The first half of 2012 was a sobering one for the bluegrass community, and for John McEuen in particular.
"I've had several of my musical mentors vanish in the last few months," says the soft-spoken Nitty Gritty Dirt Band co-founder. "It's very strange."
In March, two of the longest-surviving participants in the Dirt Band's ambitious Will the Circle Be Unbroken album — Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson — passed away. Both were already bluegrass legends by the time they appeared on the 1972 release, which went triple-platinum and was chosen by the Library of Congress National Recording Registry of works of unusual merit.
Although McEuen also plays fiddle, guitar, mandolin, electric bass and lap slide guitar, the banjo is still his primary instrument. So it's no surprise that he cites Scruggs as integral to his style of playing.
"Even today, I spend a couple of hours playing before every show, and usually I go through at least five Scruggs songs," says McEuen. "He was a huge influence, and so was Doug Dillard, who also passed away a month ago."
It was Dillard, in fact, who inspired McEuen to pick up the banjo in the first place.
"I was playing the guitar a little bit as a 17-year-old, and I went to see a group called the Dillards, which I'd never heard of," says McEuen, whose friend had gotten him into a Los Angeles club. "And as I sat there, waiting for them to go on, I didn't understand why I was getting nervous — not being normally thought of as a nervous guy. Both of my knees were shaking. My hands got sweaty; it was air-conditioned. And as soon as they hit the stage, and Doug Dillard lit into "Hickory Hollow," it was like, 'Oh my god ..."
Fate having set his course, McEuen would see the Dillards play five times a month, sometimes more. At 18, he picked up his first banjo, along with a Pete Seeger book on how to play it. A few years later, he hooked up with singer-guitarist Jeff Hanna and drummer Jimmie Fadden to form the band he's still recording and performing with to this day.
Dirt never sleeps
Through the years, the Dirt Band has undergone countless musical transitions, sometimes within the same album or even, for that matter, the same song. Such is the case with McEuen's "White Russia," a supremely catchy instrumental whose arrangement goes through more changes than Edgar Winters' "Frankenstein." (McEuen greets the admittedly odd assessment with a gracious thank you, while confirming that the band still plays it in concert.)
The musical centerpiece of 1978's The Dirt Band, "White Russia" had little in common with most of that era's country, rock and pop fare. But it also stood out from the rest of the album, which found the group moving more toward the West Coast sound of bands like Poco and the Eagles.
"We've always been proud of the fact that [the Eagles] made comments that the Dirt Band was an influence on them in their early years," says McEuen. "I don't know that it was a transition as much as an evolution. You know, John Sebastian told me the Lovin' Spoonful were so bad that when they recorded 'Do You Believe in Magic,' they could only get through one verse and the chorus — and then they had to copy [the basic track] and repeat it throughout the rest of the song.
"But all the groups that started in the '60s got better as they got further along in their career. And the Dirt Band was one that always was improving, or at least we hoped people would take it that way."
Circle 'round the sons
Indeed, there aren't many musicians who can score a hit with their cover of Jerry Jeff Walker's terminally depressing ballad "Mr. Bojangles" and then go on to pen a tune like "Make a Little Magic," which McEuen calls "the kind of song you hear in grocery stores sometimes." (In fact, McEuen — who lived in Colorado's Clear Creek County for 20 years — still recalls hearing "Make a Little Magic" while strolling the aisles of a Safeway in Idaho Springs.)
"We had trouble seeing what didn't fit," says McEuen of the band's eclecticism. "Maybe we're just a country version of Spinal Tap, I don't know."
Or maybe they just recognize that the circle can grow pretty wide and still remain unbroken. The Dirt Band's current live repertoire draws upon songs that range from the early days on up through 2009's country-charting Speed of Life.
Produced by George Massenburg — whose credits range from Little Feat and Lyle Lovett to Aaron Neville and the Dixie Chicks — the album finds the Dirt Band taking a more spontaneous approach to recording.
Then again, that's always been McEuen's preference, whether he's recording solo, with the band or, most recently, on The McEuen Sessions: For All the Good, an exceedingly engaging collaboration with sons Nathan and Jonathan that should connect with fans of contemporary Americana.
"In my own recordings, I usually get about 60 or 70 percent on the first take," says McEuen. "I try to do what Roy Acuff said to do when we were recording the Circle album: 'Get it right the first time, and the hell with the rest of them.'"