Dirt Band founder McEuen solos Saturday with music and 46-years of memories
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Stargazers Theatre and Event Center, 10 S. Parkside Drive
Tickets: $20, $25 at the door; 476-2200, stargazerstheatre.com
Chalk up two wins this year for local Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fans.
In July, the bluegrass/Americana band played at Stargazer’s Theatre to such an enthusiastic, sold-out crowd that John McEuen, one of the band’s founders, decided to hotfoot it back to town for a solo show. “An Evening with John McEuen: A Career Retrospective” plays at Stargazer’s on Saturday.
Venue co-owner John Hooten knew something was up during that summer show. They were projecting onto the event center’s giant movie screen right behind the band, and he watched McEuen turn around and take it in.
“There was this look of surprise and joy, like something clicked, and I thought 'well, that’s interesting,'” he says. By the end of the night, the two had scheduled a date for this one-man show.
McEuen is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, who sings and plays the guitar, mandolin and fiddle -- although he’s mostly known (and revered) for his talent on the banjo. His long and storied career can be traced back more than four decades, which provides heaps of material for a retrospective. Not only was a founder and band member of the NGDB for years, but he’s carved out an impressive solo career, too.
During the retrospective, he and singer Matt Cartsonis will share the stage with a 20-foot screen. They’ll play old Dirt Band tunes and McEuen will periodically tell stories as old video, film and still footage he’s collected over the years fills the big screen.
“Having somebody tell a story like, ‘Back in 1969 blah blah happened,’ is one thing," McEuen says, "but having a story be told about how ‘Mr. Bojangles’ came about with giant photos behind you will be quite exciting."
He was in his early 20s when the band got its start in 1966 in Long Beach, Calif. He played with them for 20 years, leaving in 1986 to raise six kids and pursue other projects He returned in 2001.
The band's string of successes is long. Many of the those highlights will be featured during the evening, including their trip to Russia in 1977. They were the first American band the Soviet Union allowed to tour.
“They looked at 10 different groups, and I think it was because we were safe,” McEuen says. “We weren’t like the Grateful Dead, and we weren’t like some groups, with the same sound all the time, which could be perceived as boring. We were as close as somebody can get to being The Beatles without having hit records. We represented America, and that’s what people came to see.”
Their 1972 album, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” was another milestone. It featured not only the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but famous musicians like Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Merle Travis and Norman Blake. The 35-track album, which was recorded in a mere six days, has been deemed a pivitally important American recording, McEuen says, and was inducted into the Library of Congress in 2006.
“It was basically ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ for country music,” he says.
McEuen has focused more on his solo career during the past few years. He’s released six albums and won multiple music awards. He regularly performs with other bands, including with his good friend Steve Martin. The actor/comedian is a fellow banjo player, and McEuen won a 2010 Grammy for producing Martin's album, “The Crow.”
“I do know I’m (better) at doing what I do now than I’ve ever been,” he says. “I’m the best me I’ve ever been. I’ve had more success on the solo front and with my own music. It makes me keep working.”
In May, McEuen and two of his sons released an album called “The McEuen Sessions: For All the Good.” He calls it the best reviewed album he’s ever made, next to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” This year he’s out on the road with both the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and by himself. The band has racked up 95 cities and he’s gone solo in 35.
“I like doing solo most of all, but the Dirt Band is a wonderful legacy of 46 years of music,” he says. “It’s not challenging to me, but it’s rewarding. People have had the band’s music as a soundtrack to their lives.”