A conversation with John McEuen

Jim Fondren, John McEuen, and Pamm Tucker

As 2019 was wrapping up, I enjoyed a telephone conversation with one of the founding members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the banjo player – and mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and if it has strings on it player – John McEuen. We spoke of many things over his storied career of more than 50 years, which are shared below.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was established from three diverse places, and styles of music. The New Coast Two, consisted of Jeff Hanna (guitars, vocals and washboard) and high school classmate, Jimmie Fadden, who added the taste of blues with his harmonica. The recipe was complete when Les Thompson and John McEuen introduced bluegrass and the Appalachian sound to the mix in the 1960s. During these early years, also on guitar and vocals, was Ralph Barr. John’s brother, Bill, became the road manager and their flight into stardom took off.

In February 1967, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released their first album which included the minor hit, Buy For Me The Rain, under the label of Liberty Records. It took time to make the next climb, where after three albums with no hits, the band auditioned for and landed the job of musical miners in the Paramount picture, Paint Your Wagon. After four months on the set, the band dismantled, initiated by band member, Jeff Hanna. Six months later, Hanna and McEuen were watching POGO, (which became POCO) when they decided simultaneously to “get the band back together.” Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy in 1970 produced three hits off one solo album, Mr. Bojangles (Jerry Jeff Walker), House at Pooh Corner (Kenny Loggins), and Some of Shelly’s Blues (Mike Nesmith).

Regarding their career highlight, John told me… “After a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band concert, I met Earl Scruggs. I asked him if I could record with him. (Laughing through the telephone) “All he could have done was said no. But he didn’t. It was about a week later, when I asked Doc Watson, the same thing, both said yes!”

McEuen’s brother, Bill, and John suggested the NGDB head to Nashville to record, and they did just that. A mere 8 weeks later, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was in the studio with the Grand Masters – Scruggs, Watson and others. What came out of that session, was a triple album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972), which featured Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Vassar Clements, Jimmy Martin, and Bashful Brother Oswald. With critical and popular reviews, this album was certified gold, and later reached the height of platinum. This sole album is in both the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress.

In September 2019, PBS announced the Ken Burns’s documentary, Country Music. The 16 hour documentary brought a resurgence to the album, as McEuen and his “family” of musicians were recognized for their contribution. John stated. “It was an honor to be recognized as part of history. That’s what my brother and I set out do when we made that album.”

John and I spoke of Christmas tradition… “I don’t think we really had a Christmas tradition, but I can tell you about my most memorable one. I was 17, and got a banjo for Christmas and birthday combination. (John’s birthday is also celebrated in December.) It was a 1920 Ludwig, which was converted from a 4 string to a 5. That banjo is now located in The Musical Instrument Museum located in Phoenix Arizona.

John always mentions family during our interviews. With it being the holiday season when we spoke, my curiosity was piqued to see what he would answer, and I asked John if we could “talk cookies.”

“I was a single father for many years, and took the kids on the road with me. I never got any cookies because they were all gone. One day I got a bag of Fig Newtons, I passed them out as my daughter asked, ‘Dad, what’s in these cookies?’”

“Worms,” was his answer. If you have ever seen McEuen in person, you can visualize that bouncy twinkle in his eye as he laughed and told me, “I always had Fig Newtons after that.”

While on the phone, normalcy continued for John while Alexa was looking up everything we were saying, and John shut her down, again with a giggle. As his wife, Marilyn, was headed out the door of their Florida home, she stopped to remind John to not forget the Cubans for their Christmas meal with the family.

John was really excited to talk about the new CEO at Deering Banjo, Jamie Deering, daughter of founders Greg and Janet Deering. McEuen said, “It was meant to be. She has been groomed to be the CEO.”

While on the subject of Deering, John reminded me with a gentle nudge that he plays a Deering banjo, that he helped create and bring to life, The Deering John McEuen Signature Model. Sound is of vital importance to John, and so when Greg and Janet Deering reached out to him about a personal model, he put his creativity and knowledge to work. It was important to have a deeper resonator, and it comes with a gold plated, Deering – 06- tone ring. It is made with beautiful maple stained a golden honey, trimmed in ivoroid and Coral Snake Purfling. The peghead of course has John McEuen’s name, and is encircled with white binding. 

A floral pattern gracefully adorns the peghead and ebony fingerboard. The 2nd and 3rd strings have D-Tuners installed. This primadonna of instruments has a unique look of 24 Karat gold, accented with premium engraving on the tone ring, armrest, and tailpiece.

What does 2020 hold for McEuen? John didn’t hesitate to share that with me.

Music, music, music and touring. 2020 has John super busy, not only with touring dates, but with other things in the works. I will keep you up to date on what John has up his sleeve, after all his first job was that of a magician. McEuen always has a trick in store for his fans, and for music lovers everywhere.

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About the Author

Pamm Tucker

Growing up in Oklahoma, music runs throughout Pamm Tucker's veins. Her earliest memory of music is standing beside her Grandma's upright, singing. "Trust in The Lord". Little did the 5 year old realize that this was the foundation of things to come. Being very active in 4-H, Pamm was elected as reporter at the age of 9 and held this position for many years. Taking extensive journalism marketing and free-lance writing classes while attending college helped to spark her interest in being a journalist. Her skills helped her acquire the position of journalist for the Northern Oklahoma college school newspaper. An Oklahoma native and no stranger to music, she has performed with the likes of Lulu Roman, Jean Shepherd, Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker (no relation) Gene Watson and Charlie McClain just to name a few. Even today you can find her tapping her foot to every genre of music.