Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Wednesday, July 01, 2009

John McEuen on Steve's Crow Album
Marin, California
Uploaded: Monday, June 29, 2009, 2:31 PM

Music: Nitty Gritty, wild and crazy...
Dirt Band founder teams with banjo-humorist for unlikely career resurgence...

by Greg Cahill

When Steve Martin decided to stop using his banjo as a prop in his comedy act--usually accompanied by an arrow through his head--he called his old friend John McEuen, the leader of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, for assistance. The two had met as teens working at Disneyland and shared a love for the sometimes disparaged instrument. Martin went on to become a comedy writer (for the Smothers Brothers and other TV acts) before turning to stand-up comedy and the big screen. McEuen--whose brother William served as Martin's manager for many years--became an influential pop and country musician.

Last spring, Martin contacted McEuen to say he'd written and recorded a few original tunes for the five-string banjo. McEuen listened to the results, which Martin had recorded crudely on a PC, and added a few professional touches.

"Steve was amazed at the results," McEuen recalls. "He called me three times in a single day to discuss the project--I waited to respond because I was savoring his messages that he never knew anyone could make his music sound so good."

McEuen signed on as the album's producer.

"If I had any influence," he says, "it was that I suggested that he record his own music instead of the bluegrass standards he was considering."

He also brought in Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and other country music stars.

The result is Martin's new CD, The Crow: New Songs for Five-String Banjo (Rounder), which is selling, well, if not like hotcakes, then better than your average banjo album.

"How often do you get to make a banjo album with a big movie budget?" he says with a laugh.

Thanks to Martin's star power, McEuen and his banjo-pickin' pal even landed last month on the coveted American Idol finale.

For Martin, The Crow marks his first foray into the legitimate world of bluegrass. McEuen is an old hand at this sort of thing.

In 1966, he formed the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with the intention of fusing traditional acoustical instrumentation with songs that could air on Top 40 radio.

"I got to do it a few times," he says.

The band scored crossover hits with "Mr. Bojangles" and later "House at Pooh Corner." In 1972, the band recorded the classic album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, featuring such bluegrass and country legends as Doc Watson, Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff and Earl Scruggs. The album introduced a new generation to roots Americana.

McEuen left the band in 1987, for undisclosed reasons. He built a successful solo career and returned to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 2001 to re-master the 30th anniversary edition of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which has remained on the country charts for decades. "Some people call it the Dark Side of the Moon of country albums," says McEuen, referring to Pink Floyd's long-charting 1972 rock album. "It's the album that won't go away--just like the group."

Indeed, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has gone on to score 18 Top 10 country hits.

"The Dirt Band continues because the guys in the group appreciate having a chance to play the legacy of the band," McEuen says. "That's partly because nobody in the band wanted another job. Maybe it's persistence.

"Ultimately, our success is the result of the audience wanting us to be successful."

A new album, The Speed of Life, is due later this summer.

"I think it's the best thing we've done," McEuen concludes. "We're not the best band in the world, but we are the best version of what we do."


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