The String Wizard Celebrates

Early this Fall, some of our team produced a television special from the Ryman Auditorium celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, an extravaganza with superstar guests from roots music including Vince Gill, Alison Krauss and Jackson Browne. Some time during the run up to that show, it came up that NGDB co-founder John McEuen was about to have an anniversary of his own.

The String Wizard, has he’s been justifiably called, turns 70 this week, and on Wednesday night at our year-end holiday show, he’ll be our guest of honor and the curator of a night of incredible roots music talent. “I wanted to have a birthday party,” John told me. “I wanted to admit to myself that I was 70 and it was fine.”

I first encountered John in person when I was a reporter at the Tennessean and the Dirt Band was set to release the third volume of its iconic Will The Circle Be Unbroken series, the first of which truly revolutionized and turbocharged folk and country music in America in the early 70s. I showed up to interview McEuen and fellow Dirt Bander Jeff Hanna. Jeff was a straight-shooting, soft spoken, intelligent Nashville musician and songwriter. His companion was a tall mystic with pure white hair and beard and a mind that seemed to dart all over the cosmos at once, bringing back witty ideas, images, stories and opinions, which were delivered in an order best appreciated by the speaker and with a twinkle in the eye that was half Santa Claus and half Gandalf.

John’s unique charisma and passion for a wide variety of music helped him collect amazing friends and colleagues over the years. That is after all how he networked his way to the astounding Circle album roster with Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin and so forth. For this show, he’s invited musicians he considers heroes and friends for an event he says will be a “musical family reunion.”

In no particular order, let’s dive in. John Carter Cash brings two of the most important and famous names in country music because he’s of the legacy. Mother Maybelle Carter was on the iconic Circle album and a Carter Family song gave it its title, which became a true country music anthem. Maybelle’s daughter June married Johnny Cash, and John Carter is their only child together. JCC has been involved in caretaking the family history and musical bequest as a producer, performer and songwriter. He’s joined the Dirt band and McEuen on stage many times before.

The most famous voice joining the band for a few songs will be that of Rhonda Vincent, the powerhouse bandleader from northeastern Missouri. Her big news is having reclaimed the title of IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year last fall. She’d won six such prizes but not won in almost a decade. “I’ve admired her for 20 years,” says John. And she’s just released a new Christmas album, so how better to sing in the season?

When I asked John about his heroes on the show the first name he supplied was that of Roland White, the gentlemanly, silver bearded mandolin player who shook up the world with his late brother Clarence and the Kentucky Colonels. McEuen says he saw those guys on a TV barn dance in California called Cal’s Corral in the 60s, and it was part of his inspiration for performing real deal American music. They seemed just about his age and it made the whole venture seem possible. A similarly positioned mandolinist, also in a band with his brother, became a favorite of John’s, and so Jesse McReynolds will be on hand as well.

Of course the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band will infuse this whole event with repertoire and people. The aforementioned Jeff Hanna is coming out, and I can’t wait to hear some of his John McEuen stories. Les Thompson was with the NGDB until 1973, including those historic Circle sessions at Woodland Studio in East Nashville. And John Cable is a “fine artist and writer” in John’s estimation who opened some shows in the 70s for the Dirts before joining the band for a time, including an historic visit to the Soviet Union. Other great pickers and longtime McEuen collaborators will include multi-instrumentalist David Amram and L.A.-based musician and film composer Matt Cartsonis.

The show marks the first visit of rock and roll eminence Bernie Leadon, who helped birth the folk rock movement with the Flying Burrito Brothers and then The Eagles. His solo career has been distinguished if a bit below the radar, and he’s much admired as a musician and producer in Nashville to this day.

Utterly central to Nashville over these recent decades are old McEuen friends Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush. These are guys who need no introduction to our crowd, but I was surprised to learn that Sam Bush’s album title track and hit live tune “Howlin’ At The Moon” was written by McEuen. I’m speculating that Sam and Jerry will be part of a house band with a lot of chances to play. The great Mike Bub will be on bass, adding to his unparalleled track record of MCR performances. So how can we go wrong.

McEuen is proof that doing what you love keeps you young and in the game. He says in recent years he’s found himself increasingly interested in Delta blues guitar and adapting tunings from that world to his banjo. I asked him if he still gets better at his craft after all these years. He said he’s not sure about that, but that “I’m the best me I’ve ever been.”

Craig H.

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