day and from there I went to hip hop and classical. I just wanted to make sure I knew what style of music I really wanted to make.”
In a way, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band went through similar growing pains moving from a jug band in its infancy to a folk-rock sound before expanding into country rock.
It wasn’t until 1972 when Bill McEuen, John’s older brother and the band’s one-time manager and producer, suggested the group go Nashville and record with legendary performers including Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Mother Maybelle Carter and other. At that time, of course, the Dirt Band members were considered the scruffy rebels to the Nashville royalty. Few would have likely predicted that the resulting triple album Will the Circle Be Unbroken not only propelled the band into international fame but also married country and rock.
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In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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