Coffee-Shop Legend 

John McEuen, of the renowned Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, headlines a show at ... Javalinas?!

You have to hand it to John McEuen.

As a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, he gets to play several dozen relatively high-profile festival and casino shows a year. The money is decent; the band is well-loved and stays tight; and he's never on tour long enough for it to get old. But when he's not on the road with the Dirt Band, he gets to revel in his ability to simply be John McEuen, a composer and remarkable multi-instrumentalist who has no need to play by anyone's rules but his own.

It's an attitude that allows him to be guided by his intuition, showing more of an interest in creating good music for attentive people than the size of the venue or the number of tickets sold. Given this perspective, he might show up anywhere and anytime.

But Javalinas? On a Tuesday night?

"My son Nathan played there a while back," he said in a recent interview. "And he told me it was a pretty fun place, and that I should check it out."

Nathan McEuen is one of two sons who play on their own with and without their old man. (Son Jonathan plays with Dirt Band co-founder Jeff Hanna's son in Hanna-McEuen.) "Nathan plays guitar, sings great and has his own recordings," brags John McEuen. "He has the kind of voice that just draws people in. People seem to go out of their way to compliment me on that."

He says he used to take his sons out with him to play. "Now they're on their own, and every now and then, they'll ask me to play."

Alternating between banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin, McEuen says his solo shows will typically lean on a few Dirt Band faves. "We're talking older-version Dirt Band--hippie influence," he says. Clearly enjoying his role as an elder statesman of hippie-fied country rock, with his big gray beard, McEuen says, "I've actually been referred to as the Jerry Garcia of country music."

He makes it clear, however, that he'll also be playing a lot of his "Americana" solo material, heavily influenced by bluegrass, folk, blues and the Dirt Band itself.

"Nitty Gritty was a big influence on me," McEuen says, trying not to laugh too hard before pausing to consider the irony of this statement. "How could it not be? When we made our first album, most of us were in high school."

And what a long, strange and interesting trip it has been for McEuen.

"There were times in the same week when we would be on the bill with Jack Benny and then the Doors, or with (teen heartthrob) Bobby Sherman and then Mother Maybelle Carter, or REO Speedwagon and then headlining a bluegrass festival. And I don't know which ones were more fun: If you have three kinds of food that are your favorites, you love each one."

These days, he talks about how his solo gigs "might include a bar in upstate New York, or a guitar store in Kansas City, or a couple of sellout shows to 110 people somewhere who are rabid fans. I'm not really worried about where, but I care about what it is: what kind of show it will be."

It was perhaps this attitude that helped McEuen put together Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the 1972 landmark double LP that brought old-time country and bluegrass together in a way that had never been done before.

"I didn't tell anyone in the (Dirt) Band that I was calling Earl Scruggs to see if he was interested," he says. The rest is history: Scruggs, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis and Maybelle Carter--Nashville legends all--backed the Dirt Band, along with a then-relatively unknown fiddle player from rural Florida named Vassar Clements. (It was less than two years later that Clements, recruited by Jerry Garcia, became part of Old and in the Way, one of the best-selling bluegrass album in history.)

McEuen claims Tuesday's show will be "acoustic-driven with a rock 'n' roll attitude." Family night with the McEuens offers the promise of past, present and future.

More by Jim Lipson


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