When I sat down to interview family trio the McEuens about their debut record, I thought I'd break the ice with a little joke.
"So, obviously you guys have been playing together for a long time," I quipped. "Why did you decide to finally make a record?"
John McEuen stops me with a worried look on his face. "Wait a minute," he said. "You do realize these are my sons...right?"
I begin to laugh--I can't help it--and the sons in question, Jonathan and Nathan, laugh as well. Dad, realizing that he didn't get my bit of humor, sheepishly grins.
It actually may be forgiven not to have heard of the McEuens as a unit; however, any fan of music should rightly be aware of John McEuen's illustrious career as both a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt band and a solo artist. He's made over 40 records total, appeared on dozens more as a guest artist, and performed or collaborated with a dazzling list of superstars ranging from Dolly Parton to Willie Nelson to Phish to Bob Dylan to the Doors. He's also done extensive scoring for film and television, and won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for his production of The Crow--New Songs for the 5-string Banjo by Steve Martin.
Needless to say, John's kids--he's got four other ones besides Jonathan and Nathan--grew up used to having their father out on the road, and often enjoyed joining him on stage as early as their elementary-school years. The experience made for an unusual but effective education. "Over the years, they developed a love for performing and music and learning," explains John.
"Our dad gave everyone an equal shot. Everyone was on the stage at one point or another," adds Jonathan.
And, when not on stage, the kids got plenty of practice at home as well. "Having instruments lying around the house [made it] very easy for us to start our own bands as brothers while Dad was gone," Nathan explains.
It eventually became clear, however, that Jonathan and Nathan had a serious musical connection with their father. "At a certain period in time it became obvious that the three of us had something to do that would be special," notes John.
What came out of that realization was the McEuen's debut collection, For All The Good, a delightfully uncategorizable set of rootsy uptempo tunes, gentle ballads, brotherly harmonizing, and a whole lot of really good banjo pickin'. The album even contains a touching, uniquely executed cover of Dan Fogelberg's classic "Leader Of The Band."
Although it's clear this family has seeped itself in a wide variety of music--the facility they display moving from one style to the next is remarkable--what's not exactly clear is how to label their sound.
"I always tell people it's too rock for country, too country for rock, too green for bluegrass, and too funky for folk," says Nathan. "I hope that makes sense."
Some might wonder what it's like to collaborate with a musical legend--even if that legend happens to be "dad." Is there an imbalance of power when making songwriting or producing decisions? John's sons say it's usually not an issue--everyone has a fair say.
"You give your opinion, you tell everybody, and you'll fight for what you think is right," says Nathan to his father. "But at the end of the day you'll hear other people's opinions."
"I know you've sold about 25 million more records than I have but I know what I'm doing," deadpans Jonathan, while his brother and father laugh.
Even if I really hadn't known these two were John's sons before, I certainly would be well aware by this point...you think?
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