John McEuen calls himself “Forrest Gump with a banjo,” and that assertion is more than supported by his new memoir, The Life I’ve Picked: A Banjo Player’s Nitty Gritty Journey.
The comprehensively illustrated 328-page tome, with more than 70 photos, details the 72-year-old California native’s rich musical career, from becoming a teenage banjoist to his longtime membership in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to his work with high school pal Steve Martin on “King Tut” and the Grammy Award-winning The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo. Not to mention sessions and encounters with a who’s-who of luminaries, from Bill Monroe to Eddie Van Halen and disgraced presidential candidate Gary Hart. “What this is is a collection of stories that I find ends up being my life,” McEuen tells Billboard, “a path that, ‘OK, I want from this plane to that plane, guess who was on this plane? And when I got off, guess who was on the next one or was standing backstage and wanting to sit in?’ It’s been a constant surprise to me. Still is. I never expect anything.”
After leaving the Dirt Band for a second time late last year, McEuen is still active as a solo artist leading his own band. We took advantage of the book to ask this picker to pick some of his favorite Gump-like encounters.
Wild And Crazy Guys
After McEuen lent his musical expertise to Steve Martin, the comic-actor-musician was happy to give his longtime friend the benefit of his own literary skills during the writing of The Life I’ve Picked. “Steve and I met in high school years and watched each other. I worked with him off and on, and my brother was his manager. It’s been a great relationship. When I got the final manuscript ready to go to print he said, ‘Send it to me.’ I sent it and he sent back three pages of suggestions. He didn’t say ‘Make these corrections’; He said, ‘Here’s some suggestions,’ and they were really good, just like things like ‘On page 72 you say ‘whoever.’ It should we ‘whomever,’ little things like how to refer to something with fewer words or not mention something that could be implied by the writing. He was very helpful.”
The Tonight Show Hosted by Steve Martin – John McEuen “Grandfather’s Clock” from John McEuen on Vimeo.
McEuen wrote theme and score music for The Good Old Boys, the 1995 Western that marked Tommy Lee Jones’ debut as a film director (Jones also wrote the script and starred in the movie), an experience he found liberating. “That was a really fun one for me to recount the juxtaposition of working with one of the biggest actors in Hollywood, giving him a couple of direction ideas and having him listen, and yet having been in a band where it was very difficult to get anything listened to because I wasn’t the singer or whatever. It was the angst of wanting to be part of a team; I always felt more of a team outside the group with whomever I was working with, so that was something I wanted to get down (in the book).”
A Mickey Mouse Tale
Having worked at Disneyland during his youth, McEuen was invited to help send off one of the empire’s most famous voices in 2009. “I got a call from a lady with a very high-pitched voice asking if I could play at her husband’s funeral. He was my biggest fan, she said. Well, what did he do? For 35 years he’d been the voice of Mickey Mouse, and I said to (his wife), ‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m the voice of Minnie.’ This is impossible, right?! So there I was in Burbank at Forest Lawn (Cemetery) standing next to Wayne Allwine’s casket playing for a bunch of Disney people — not just Disney people but Pluto and Goofy and Kermit and the Fairy Godmother and all of them were out there. It was ethereal.”
Down With Dylan
When he was 18 McEuen was asked by a club owner to partner and pony up $2,000 to book “this guy named Bob Dylan” for a concert. “I’d seen pictures of (Dylan), so I said ‘sure.’ I borrowed the money from my dad, who co-signed a note, actually, so I could borrow it. The show sold out, so five weeks later I paid it back and kept the other $2,200 to buy a new banjo. So Bob Dylan bought me a banjo.” McEuen and Dylan encountered each other over the years and the Dirt Band even booked a night off from touring to catch Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue on April 18, 1976 in Lakeland, Fla. “It wasn’t a friendship but you cross paths in the same space a few times, and it’s interesting kind of knowing when somebody looks at you and goes, ‘Hey, uh…’ (laughs) They know you, but they’re not quite sure.”
Farm Aid Follies
McEuen shared a dressing space with Dylan and Eddie Van Halen as all three were preparing for their performances at the inaugural Farm Aid concert during 1985. “They didn’t have any idea who I was or what my band was doing. They were into their own thing. They weren’t even acknowledging each other until I started playing the banjo and said, ‘Hey, you guys want to play some bluegrass?’ And they kind of looked at each other and went, ‘Un…no.’ It was funny that I saw the first time Sammy Hagar played with Van Halen in front of 80,000 people and then a few years later I was at the last show he played with Hagar in Salt Lake City. These kinds of things have happened so often…”
The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder & John McEuen – Leader of KGB Looks Like Johnny Carson from John McEuen on Vimeo.
Hart Of The Matter
McEuen served as a kind of ambassador to Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign during its visit to Nashville in the spring of 1987 — just a week before news of an extramarital affair blew him out of the running. “That was an extremely compressed trip in the space of a few days of watching all that go on and how fast it moves and how quickly he lived up to Mark Twain’s comment ‘politicians and diapers — you change them for the same reason,’ ’cause it was just a week later he got into too much monkey business. He was over; All the important words, all the big-deal speeches, done. You’re done. Next… But I had free lunches in Nashville for a week after that, people saying, ‘Hey, let’s go to lunch. Tell me about that Gary Hart thing.’ People wanted to be close to somebody that was close to maybe the next president. But two weeks later I was back to paying for my own (lunch) again.”
Between Her And…
“I wanted to meet Brooke Shields at Kevin Nealon’s birthday party. I said, ‘Kevin, I saw Brooke Shields come in. I’d love for you to introduce me.’ He said, ‘OK, come over in about 20 minutes’ and I got to have him introduce me and she says, ‘You don’t have to introduce me to this man. I know this is John McEuen from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.’ It’s because someone gave her a recording of me doing this poem that she played every night to go to sleep when she was a model going to college in New York. That was the only thing she said helped her get away from everything. It was a six-minute poem that I put music to, and I actually said, ‘Why didn’t you call?’ (laughs) But how could Brooke Shields know anything I’ve done, right? I just wanted to get her autograph for my daughter.”
Tight Rope Tale
McEuen had a long friendship with Leon Russell, including several recording projects together, that he still cherishes. “He came to the first rehearsal of the Dirt Band at the Ash Grove and asked, ‘would you all like to sign with a record label?’ ‘Well no, sir, we just signed a record deal.’ ‘OK, can I listen?’ That was 1966 in December, and I kept in touch with him and after a while, maybe around ’72, I sat in with him at a concert, and in ’74 or ’75 he called me up to play on Bill Wyman’s album (Stone Alone), and I got in the studio and (Russell) said, ‘Oh, I’m glad you’re here. I’ve already played my four licks.’ He was shy, humble and liked to work hard, and he was one of the most underrated, killer classic rock acts that was out there. He walked out on that stage and just put people away. I never got to see him enough, and I found out from other people that he spoke highly of me, so I appreciated that.”
On The Border
McEuen says the Eagles have always been respectful of him and the Dirt Band for helping to forge a path they followed to their success. “I think we helped open that road a bit for them. Glenn Frey and the other guy, (Don) Henley, both gave credit to the Dirt Band. Actually, (Frey’s) Longbranch Pennywhistle opened for us for a week at the Troubadour. That scene in southern California was the most overlooked scene in the country. Greenwich Village always gets all the credit for being the hot bed of all that music, but southern California, the clubs that were out there, everybody was going from one to the other and seeing new music and comedians that were trying to make it. It was an exciting time.”
Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe turned down the Dirt Band’s invitation to appear on its first Will The Circle Be Unbroken album in 1972 — and seemed to regret it, according to McEuen. “A few years later he came up to me at a festival and said, ‘Hey John, if you ever want to do one of them Circle albums again, gimme a call,’ ’cause he saw what he missed. So 18 years later we were in Zurich, Switzerland, on the last of an eight-city tour and I saw him and said, ‘Hey Bill, I got a club that’s gonna open up for us, stay open at midnight so we can go in and jam for a couple hours. Come on by.’ I’m up on stage and he comes by, and you can see him coming in the room with that big hat. He comes on stage and said, ‘Do you know ‘Uncle Pen’ on that thing? Kick it off’ and Bill Monroe sat in with me. That was definitely one of the highest high points.”
A story not in the book concerns a special meeting a few years back when McEuen was playing a festival in Springfield, Mo. “I was setting my gear up and there was some roadie type in a sports cap watching me like a hawk. After a while I said, ‘So are you on the crew here?’ And he goes, ‘No, I’m playing later. I’m just a big fan of yours and I wanted to see what you were doing.’ A few minutes go by and I ask, ‘What’s your name’ and he goes ‘Brad Paisley.’ I had no idea Brad Paisley’s watching me do my sound check! He’s a picker and I’m a picker and he wanted to see what I did. You can’t get much better than Brad Paisley, I don’t think.”