Arts & Entertainment

Press Pass: John McEuen

John McEuen (Courtesy Photo)
John McEuen (Courtesy Photo)

John McEuen, a multi-instrumental folk musician and founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (NGDB), said that his live shows seem to get better as time moves on.

“It’s been the best of doing what I do the last several years. It seems like it gets better every year,” McEuen said. He’s playing at Jammin’ Java in Vienna tonight with the John McEuen Trio.

“[There’s] more fun, more variety – a broader range of audience than say ten years ago. “Quite often we have a spread that goes anywhere from 18 – 85 it seems like, and when I go out solo I try to put unusual shows together and Jammin’ Java will be one of those.”

McEuen said the show will be unusual because he’ll be joined by Les Thompson, another founding member of NGDB, and John Cable, the man who replaced Thompson. He said he tends to dig deeper into the NGDB catalog and, if the venue allows for it, he’ll play a brief video chronicling his storied career called “John McEuen – A Life in Music” during his solo shows, too.

A few days after the Jammin’ Java show, McEuen is scheduled to play at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco with NGDB. He said he expects to play in front of more than 20,000 people there, which is nearly the opposite of the 200-seat Jammin’ Java.

“It’s nice to be at both ends of the game at the same time,” McEuen said. “I think we’re going to have more fun in Vienna, though, at Jammin’ Java. You actually feel like you know some of the people you’re playing for, like you’re in their living room.”

He’s at both ends of the game, as he put it, right now, but McEuen has actually been all over the game, working with numerous musicians – and comedians – throughout his nearly 50-year career. He’s performed or recorded with the likes of Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, The Doors, Billy Cosby, Dizzy Gillespie and Steve Martin.

McEuen has known Martin since high school and won a Grammy in 2010 for producing Martin’s bluegrass album The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo. He said the two of them have influenced each other a lot over the years.

“In the early years, I gave him a few lines that he used on stage and showed him some things about the banjo. But he took off on his own, I’m in no way saying I developed him,” McEuen said. “We influenced each other…it’s often said that trying something and having it not work is not failure, but not trying it is failure.

“He’s a good example of [that]. If he made a movie and it stiffed he immediately would be on to the next thing. It was like okay, that didn’t work, now what about this. He put out a movie once. It was easy to tell that it was going to die in about three days and I called him to have lunch and he said ‘Oh yeah, that movie’s not going to work, but listen to this’ and he starts giving the run down for “Bowfinger.”

McEuen cited Martin’s attitude towards creativity and Parton’s enterprising nature – and boredom – with why he’s been so prolific in his own right. He’s put out ten albums outside of his work with NGDB, most recently releasing The McEuen Sessions (2012) with his sons Nathan and Jonathan and playing on Martha Redbone’s The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake (2012).

“Well, you’ve got to do everything you can, if you can do this,” McEuen said. “Don’t make limitations and put things together that are fun to do. And if you’re having fun and the audience is enjoying it then you’re doing the right thing.”

• For more information about John McEuen, visit