June 27, 2018
By Jim Drake
Thrift stores are great, you never know what you’re gonna find. It’s like you’re shopping in multiple basements and attics at once, with no shipping and handling charges.
Recently, a book jumped out at me during one of my thrift store stop-in’s, an encyclopedic volume of country music called “Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music in America.” It’s a who’s-who compilation of performers, along with hundreds of iconic photographs of all the people who have brought country music to us — from the back porches of the rural south to the modern bluegrass hybrid of Alison Krauss and Union Station.
Of course, the book’s title immediately reminded me of the 1972 album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, of the same name.
And, of course, you know by now that John McEuen, a founding member of that band, is coming to play at the Granada Theatre on June 30.
McEuen, besides being on the “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album, has since continued on a music journey for the last 50 years that resulted in “8,500 concert appearances and 3 million plus miles on the road,” according to his website. I was lucky enough to catch John on the phone last week, and he described some of the rigors of the road.
“Traveling around with a band is a hard job. It’s airports, car travel, and then you have to do soundchecks when you get to the theater. And then, you’ve got to be ready to go for the people who have had that ticket for the show on their refrigerator for the last two months,” McEuen said.
On top of that, during my phone call, he realized that he had left his laptop on the plane, and there was an issue with a connecting flight. He promised to call me back the next day, and he did.
The Circle album is widely regarded as a kind of cornerstone that brought bluegrass and country stars of the 50s and 60s (Jimmy Martin, Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson and Maybell Carter) together with a host of musicians including the country rockers The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The release went platinum, and was successful in promoting the music of this earlier era to a wider audience.
Besides the gospel-based title cut, the three-record set is filled with what you would hear at a bluegrass concert or even an informal music jam on the back porch. Luckily, the studio recorded all of the “in between” stuff — and you hear the musicians talk about the arrangement, tuning, who is going to sing and play what part, and some stories about where the songs came from.
“There were a lot of good things about the Circle sessions, like being the first banjo player to record with Earl Scruggs, and being in the studio with Maybell Carter, who was a pioneer in the recording world before all of the electronic advances that we had in the 70s,” McEuen said.
“But the best was the day when I found out the record had sold so well. That made me extremely happy and it brought exposure to a lot of players on that record.”
That tradition promises to be continued in McEuen’s concert tour. Along with The String Wizards, some original Nitty Gritty Dirt Band members, the Circle album promises to be on the set list, as well as hit songs from the Dirt Band, new songs from McEuen’s album “Made in Brooklyn,” historical 8mm video footage from the Circle sessions, and anecdotes and memories from McEuen’s new book “The Life I’ve Picked.”
“When I left the NGDB, I was ready to explore the other sides of the music, more eclectic songs, and more bluegrass. The Dirt Band made records for radio. On my new album, “Made in Brooklyn,” I’ve got a host of players including my banjo-player friend and comedian Steve Martin, Andy Goessling from Railroad Earth, John Cowan, Jay Unger and David Bromberg. We played acoustically around the microphones, with no overdubs. The album won the Independent Music Award for Best Americana Album in 2017,” McEuen said.
So, I’m sure your asking, was the Circle album listed in the Circle book? You bet: it’s on page 268. A fitting tribute, I’d say.
And speaking of books, it just so happened that I’m halfway through Linda Ronstadt’s autobiography (which is like a memoir of LOTS of songs I grew up listening to, by the way) and she mentioned hanging out with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
“Oh, yes, we played with Linda quite a bit back then. In fact, she sent me a nice blurb for the back of my new book, “The Life I’ve Picked,” McEuen said.
He said that shows have been going great, and said “I am the best me I have ever been. It seems like I am again doing something that people 'need' in their lives.”
John McEuen & His String Wizards play the Granada Theatre on Saturday, June 30, 7 p.m. Tickets are $55 available at www.granada theatrethedalles.com. John McEuen will also be at Klindt’s Booksellers on Friday, June 29, at 5 p.m. for a book signing.
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