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Texas | Music | "Words and Music"

John McEuen,
Acoustically Speaking

by Dorothy Hamm
String Wizard John McEuen, one of the founding members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, estimates that he has performed in excess of 5,000 stage shows and 300 television shows, traveled around the world, flown more than two million air miles and driven at least a million land miles, during a career that has now spanned 40 years.

Few people who have seen John in concert, playing banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, etc., need an explanation as to why he is called a string wizard. His mastery of acoustic string instruments seems almost magical at times. He has also been called an instrumental poet with a long list of outstanding accomplishments that include original musical compositions, and scoring movie and television specials.

Making music is John's joy, his passion. He is good enough to perform with symphonies but not too good to take a solo turn at a small club nowhere in particular, or sit beside a campfire in the Everglades picking with friends, the latter of which I was fortunate enough to witness a few years ago at Billie Swamp in Florida. He also has an intelligent and wry sense of humor, with a liberal dash of slapstick, as countless fans who have witnessed him jumping off the drum riser at a concert and running around the stage with his guitar on fire, will testify.
John McEuen, sons Nathan and  Jonothan
John McEuen, center, flanked by son Nathan on the left and son Jonothan on the right

Photo Courtesy of John McEuen
I first met John in the 1980s when I interviewed the NGDB at Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth. John couldn't sit down for an interview before the show, He had a worried expression on his brow, as he paced back and forth in the dressing room, warming up his fingers playing runs on his banjo. Did I mind waiting until after the show? His luggage had taken a different plane than the one he arrived on and he was waiting for someone to deliver his suitcase to him before show time. He couldn't go on without his "tenny Lamas," a special combination tennis shoe/cowboy boot made for him by the Tony Lama boot company.

His tenny Lama's arrived in time and a much more relaxed musician greeted me backstage after the show, John was happy to explain how he and his beloved tennis shoes with the cowboy boot tops became estranged that day.

The band had played a gig in the San Francisco the night before and they were at the airport early that morning, awaiting a flight to Dallas/Fort Worth. But it was delayed by fog. John lived in Colorado at that time but he and his wife had been visiting friends in Los Angeles the day before and his wife was still in LA.

He kept hearing an announcement about a commuter flight departing for LA and he pictured his wife sleeping peacefully, so near and yet so far away. He checked flights and found he could fly to LA, stay a few hours and take another flight to Texas. He yelled "see you in Fort Worth" to the rest of the NGDB members and jumped on the commuter to LA. His wife, who had every right to expect that John was flying somewhere over New Mexico by now, was awakened by the sound of her sweetheart playing his banjo outside her door. If memory serves me well, the song was "Dream."

I just love a romantic story, don't you?
Fans who attend NGDB concerts often marvel at the speed with which John's fingers race across the strings of his vintage banjo or guitar. What they may not know is that his mind races along at a similar speed. It is hard for those of us whose minds travel at average speeds to keep up his accomplishments. Below is a partial list of some of his adventures:

  • " Host/Performer ~ Acoustic Traveler Show, XM Satellite Radio, The Village, Channel 15, John feels his CD, Acoustic Traveller, on the Vanguard label, is possibly the best thing he has done so far. Most of the songs on the recording are his own original compositions.
  • " Producer ~ And In The End The Life Death of John Lennon, Upcoming Broadway play by Alexander Marshall
  • " Associate Producer, Original Music ~ Manassas: End of Innocence, 45 minute documentary playing at Manassas Battlefield Park, Virginia
  • " Original music ~ Love From Ground Zero, Movie
  • " Musical Score ~ The Good Old Boys, made for TV movie starring Tommy Lee Jones and Sissy Spacek
  • " Producer, Director, Writer ~ John McEuen and Friends A Night in the Ozarks -- AUSTIN CITY LIMITS, PBS starring The Dillards. A 90 minute video documentary which captures the Dillards in a reunion 1991. Shot on film with live music, (Mike Denecke engineered) in a Salem Missouri farmhouse.
  • " Musical Score ~ The Wild West, 10 hour mini-series, featuring music from the 1850s- to1900, winner of Western Heritage Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame
  • " Musical Score ~ Braving Alaska, National Geographic Society television special
  • " Producer, Arranger ~ Alligator Tales, and Seminole Fire, by Chief Jim Billie, two CDs of true stories and songs are based on Billie's life and impressions of living in his Everglades homeland on the Big Cypress reservation in southern Florida. These were never before recorded legends of the Seminole nation.
  • " Host and Originator ~ Deadwood Jam, an annual music festival held in the Black Hills of South Dakota, in the historic town made famous by Wild Bill Hickock, was conceived by John in 1990.
  • " Paul Williams I'm Going Back There Someday…DVD featuring Willie Nelson, Melissa Manchester and John McEuen

    © Dorothy Hamm
    "Words and Music" Column - February 3, 2006 column

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