Jonathan McEuen has music in his family. For 20 years, he’s been collaborating with his father, John McEuen, and his group The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The Santa Barbara resident calls his father “the king of the five-string banjo” and credits him with introducing him to his love of music. The younger McEuen has been touring since he was 12 years old and is now spending his time in the studio.
His August 13 show at the Libbey Bowl in Ojai showcased not only his talents as an independent artist, but also his work with a band of, in his own words, “other fellas like me who used to work with their dads on the road.” He mentioned Supertramp and Leon Russell among musicians with whom the band has toured. I asked McEuen some questions about his work.
I understand you play bluegrass music. Can you describe the genre?
Americana. This genre became relevant thanks to the success of O Brother Where Art Thou? Even though it has been in existence for quite some time, it wasn’t until recently that it became relevant in the mainstream. [It’s] kind of like white man’s jazz.
How did you become interested in music?
I decided that playing music was what I wanted to do as early as six years old when we used to accompany our dad at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado during the concerts he put together there. It was the sound of the banjo and the reaction of the crowd that got me stoked on doing the music thing.
How long have you been playing guitar and singing?
I have been playing guitar since the age of 12 and singing since the age of two.
Do you write your own lyrics and compose your own music?
I have always been writing and also been perfectly happy recording other people’s songs. You would hear my own music when I approach the guitar and vocals in my own way, which has obviously been influenced by many, but I would only hope that it sounds like [my own]. Lyrics included. One would only hope to be able to sound like his or her self at the end of the day.
Where do you get the inspiration to perform?
It is unusual to be so inspired by an Irish reel, but this is what really set me off to become a performer and musician. Maybe it’s in our Scottish blood, but ever since I heard my first jig, I was inspired to play music. There’s something about the delivery and the sentiment that I appreciated and wanted to contribute to and participate in.
What’s it like being an independent artist?
It’s very different from being an artist that is a part of a collective. You still need a support group even if you are an individual artist, but working as a solo is definitely different than being in a group. It is healthy to try doing both as an exercise, in my opinion, just for the experience.
How does working alone differ from working with a band?
Being in a band is a lot like being married to three or four people at the same time. When you are working as a solo you still have to have a support group or band, but it’s usually handled a little differently. I think it’s very different either way and just as interesting, regardless of whether or not you are in a band or working as a solo. Either way, you still have to get along with the others in order to succeed, so it’s worthwhile to experience both rather than relying on one or the other, in my opinion. Some of the best bands in the world came from a single artist’s vision and vice versa. Some of the biggest bands in the world had a front person who did well on their own after the success of the band as well.
Who or what do you play for?
I will usually play for anyone that wants to listen, but in the professional world there are usually options to play for tips or people who can afford to have you play at their party, so to speak. Sometimes it’s not even a question of money, but rather something that feels right and people who really want you to play that will make it easier to decide whether it’s worth it or not. I try not to discriminate. Sometimes one has to take certain gigs that can help the pocketbook or gain some more fans or get other gigs. However, I have probably played every kind of gig you can think of at this point.
Tell me a little about being in the recording studio.
Being in the studio is very different than playing live. It’s a totally different animal and deserves just as much focus as the other. In order to master the studio thing, one has to really immerse themselves in all kinds of recording situations — live, overdubbing, post production, etc. There is really no end to how far one can take the studio situation. I really enjoy all angles of this part of the process, only because it is so diverse and ever-changing.
Who would you love to collaborate with?
I love the art of collaborating — especially with those who are open to the art. Usually I work best with a songwriter or lyricist that isn’t too stuck on how or what it’s supposed to sound like, but who instead appreciates the collaboration. In other words: if they are open to participate in the true art of collaborating we are usually able to come up with something better than we were able to by ourselves. I would love to collaborate with Stephen Hawking; maybe see if we could get some cool lyrics out of him for our next record.