Friday, January 30, 2015

Showstopper: Kerri Powers on Tour

Kerri Powers, an artist we featured here a couple of months ago, is back on tour in New England.  You can catch her on February 20th, at the Club Simply Fargone in Worcester, Massachusetts. She’ll be opening for and supporting John Ford Coley.  It’s a 7 PM show. Check out her website for the details...   Kerri Powers

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Circle Stays Unbroken- John McEuen Takes a Break from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

John McEuen, long-time member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, likes to take stroll onto a stage by himself, or with a friend, now and again.   You can catch him in the act this Friday night; he’ll be joined by former Austin Lounge Lizard Matt Cartsonis for a show at the Bull Run Restaurant in Shirley, MA on January 23, 2015. 

McEuen’s steady day gig with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (NGDB) has been productive. The Band scored a number of top 40 singles in the late sixties and seventies, with ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ and House at Pooh Corner. They went on to have enormous influence on the popular music scene with their three Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums, scoring a trio of Grammies for Volume II. The first volume sold platinum. 

McEuen is a multi-instrumentalist with more than 45 years playing professionally, sees his solo work in many ways as an extension of the work he has done with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

I've always been an appreciator of those who played behind the lyrics.  So, I’ve always tried to put my acoustic instruments in places they wouldn’t likely be found. You know, like the mandolin on ‘Mr. Bojangles.’  Or putting a fiddle on another song in a spot where someone else might not have. I really love spreading my interpretations of what is good back up.  Of course, I’ve always had a love of bluegrass, that comes through in a lot of what I do.”

Going Solo

Over the last fifteen years, a number of solo artists have emerged emerging from the bluegrass and roots music movement, playing brilliantly and fusing bluegrass with other styles- rock, funk, jazz, world music.  People like dobro-player Jerry Douglas, mandolin player Sam Bush, ukulele player Jake Shibamakuro, banjo-player Bela Fleck and fiddler Mark O’Connor have pushed the boundaries of music as they have grown into their considerable talents.  McEuen acknowledges the movement, but hesitates to call it a trend.

“If you were start your graph in 1970, it would look more like a slow, upward curve. I recorded Jerry Douglas, early on in his career; and arranged for Mark O’Connor’s first session in Nashville.  And Sam Bush, his work with the eclectic New Grass Revival, he’s been around a while. So by the nineties, these guys were all playing various festivals around the country, and the kept getting more popular.  I was able to incorporate the talents of these people in the work with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and my solo work, and within ten years, these guys were winning every ‘Best Of ‘ award around.

McEuen joined the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in late 1966, replacing Jackson Browne, who had decided to focus on his solo career. The band developed an eclectic sound, merging jug band and bluegrass styles with the fresh sound of folk rock, just emerging on their home ground of Southern California. And although the band had experienced a top 40 hit off of their first album, played The Tonight Show, began opening for performers like the Doors, Bill Cosby and Jack Benny, and even jamming with Dizzy Gillespie, they were surprised by their success with a Jerry Jeff Walker tune.

“When we recorded ‘Mr. Bojangles’, we all thought it was a good album cut- it was four minutes long, all acoustic instruments except for the bass.  We didn't think it had a chance in hell of breaking as single. We were wrong. It stayed on the charts for thirty-six weeks- it just didn't go away.  That was a nice surprise, because it was actually on our 5th album.  And we had other hits of that album, like “House at Pooh Corner”.  I think that success really helped us get some credibility.  Not long after, when I went and asked Earl Scruggs if he’d record with us, he’d heard of us. And people like Levon Helm, from the Band, became a good friend and big influence on us- the Band were also very heavy into acoustic instruments, with those half-time drums playing against the rhythm.”

Will the Circle Be Unbroken

All of the good will came together with a very ambitious undertaking, the triple album Will The Circle Be Unbroken. It was an intentional effort to connect the NGDB more strongly to country music, and the album had tremendous impact. It brought together three generations of country music Roy Acuff of the ‘Grand Old Opery’, and progenitor of Carter/Cash line, Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis and Doc Watson- who had been performing for more than 40 years, and had never worked together. Earl Scruggs, and his son also joined the album, although Bill Monroe famously opted not to participate.

“Acuff, who was a living legend to us, agreed to play.  He saw us, and called us ‘a bunch of long-haired hippie boys from the West Coast’. And Vassar Clements joined us on fiddle.  He’s often said to me ‘Thanks, you gave me a career.’ People have come up to us and said Circle is the Godfather of O Brother Where Art Thou, because we were so successful at introducing people to this music we loved so much.”

“You know, there was so much political turmoil in the country at the time, but there were no politics in studio.  The country people worried about long haired hippies, and yet, we came together so well that Roy Acuff said, ‘I don't know if they are young boys old men, they’re so covered with hair, but they play country music wonderful.’”

“When we were recording ‘Tennessee Stud’ with Doc Watson, I felt like we were transported back 40-50 years, it was really magical.”  Many of the cuts on the album were done with one or two takes, little over-dubbing, so they have a fresh, raw feel to them.

Two subsequent albums Volume II and Volume III garnered the NGDB three Grammy awards.

Two Wild and Crazy Guys

McEuen, who still plays with the NGDB, has been involved in a few side projects in his spare time.  One of his more recent efforts was working with Steve Martin on an all-music album, which won a Grammy, which thrilled Martin. McEuen and Martin go back a long ways.

“The summer before my senior year in high school, I went to Disneyland to apply for a job working at the magic shop at kids at Tomorrow-land. Steve was also applying for a job there, and we both got hired. Disneyland, We ended up playing chess most of the time. In high school, I was sort of a nerd, and he was Mr. Popular.  We both got interested in 5-string banjo at the same time, around the first year of college, I picked up things on the instrument quicker than him- he was impatient, he’d learn a third of a tune and then get bored. But he always had impeccable timing, and great intonation. He’d write things, and play them for me, and I’d say ‘thanks, Steve, wish I’d written that...’.
“So years went by, and he had great success as a comedian- my brother, who managed the NGDB, also managed him, and Steve was still playing a writing.  That connection with my broterh lead to one of the most expansive experiences of my life- we backed him up on ‘King Tut’ , and we were doing a tour of 28 sold-out shows in Russia, then flew right to New York City to back him up when he did that song on Saturday Night Live.”

“A little while ago, he called me, and asked me to stop by.  He’d written and recorded four songs into his computer. And they were great.  So I asked him to give me the tunes, and I overdubbed a bunch of stuff, and stretched them out- the man’s timing was always perfect, so it was easy to do.  And he loved it, and I told him we needed to do an album of all his originals. So he wrote some more, and we did the album, and it won a Grammy.

“He was always very insecure about his music.  And I said to him, look, comedy is something where you tell a joke, and people say, ‘I’m gonna remember that joke.’  But when you go onstage and play music or when you make an album, that really has a chance to become a part of people’s lives. I gotta say, part of me is very jealous, that, he can write this album of amazing music after not being a working musician, and the album is great and gets recognized. Even if he is an old high school friend!”

McEuen loves playing with the band, but also enjoys forays out to perform solo for audiences.

“It’s all about connecting with people.  I really live for that, for those moments onstage when you are playing live, and people find your music gets inside them. It really is, for me, all about the live show.  It's the part I love the best.”

“About 70% of the time, I’m with the Dirt Band- the rest, solo.  Even today, it can be hard to establish the fact that you are doing some of this music, as well as a lot of other stuff, solo.  I’m excited to tour the Northeast to help build an audience for my solo work.”

The show is both entertaining and informational. McEuen explains.

“There certainly is an homage to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I pay tunes on the guitar mandolin, banjo and fiddle. I tell the stories behind the selections.  In some ways, the show is like a trip back through time, back to the 1800’s, literally showing that the ‘The Circle’ is still with us.

McEuen is joined Matt Cartsonis, who has been a musical friend and partner for more than 30 years. McEuen has said about Cartsonis that ‘he sings like he is from Kentucky - that high bluegrass lonesome sound - with a rock and roll sensibility all accompanied by his hot licks on mandola and guitar. We have done hundreds of shows together.’  Cartsonis, in addition to being a member of the Austin Lounge Lizards- a legendary band from Texas- spent five years touring with Warren Zevon.

McEuen, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band both have what McEuen calls ‘staying power.’ You can catch their show in Shirley, MA on Friday, January 23.