John McEuen By: Dale Martin
John McEuen, longtime member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, was born in Oakland, California. At an early age he saw the folk band The Dillards perform in concert and was inspired to learn to play the banjo. At the ripe old age of 17, he began teaching himself to play the fiddle and mandolin. While John was learning to master several instruments, Jeff Hanna and Bruce Kunkel were in Los Angeles forming a duo to perform at local coffee houses. In college they met musicians Jackson Browne, Ralph Barr, Jimmie Fadden, and Les Thompson and formed the folk-rock group the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1966. Browne left after just 5 shows to start his solo career and the guys needed a replacement fast. Their manager Bill McEuen suggested his brother John for the spot. The next year, 1967, they released their first album, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, on Liberty Records.
Their next three albums didn’t produce a single hit song, but album number four broke that cycle. Titled Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, it contained their cover version of "Mr. Bojangles" by Jerry Jeff Walker. Released in 1970, it quickly became one of their most popular albums. At the urging of manager Bill McEuen, they moved to Nashville in 1972. Bill and John McEuen came up with the idea of recording an album of traditional bluegrass and country music, different from the electric folk-rock they had been playing in Long Beach, California. John asked banjoist and new friend Earl Scruggs if he would record with the band in June of 1971. A week later he asked Doc Watson the same question, and they both agreed. The result was a triple album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, released in late 1972 and featured guest appearances by country musicians Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, and Maybelle Carter. The album received critical and popular praise and still stands as one of the most important albums ever recorded in Nashville. In 1977, the band became the first American band to tour the Soviet Union.
John McEuen has been involved with many side projects, including recording with his friend Steve Martin, a friend since high school. John often gave Martin banjo lessons and the two bonded over their love of music. In 1978, he and the band helped Martin on his novelty song called King Tut. With Martin on vocals, the Dirt Band recorded the song under the alias the Toot Uncommons. McEuen also produced and played on Martin's album The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo, which won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album.
In 1986, after twenty years with the Dirt Band, McEuen departed to pursue a solo career. He returned to the Dirt Band in 2001 but left the band once again in late 2017. For his show on January 20 at the Brauntex Theatre, John and his guests will perform the music from the classic 1972 album, Will The Circle Be Unbroken.