John McEuen leaves Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

At the end of last month John McEuen, one of the founding members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (NGDB), announced his immediate departure from the iconic group.

Stating “enough is enough,” McEuen left at the conclusion of the NGDB 2017 tour, the last gig of which was in Fargo, North Dakota, on Sunday, October 22. The date marked the end of the band’s 50 year anniversary.

McEuen’s decision to leave comes after careful consideration and contemplation. “In assessing the situation surrounding our performances, business disagreements and ongoing difference of opinions, the timing is appropriate for my departure. As a catalyst to my decision, in December 2015, I received confirmation from Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Inc. that I was an ‘employee,’ no longer a member of the corporation that I helped to build,” stated McEuen.

We contacted McEuen and he provided this additional information …

“Many things are verbal .. or non verbal .. in this business. I left after 21 years as president of a corporation of which I was one of the founders (1987). When I remastered the Circle album for its 30th year, (I had kept the masters for the previous 25 years in my house) it became apparent that Jeff and I needed to do some reviews to promote it. Just prior to that the band’s manager wrote everyone a letter saying, in essence, it would be best for the NGDB if I was again part of it. I, with some trepidation, agreed, and was ‘back in the band,’ again a ‘member’ I was told.

At some point along the ensuing years they decided it was best to not have me be a part of NGDB Inc., and a few conversations let me know that I was an employee. I asked for that to change, to not be ‘just an employee’, but after a couple of years of waiting for that answer, they said ‘we think it is better this way.’

It was a small, but definitive part to be informed of that… there are said to be 50 ways to ‘leave your lover’… but over 100 reasons to leave a band. The time came for that, as my solo work has always been more rewarding in all ways. NGDB has played the same 18 songs for 12 years. None of my music, only one song from Will the Circle Be Unbroken (well, this past year we added one more), nothing new and there won’t be. Two albums in 12 years.”

The multi-talented — he plays guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle — McEuen (or String Wizard, as he is known), and his older brother William provided a large part of the impetus for the NGDB – William was the group’s manager and he helped the band get signed with Liberty Records; and with William as producer and a renegotiated contract that gave the band more artistic freedom, the band recorded and released a country music orientated Uncle Charlie and his Dog Teddy (in 1970).

This album included the group’s best-known singles; a cover version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s Mr. Bojangles, which became the group’s first hit, peaking at #9; Michael Nesmith’s Some of Shelley’s Blues and four Kenny Loggins songs including House at Pooh Corner, the first recordings of Loggins’s songs.

Later McEuen asked banjo ace Earl Scruggs and folk-blues guitarist Doc Watson if they would record with the group. Eventually, Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, country pioneer Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Vassar Clements, Pete Kirby (Bashful Brother Oswald) and Norman Blake as well as Scruggs and Watson joined the NGDB in the recording of the seminal three-LP set, Will the Circle be Unbroken, (Liberty LWCL 51158).

Will the Circle be Unbroken has been noted as “the most important record to come out of Nashville” by Rolling Stone and “the most important record in country music” (ZAGAT Survey/2004).

John McEuen has made over 40 albums (six of which are solo) that have earned four platinum and five gold recognition awards, Grammy nominations, CMA and ACM awards, an Emmy nomination and a IBMA Record of the Year award. Also, he earned the Uncle Dave Macon Award for “excellence in preservation and performance of historic music.”

Of his solo recordings the 1990s look to have been the most productive with Acoustic Traveller (released in 1996) following String Wizards (released in 1991) and the Grammy nominated String Wizards II (1993).

The NGDB released two further albums in the Will the Circle be Unbroken series; Volume 2, in 1989, and Volume 3, in 2002. Volume 2 won the Country Music Association’s 1989 Album of the Year as well as three Grammys.

In addition to the cast of Will the Circle be Unbroken, he has performed and/or recorded with a long list of well-known names; Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Bill Wyman, Johnny Cash, Marshall Tucker Band, Steve Martin, The Smothers Brothers, Clint Eastwood, Phish, Crystal Gayle, Michael Martin Murphey, Tammy Wynette, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Leon Russell, Pete Seeger, Mary McCaslin, Jose Feliciano, Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Andy Williams, Dizzy Gillespie and The Band included.

Beyond performing, McEuen has produced more than 300 concerts throughout his career (the first in 1965 in Long Beach California with Bob Dylan). In 2010 his production of The Crow – New Songs for the 5-string Banjo (for his lifelong-friend Steve Martin) won a Grammy award for Best Bluegrass Album.

He is a member of the American Banjo Museum Hall of Fame.

In the press release, McEuen went on to say …

“It has been a great privilege to work alongside the others; together, we made history. After 50 years, the time has come for me to bid adieu to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band stage. I will move forward with great pride in my personal and musical contributions to NGDB and now can fully concentrate on my independent endeavors. I have much to do and many more creative ideas to pursue. Because of this relationship, I have more stories than you can shake a pick at. (…that will come later!).”

He is show host of the popular Acoustic Traveller radio show on Sirius/XM’s The Bridge (now in its eighth year) and he is the CEO of Syndicatednews.net, a music and political news website.

McEuen, already actually playing solo dates, enthused about what the future will bring ….

“I’m excited about my upcoming touring with my Deering Banjos which you can find online. A lot of beautiful performing arts centers and festivals are already booked! Many concerts will be multi-media shows – music and stories with historic footage from Will the Circle Be Unbroken. We feature some of the music from my new highly acclaimed Made in Brooklyn album (Stereophile magazine Record of the Month!). It is different every night. Some nights we will have special guests sitting in.

Thank you all for your years of support and I’ll see you down the road.”

He gave us a heads-up on what is McEuen’s memoir, The Life I’ve Picked: A Banjo Player’s Nitty Gritty Journey to be published by the Chicago Review Press in April 2018, offering an enticing titbit …

“… it is not about NGDB really, as much as the overall career, kids, life, and lots of background.”

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.

  • Dave Russell

    Looking forward to reading John’s book! I think it will be an interesting read.

  • John and his band made it “cool” to listen to Bluegrass in the 70’s. Remember when Mr.Bojangles was a Top 40 Pop hit? I had all of their vinyl back then; now I have all of their CD’s. NGDB had a tremendous impact on our culture, our musical experiences, and our lives! Many of us (mid-fifties and up) wouldn’t be viewing this page today if John’s band hadn’t entered the mainstream to lure us away to front porches, and starry nights in the hills – even if only in our imaginations. I wish for John and all of his band mates every happiness in their future endeavors, and I’ll be looking forward to the reunion tour in 10 years or so, Lord willing… WBJ