John McEuen has carved a whole lifetime out of music. A master of all things stringed, the California native has been plugging away since the 1960s as both a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and an accomplished solo musician. He’s played the Grand Ole Opry, taken home both Academy of Country Music (ACM) and Country Music Association (CMA) awards, and been heralded as one of the country’s best contemporary bluegrass and roots musicians.
Earlier this year, McEuen released For All the Good, a rich and nuanced collection written, recorded, and performed alongside his sons Jonathan and Nathan McEuen. While the McEuen clan has long dabbled in collaborative affairs, For All the Good marks the father and sons’ first full-length collective output. In addition to John’s intricate and unmistakable turns at the banjo (“The Goodtime Suite”), Jonathan and Nathan hold down the vocal fort with two strong and distinct styles. Jonathan’s elastic range gets a workout on Dave Mason’s bluesy country hit “Only You Know and I Know,” while Nathan’s quickie instrumental “Dinner!” feels plucked straight from the classic bluegrass songbook.
This Saturday, November 17, the McEuens reunite at the Lobero Theatre for a very special concert in support of For All the Good, presented by Sings Like Hell. “I’ve played 95 shows with the Dirt Band this year, but the show with Jonathan and Nathan is the one I’ve been looking forward to,” father John said recently. “We don’t get to play together that often, and when we do, it’s some of the most fun music and performing I do.” I caught up with the senior McEuen to talk family, music, and the future of the McEuen supergroup.
You’ve been on the road for over 40 years and raised six kids. How did you find a balance between tour and family? I don’t know if I found a balance, but it just happens. I treat it as if I was a shoe repair man. If I was a shoe repair man, they’d be in the back room with me; if I was a sheepherder, they’d probably be in the wagon. All six of the kids were around the music business, and Jonathan and Nathan are the two that it appealed to enough. I didn’t tell them to do it; I didn’t suggest it. In fact, I went, “Oh, God. It’s going to be a lot of work.” It’s an 18-hour-a-day job when you’re trying to make music happen.
Do you remember the moment you knew Jonathan and Nathan had caught the music bug? In 6th grade, Jonathan had the lead role in The King and I, and he absolutely killed. He was so good they extended it for two weeks. I went to look for him after the last night, and I found him in a broom closet crying. I said, “What’s wrong?” and he said, “What am I going to do now? It’s over.” From then, I knew that he was hooked.
What finally brought all three of you together to make an album? I think it was time. Nathan suggested it. I had only recorded a couple of things with Nathan, and Jonathan has played on one of my albums, so I knew it was going to happen eventually, but I didn’t want it to be dad telling them what to do. I wanted it to be them saying, “Yeah, Dad, let’s do this!” … They were ready. We recorded for six days and then spent some more time adding a few things and mixing. Making a recording is always something you try to do the best job on, and they know this. They knew that I like to get first takes — eight out of 10 things I record are a first take. If it’s not a first take, it means you don’t know the song, so why record it?
Do you think you’ll make another record together? I don’t like to predict things, but I think it’s possible. I think I’d like to do it again in several years. There are a lot of good words that have come to this album. It’s a testament of the capturing of a time in a good way. Maybe it will be the start of a tradition. I just hope the word about [For All the Good] gets out.
What can folks expect from Saturday’s show? They’ll see three people who have an obvious love of performing and playing together. They will see a combination of the influences of the music of the ’60s and ’70s — both the 1860s and ’70s and the 1960s and ’70s. [Laughs.] They will see the effects of the influences of the music of that time on the younger generation …. They’ll see a show that they’ll tell their friends about the next day, and they’ll say, “You should have been there.”
Sings Like Hell presents John, Nathan, and Jonathan McEuen live at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Saturday, November 17, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com for tickets and info.