John McEuen’s Musical Journey: From Teenage Dreams to Nitty Gritty Stardom

Danny Coleman Interview with John McEuen

Delve into the fascinating story of John McEuen, founding member of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, as he shares insights into his iconic career and upcoming performance at The Lizzie Rose Music Room in Tuckerton, NJ. Discover the timeless tunes and nostalgic tales that have shaped his musical legacy spanning over five decades.

by Danny Coleman, originally posted on New Jersey Stage Rock On! This Week’s Sound Bites

John mceuen Danny colman interview Photo credit alan nahigian
Photo credit: Alan Nahigian

Recently, we caught up with John McEuen of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band prior to his show at The Lizzie Rose Music Room in Tuckerton and here was the result: “It’s a small room; isn’t it? If it sells out, then it’s a sold out room,” laughed a very funny and totally engaging founding member of The Nitty Gritty Dirt BandJohn McEuen as he discussed his time with the band, music and his upcoming March 23 appearance at The Lizzie Rose Music Room in Tuckerton, NJ.

Little did McEuen know that a phone call from a music store would become a life-changing event and in days gone by, long before cell phones and computers, days  where you had to actually be home and “Answer” the ring; McEuen is proof that timing is everything.

“I’m looking forward to playing The Lizzie, it’s gonna be something where I’m gonna do a lot of pickin’ and Dirt Band stuff and I’ll be bringing Les Thompson with me. I don’t know if you know his name or not but he was an original Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member along with me back in the ’60s,1966 is when things started; isn’t that weird? That was a long time ago when he said to me in that music store he was calling from, “Hey, the guys are getting together a group here; you want to come join?” I said, yup, I’ll come try’em out and I tried them out for 50 years (laughs). The band was just forming and they hadn’t had everybody picked yet and it was a bunch of teenagers, I was the old guy at 20 , Les was 17, Jeff 18 and a couple of them were 19 and we were just playing good time music. I’m gonna do some of that old music from those days, I do one particular song that’s really fun and that the band hasn’t done in 50 years but I don’t care because I do what I do. I try to do my favorite Nitty Gritty Dirt Band songs and of course, “Mr. Bojangles,” “Long Hard Road,” “Shelley’s Blues” and some of the other ones that people may be familiar with and along with new songs and bluegrass from the “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album.” 

“1966?” McEuen has seen and heard much over the decades as both a member of the groundbreaking “Dirt Band” as well as a solo artist. So, it could come as a surprise to some that he left the band for a perceived solo career but John says that’s not so. 

“After the 50th Anniversary tour, I said, OK, that’s it for me, I’ll see you guys later,” he said with a laugh. “We had been doing the same set for 11 years (laughs) and that’s OK, they do different stuff now but it was something I contemplated quite a bit. I thought the songs we were best known for, some of them, many of them were from the “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album. We only did one song from there and that’s one of the reasons why I left; I wanted to do more. I do more bluegrass now along with a few Dirt Band songs and some of my own and then we get into the story of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” because I like to tell the stories behind the songs; not to be boring but because some of them are funny. I talk about the people; how did I end up playing for Mickey Mouse’s funeral? That is really a wonderful story I think. How did Leon Russell happen to call me to play on Bill Wyman’s album? Well, that’s a good story, I hope I remember to tell that one. Bill Wyman from the Rolling Stones was doing his first solo album and Leon Russell had become a friend from 1966 and this was 1974 but that is too long to get into here but not at the Lizzie Rose (laughs).” 

“I’ve been doing solo all along, even during the busiest times of the Dirt Band I’d always pick up a solo show. Oh: we’re playing Pittsburgh? I’ll pick up a show in Harrisonburg. I would go out and play a solo show and catch up with the band or they’d take a day off and I’d book something on the day off. I came into this as a solo player back in 1966; I’d been playing with different people around L.A. like Jose Feliciano for one; that’s a fun story. Along the years with the Dirt Band, besides playing in the group and road managing the band for the first 15 years; boy that was a lesson in how to get around. Being 21 years old and the oldest guy in the group, you’re the only one old enough to rent a car,” again continuing with a laugh. “That was a fun time, a lot of it was a fun time but drugs messed up the band once in a while and I’m not pitching or selling the fact that I didn’t do any drugs but I was one of the people who didn’t. The band did the thing that was important to survive and that is; we kept playing and we kept playing even under duress but it was good.”

“We were the first American band to go to Russia; 1977. The Russians had us come over and we did 28 sold out shows in five different cities in on average 2,200 to 3,000 seat halls and there was a bike track in Armenia, 5,000 people and that was a good time. Do you play music? Do you know how to read a chart with a 1, 4, 5 progression? For those who don’t know, you name the chords by number. There’s only eight notes in a scale and there is one through eight and if you go from a C to an F that’s a 1 to 4 and a C to a G, that’s 1 to 5 and known as a C scale and that gives you a chord progression. I set up some lectures at five different music schools and I’d go in and talk about American music and that was really fun. One day, I was talking and somebody said; “How does a session happen in America?” Well, you get in a room and some guy hands the charts out with the numbers of the chords and they said, “Yes, we understand that but how do they know what to play and who tells them what to play?” So, I told an audience of about 200 people, the player decides what he wants to play on his own if it fits. The guitar player knows he’s not going to play all the way through but they all play what they feel. Suddenly, there was a big mumbling in the room as this got translated and then everybody started standing up. I said to the translator; what’s going on? He said, “They are astonished, they are amazed; you play what you feel?” Then the shouts started coming from them, “Such a country! A free country! You play what you feel” and the hair stood up on my neck and that was one of my many experiences in Russia; that was in Leningrad. That was a long time ago and I do a show that points to that; I hope there is enough time for me to do this show (laughs).”

“The show” as he calls it, is this Saturday, March 23 at The Lizzie Rose in Tuckerton, a room in which John has never performed and promises to be a night of fantastic music and stories from his long and legendary career. When asked about performing in intimate venues such as The Lizzie Rose and his first trip to Tuckerton; his humor once again came to the surface. 

“I’ve played a wide variety and I’ve done interviews on radio stations that had one watt and I’ve done interviews on Radio Free America that had a million watts (laughs) and everything in between.I’ve played Carnegie Hall three or four times and on a flatbed truck in the middle of a football field, I’ve played wonderful clubs and theaters and Tuckerton sounded like a wonderful place and a good place to go.”

“I’ve never played at The Lizzie Rose, never been to Tuckerton. I like it because I’ve never been there before and it fits with the other dates around the schedule and I think it’s gonna be good. I had it described to me and it reminds me of The Stanhope House; remember that place? I think that’s really cool; it was amazing the people they got in there. I have some good memories of The Stanhope House and going; this is it? OK, we’ll see if we can cram ourselves on the stage (laughs).”

McEuen loves to perform and if you have not picked up on it yet; he loves to tell stories. So; what can we expect at The Lizzie Rose? 

“The show is probably two-hours. I think they wanted an hour-and-a-half or less but I just play longer. I mean, it takes me a long time to get there and then I’m not home and there is nothing to do before or after the show and there is an audience and that is what I wanted to do as a teenager; drive around the country and find places to play where people would come and listen. What am I gonna do? Oh, I’m just doing a 45 minute set; I’ll see you later (laughs). I’ll be coming from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; I’m playing a place I played 50 years ago, Godfrey Daniels. I’m going back to the past, it’s really a neat place and Ramona still works there too; it’s a neat old folk music room.”

“I’ll have Danny Knicely and he is a really hot guitar player and if you like Doc Watson type of playing; he is all over it,” he continued. “He also plays mandolin and he won first place at the Winfield Guitar Contest for both guitar and mandolin many years ago. He is about 45 and he sings and Les Thompson, the original Dirt Band bass player and I bring my guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle and make them do stuff. I found Danny because he is a fan and he had been playing around Virginia and I heard him play a couple of years ago and I get him to play with me whenever he is available. He is really good and one of those guys who has been around the Dirt Band music for years and I’m really glad we had an influence on him and he connects with “The Circle” album. Basically, he’s a bluegrassy and jazz kind of player and he came along, he went on stage one time and I said, hey, you’re gonna be back. We’re playing MerleFest, the Doc Watson festival in North Carolina and that draws about 70,000 people.” 

McEuen is also an author, his first book titled, “The Life I’ve Picked” isn’t necessarily a tell all about his life or The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band but it is great smattering of a well-lived career. 

“The Life I’ve Picked” was my first book and that was me trying to capture everything as I saw it as far as the Dirt Band history goes and how I perceived what happened to me, as well as how I got into this business. How did Leon Russell become a friend? How did things happen? What was it like when Bill Monroe came up to me and said, “Hey John, if you ever do one of them “Circle” albums again, gimme a call!?” He didn’t participate in the first one and he was sorry he didn’t but the book goes onto a chapter on Russia, a chapter on the “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album; which I initiated by asking Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson if they’d record with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band when they were in Colorado and when they said, “Yes;” I told my brother and he said, “I’m gonna call Merle Travis and get him” and he got him and Earl got us Maybelle Carter and Louise his wife got us Jimmy Martin because we didn’t have connections; Earl had every connection and was very helpful. Bill, my brother booked a studio, shot photographs and managed the Dirt Band and there is a chapter on “The Circle” album as well as many chapters on what went on with me and the pictures that Bill took ended up being in a second book called, “The Making of the Will the Circle Be Unbroken Album” and it’s 150 pictures that he shot with stories behind each one. I told the stories behind each picture or what was going on, who was in it or various stuff and that is a neat book; I’ve been getting really good compliments via email on that. I’ll have some of those with me at Lizzie Rose.” 

The industry and its business models have changed over the years, from radio to television and print; everything is different from when he started his career but John does feel that getting the music “Out there” via whatever outlets are available is just as important now as it was in 1966.

“I think it’s more difficult to be on the radio and more important; how else are you gonna get to people? He said with confidence. “Using the word radio, meaning internet radio, digital TV, radio, digital radio; just broadcasting your music. You can’t just do it from your garage and say, here we are; you have to get it out there somehow. The best way I can describe it is; picture a little baseball stadium with 5,000 people in it and a guy goes out to home plate before the game and he plays the guitar and sings a couple songs and the people sing along and it’s a good time and he says, “OK, now it’s time for the game” and now, picture an audience guy standing on home plate and there are 5,000 musicians in the stands and they are all playing different things. Listen to me, listen to me! Over here, over here! That’s what it’s like today with all of the internet and digital radio, podcasts and everything; there are more ways to get it out there. Taylor Swift, what a genius; she has cracked the nut and does such a good job at marketing and getting the word out. Folk music and bluegrass people should pay attention to what she does. It has always been about marketing and as a road manager, as I said earlier, for the Dirt Band, I spent a lot of time talking to promoters all over the country. One of the promoters told me he was at a pre-production meeting with Mick Jagger and Mick walked into this room with five people in it with a briefcase and he was in a business suit and he said, “I hope we all understand what this tour is all about; merchandise” and that was it. They do a million dollars in merchandise, records, tee shirts and stuff and if they go out and do 20 dates; there’s $20,000,000 dollars but they understand marketing. The record business and music business is a marketing business and we live in a capitalist country and there is nothing wrong with that, it’s a way of doing things. There is something wrong with everything if it gets off course; especially if it gets out of hand at times. I don’t think tickets should be $150 for anything, well, maybe Paul McCartney (laughs).”

OK, we all need to know; how did The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band come up with its name?

“One guy said, “Let’s call it Nitty Gritty Band,” another guy said, “Let’s call it The Dirt Band” and another said, “Let’s call it The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band” and that was how long it took and it was done. It took us about 10 years, maybe 15 to get accepted because people were; Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; what’s that all about?” 

To discover more about John McEuen or find tickets to his upcoming area shows, please visit