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John McEuen: The TJ Interview

John McEuen: The TJ Interview

By, Courtney S. Lennon, Editor

Marking his 70th year in life and 50 years since the inception of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John McEuen’s latest solo album, Made in Brooklyn, brings together a cast of all-star, veteran musicians, in the tradition of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 landmark, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, an album which found McEuen assembling a lineup that included Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Maybelle Carter. It also marked the first meeting of Doc Watson and Merle Travis. Watson, named his son Merle after Travis.

Through decades of touring, McEuen came to know the musicians on Made in Brooklyn, many having met for the first time at the recording sessions.  Artists featured on the album, include John Carter Cash, John Cowan, Steve Martin, Matt Cartsonis, David Bromberg, Andy Goessling and Martha Redbone.

Made in Brooklyn, an eclectic fusion of American roots music, was recorded in a church in Brooklyn. The title, referring to just that, came from a suggestion made by McEuen’s long-time friend, Steve Martin. The songs selected for Made in Brooklyn, were curated by McEuen over the years. From a list of 17 songs, he chose those he felt best suited the project.

“I had these songs I wanted to record,” McEuen says. “I didn’t want them to sit there. I wanted to record them with enthusiastic, great players.”

The album afforded McEuen the opportunity to further explore his passion for the American musical styles he has come to appreciate throughout his life. Although he put bluegrass on Dirt Band albums before, his band mates were never enthusiastic about working out McEuen’s own songs, or making bluegrass the primary focus. The setting for the album, along with the recording technique, truly bring McEuen’s vision to life.

The way the songs were to be recorded and the idea to record at the church, came from Norman Chesky, whose label, Chesky Records, released the album. They had been recording at the church, for many years.

“It’s just where they go in Brooklyn. A quiet spot in New York, that has such a natural echo, you don’t have to use echo. If you clap your hands, it takes about two seconds for the sound to go away. It rings out,” McEuen explains.

McEuen, was concerned about the sound drums would produce in the church. Particularly, with the instrumental track, “Miner’s Night Out.”

“The drums are supposed to be like a marching band coming over the hills,” he says. “I didn’t think it was going to sound big enough, but it sounds perfect.”

When Chesky told McEuen that the label records using only one microphone and one take (with no overdubs or ‘fixes’), McEuen enthusiastically agreed to the concept, saying, “That means you have to be really good!”

The album was recorded with one binaural microphone.  The microphone was  placed in the ears of a “crash test dummy,” named Lars.

Recording at a Church in Brooklyn.

“For some reason that name seems appropriate,” McEuen laughs. “But psychologically,” he continues, “it makes people realize they are singing to each other and playing to each other.”

With the microphone set up, McEuen was intrigued by the idea of “putting the audience in the middle of the group.” The musicians were gathered around in a circle, which gave the songs a unique stereo quality, not heard with any other recording method.

McEuen at the Brooklyn Bridge

Even when walking down the dirty streets of New York, the music transforms the chaos into serenity, transporting the listener to West Virginia, making rows of old buildings with faded signage, seem like they could be in Morgantown. The sky above, looking more like it could be over the Blue Ridge Mountains. The sounds of fiddle, banjo and guitar, drifting around from every direction.  Made in Brooklyn, a walk through the great American landscape, across many decades, no matter the time or place.

Though most on the songs were played twice (in case an instrument couldn’t be heard), the first song, “Brooklyn Crossing,” was done in one take.

“That was the first song we cut. It had to be one take, because I couldn’t remember everything I did,” McEuen laughs.

Before the recording, McEuen had not yet completed the song. He wanted it to be developed in the studio.

“And it was,” he says. “Thanks to [bassist] Skip Ward. I played three pieces and he played the opening. I asked the fiddle player, Jay [Ungar], to make the fiddle sound ‘a little Jewish’ on the second half. Because, to me, the idea of the song title and the song, was that so many people came across the Brooklyn Bridge. French poets, people from England and Ireland, jazz players, folky people and people going to their first bar mitzvah.”

Made in Brooklyn, finds McEuen taking a back seat to other vocalists, choosing instead to highlight their talents. The only song McEuen sings lead on, is the The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s, “Travelin’ Mood,” which on this version, has an early Delta Blues feel crossed with New Orleans and Harlem Jazz. McEuen’s low grumble, capturing the spirit of Joe Hill Louis or Howlin’ Wolf.

“My Dirty Life and Times,” is one of two Warren Zevon covers included on the album. It was written by Zevon to play with McEuen’s longtime touring partner, Matt Cartsonis, who played with Zevon for the last three years of his life.

Matt Cartsonis

Now, almost 14 years since Zevon passed, Cartsonis sings it on Made in Brooklyn. His quirky twang, and hillbilly yelps, bring out the energy of the song leading into the jams.  The verses, delivered with a somber assuredness and well-worn gravel. Still, his humorous vocal ad libs, make the disheartening words, seem a bit more hopeful.

“It felt great to sing it,” says Cartsonis. “Warren wrote the song for us to sing together. Warren isn’t here anymore and I have a connection to it. So, when John asked me what I wanted to bring to the project, this is the first song that was brought. There’s no shame in being preempted when you’re surrounded by John and Steve [Martin] on banjos.”

“Warren enjoyed the slide banjo that I played on the song. But I was not destined to play banjo on Made in Brooklyn,” Cartsonis continues.

Matt Cartsonis sings “My Dirty Life and Times” with John McEuen

Playing banjo this time is Steve Martin, who McEuen asked to frail on the track, because he was already playing mandolin. McEuen produced Martin’s Grammy Award winning album, The Crow. Their friendship, dating back to high school.

“We were both trying to get a job at the magic shop at Disney Land as teenagers,” McEuen explains. “We both did, right around the same time. We got to know each other during our senior year. We discovered the banjo in the same week.”

Steve Martin lays down banjo on “My Dirty Life and Times.”

“Steve says I taught him how to play, even though I was only a week ahead of him” McEuen laughs. “I like the way he frails,” he continues, “the way he likes to rehearse; he’s relentless.”

The other Warren Zevon song on the album is, “Excitable Boy.” McEuen thought bluegrass needed “a new murder ballad,” and this was it. The choppy mandolin, upright bass swing, and jubilant, twangy vocals of Matt Cartsonis delivers, a clever contrast to the song’s sentiment. David Bromberg, trades off vocals with Cartsonis, singing “And he raped her and killed her, then he took her home / Excitable boy, they all said.” Bromberg delivers the words with an endearingly creepy nervousness, suited to the subject matter, all while the contrasting, upbeat sounds of bluegrass play in the background. Truly, coming across as Southern Gothic literature set to music.

“I asked David to sing it. His wife came up and said ‘You’re doing “Excitable Boy?” I hate that song… Your voice is perfect!’” McEuen continues, “He sounds like the guy who killed the girl.”

“She Darked The Sun,” is a song written by Gene Clark (The Byrds).  McEuen, wanted to record the song for many years.

“I couldn’t get Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to play it if I paid them,” he laughs.

John Cowan sings “She Darked The Sun.”

Singing “She Darked the Sun,” is John Cowan. Cowan, sings ‘She walked into my life with her cold evil eyes / With the length of her mind she darked the sun.’ The lyric, delivered with vulnerability, yearning and desperation. Cowan’s conviction, makes one truly believe the words. Cowan, McEuen says, is his favorite singer.

“I agree with many people who say John could sing the dictionary and you’d want to listen to it.  On stage, I’ve been doing [the Byrds song] “I Am A Pilgrim” for 20 years. I did a show with John Cowan, and he sang it. My wife said ‘I really liked that song Cowan sang.’ I said, ‘I’ve been doing it for 20 years honey, you never said that to me!’”

“She Darked the Sun” is the only song to include an electric instrument. Coming in with a solo on a fender Telecaster, is David Bromberg, who gives it the twangy, 1970s feel that fits Gene Clark’s songwriting. A style Bromberg plays “from the heart.” The solo, having “strange notes that come from a different place.” During the recording, the amp had to be placed 20 feet away from the microphone.

“It was so exciting that John Cowan is standing there singing. We all gathered around him,” says McEuen. “Then, David’s solo comes in from across the room. I thought, ‘wow.’ Those people must have had fun in Bristol, TN, in the 30’s and 40’s when they made their records this way.”

Taking lead on the Johnny Cash penned song, “I Still Miss Someone,” is Cash’s son, John Carter Cash. On the track, McEuen succeeds in giving it the feel of the Opry circa 1958, with dobro, mandolin, strings and harmonies. There is a looseness and spontaneity in the music, which compliments Cash’s voice. Though at times, Cash sounds like his father, his voice has a lightness to it. He sings the lyrics with longing and reflection.

John Carter Cash, Martha Redbone and David Amram

“I had played some shows with and worked on a couple of things with [John Carter]. So, I called him and said ‘I’m doing this album and I’d really like you to sing one of my favorite songs your dad wrote, “I Still Miss Someone.’” Cash replied, ’That’s my favorite too!’”

The December before recording the album, McEuen was presented with the chance to hear unreleased songs, penned by two of America’s greatest songwriters, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who are best known for writing “Rocky Top,” which was written in 1968, in Gatlinburg, TN, while working on slower songs for Archie Campbell and Chet Atkins. Their son, Del, called McEuen and asked him if he’d like to hear tapes of songs his dad had never recorded. McEuen, in shock, couldn’t believe he was given the opportunity.

“Matt and I went through all of the tapes in one sitting. The song we chose [“My Favorite Dream”], it wasn’t the most interesting song,” McEuen says. “But, once you listen to it, it really takes you away. I wanted to set it in 1938, where you could imagine Hoagy Carmichael singing it with string players. It’s the perfect summertime love song.”

Singing “My Favorite Dream,” is Matt Cartsonis. The song has a 1930’s Musical feel, but incorporates roots instruments, in the way that Van Dyke Parks marries the styles. On Made in Brooklyn, McEuen, was happy to give a platform to Cartsonis, calling him one of the most “unknown and under-appreciated talents” he knows.

“He’s a very wonderful guy to work with,” says McEuen. “He always works hard and has a different voice than most people.”

Singing on the album was a musical dream come true for Cartsonis. For most of his life, he has been the laid-back and humble picker, never far off in the shadows of whatever legendary artist he’s found himself working with.

John McEuen with Matt Cartsonis

“To be in the center of all of that musical history and talent, and then to actually be singing the songs with those people, felt great,” says Cartsonis.

“I’ve been a side-guy for a long time, but this opportunity to step out was a real gift. And a personal legitimizer. It was fun. Feeling like I belonged in the same room with these people, who had such an impact on my musical life.”

Cartsonis also sings lead on “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.” The song, true to the energy of Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatts. Cartsonis excels when singing bluegrass, his vocals, stylistically similar to Del McCoury, mixed with inflections reminiscent of Bill Monroe. Accompanied by John McEuen on harmonies, the song, though recorded in Brooklyn, sounds as if it came from Kentucky in the 1930’s.

Rounding out the album are the tracks, “I Rose Up” and “Mr. Bojangles.” “I Rose Up,” perfectly suited to play in a church. It is a new gospel classic. Using the words from an 1803 book, “Garden of Love,” McEuen and Martha Redbone, decided to put music to the words. The song, a mix of Southern and Bluegrass Gospel.

“We thought, ‘Well what if we bring England to West Virginia and put music to [Blake’s] words?’” McEuen recalls. “I said, I think there should be key changes in there, let’s move it up a half step every time and you guys switch up vocals. It was exciting. The scat singing Martha did at the end, I didn’t know she was going to do that,” McEuen explains.

With a bouncy bass intro played by Skip Ward, driving the verses, Martha Redbone sings with restrained power, her voice complimented by backing vocals, hearkening the sound of the Staples Singers. Singing after Redbone, is Cartsonis who brings the song to a Church in Appalachia. John McCowan, finishes the song with soulful country vocals.

“Mr. Bojangles,” written by Jerry Jeff Walker, was covered by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1970. The song was also recorded by David Bromberg in 1972. It was reprised on Made in Brooklyn and includes a masterful new solo played by David Bromberg

“If we had done this recording 40 years ago, the solo wouldn’t have come out like that,” says McEuen.

“On this album, there are so many accomplished players, with a broad range of musical backgrounds. There’s a sense behind all these people, that played. They all have 30 or 40 years recording experience. A lot of the folky people back in the day, didn’t even know how to use a microphone or get the best sound out of their instrument. If this is folk music, you have to work at it.”

With Made in Brooklyn, John McEuen, one of the foremost banjo aficionados to ever record, has produced a perfect summation of his musical legacy. His interest in, and ear for music, stemming back to when he was just eight years old.

“I first heard “Jambalya” by Hank Williams at my aunt’s house,” he recalls. “It was the first song that really reached me. I was kid and I thought it sounded cool. I didn’t know anything about music at the time. The chord changes were simple and the words were funny.”

“It wasn’t until I was about 15, that music seemed more interesting. When I was 17, my brother taught me how to play guitar. Then, I heard a banjo player named Doug Dillard and I went ‘Oh my god! I gotta do that.’ So, I followed The Dillards, who were from Missouri, around for two years. They had their own kind of bluegrass style. They were funny and great musicians on stage.”

More than sixty years since he first heard, “Jambalya,” and 53 years after discovering The Dillards, McEuen has made an album that incorporates all aspects of the music that first influenced him and that he has transformed.  Made in Brooklyn includes Bluegrass, Country and Western, Jazz, Blues and everything historically American in between. The album, unique to McEuen’s take on these styles, has humor, depth and masterful playing.

Up next for McEuen, he continues his long tradition of life on the road, playing both solo shows and with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.  He will be playing in Elgin, IL on April 29 with Les Thompson [Nitty Gritty Dirt Band], John Cable and Matt Cartsonis.

For more information on McEuen and upcoming shows:

johnmceuen.com  |  fb  |  buy

Courtney S. Lennon

Courtney S. Lennon

Kin to legendary songwriter Stephen Foster, Courtney is a strong voice in the roots community. She is the founder and Editor of Turnstyled, Junkpiled Music Magazine, which she started after moving to Los Angeles in 2011. Courtney has contributed to No Depression, Lone Star Music Magazine, Texas Music Magazine, and Buffalo, NY-based JAM Magazine. She has written features on Ryan Bingham, Guy Clark, Terry Allen, Rodney Crowell, Radney Foster, Dale Watson, and Wanda Jackson, among others. She is the author of the forthcoming book, "Live Forever: The Songwriting Legacy of Billy Joe Shaver" (Texas A&M University Press).
Courtney S. Lennon
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