E=mc3: Father plus sons equals music magic
January 16, 2007
Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN A decade ago, John McEuen impressed his son Ryan. A diehard fan of the jam-band Phish, Ryan asked his dad, a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, if he could introduce him to Trey Anastasio, Phish’s guitarist and singer. The elder McEuen said sure, and after some research, told Ryan to meet him in Sacramento for an upcoming Phish show.There was a small problem: McEuen, who has dwelled largely in the acoustic-music world and not kept up much with the contemporary-rock scene, was working with dated information. He had heard of Phish, even heard some of their music and liked it. But he wasn’t aware that the band had moved into rock’s upper realms and introducing his son – and himself – to Anastasio, on the fly, wasn’t as easy as talking his way past a bouncer and getting backstage.”I thought it was a club band,” said the elder McEuen, by phone from his Hollywood home. “I had first heard about them when they were a 500-, 600-person band.”I look in the paper and see they were playing Arco Arena in Sacramento. So I call, and it’s sold out – and I didn’t know the promoter. My son said, ‘What’s the plan?’ I told him, ‘Same thing. Meet me at the load-in gate.'”Things went well enough. The McEuens watched Phish pull in at the expected hour, and they approached the caravan. But when Anastasio stepped off the tour bus, the plot took an unexpected turn.”Trey gets off and says, ‘John McEuen! Are you going to play with us tonight?'” McEuen recalled. Ryan McEuen did indeed witness his father, jamming with Phish onstage for a handful of tunes. Much later that night, the McEuens saw a hippie van full of Phish fans. One asked, “Hey, aren’t you the old folk dude who played with Phish?” Thus was Ryan’s fantasy of his dad, the contemporary pseudo-rock star, fulfilled.These days, the 61-year-old John McEuen spends more of his time being impressed by his kids than impressing them. McEuen and his ex-wife Kae have six children, including a son who is a chef, another who programs shows at a planetarium, and a daughter who manages a MacIntosh store. Ryan can probably get in touch with most any rock star he wants now; he is a concert promoter.
McEuen seems fond of all his children, but the two who he has been spending the most time with these days are 29-year-old Jonathan, and 25-year-old Nathan. Both have followed in their father’s professional footsteps, and the three have been playing an increasing number of dates together as the trio, E=mc3. The trio makes its first Aspen appearance tomorrow night at the Wheeler Opera House.The elder McEuen has played the Wheeler numerous times with Nitty Gritty and several times in a duo with former Dirt Band member (and Woody Creek resident) Jimmy Ibbotson, with Jonathan sitting in. Concertgoers this weekend can expect plenty from the Dirt Band catalog – both from the landmark 1972 album, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and a select few that John feels have been overlooked. Expect songs from Hanna-McEuen, the duo Jonathan has with his cousin and fellow Dirt Band offspring Jaime Hanna, son of Jeff Hanna, and some instrumental numbers that have the three McEuens trading string licks. In addition to the music, listeners are likely to hear many words of praise flowing from the proud papa McEuen.”They both play the way I thought I was going to be able to,” said McEuen. “They make me work.”McEuen did not have to take on the formal role of his kids’ music teacher. McEuen, a Southern California native who lived in Evergreen from 1971-88, was divorced from Kae in 1990 and worked his parenting into his touring schedule. “All the boys grew up on the road with me,” said McEuen, who relocated to Salt Lake City – where his wife was from, and where she resettled after moving from Colorado – to be near his kids. “I was single dad, going out on the road, and that’s where they grew up with me. They had to work – either playing, or selling CDs.”Jonathan started earning his keep at 6. McEuen had noticed his son’s fine voice, and one night, at a Dirt Band concert at Red Rocks, persuaded Jonathan to join the band onstage, sealing the deal with a promise of $5. His version of “I’m Gonna Have My Picture Took” had 9,000 fans up and screaming.”I saw tears in his eyes, and I knew he was hooked,” said McEuen. “I asked him if he wanted to do another song.
“He asked, ‘Do I get another $5?'”Jonathan appeared onstage, as a singer, often with his father just before his teen years. In his early teens, he took up guitar. “And when he got the guitar in his hands, it was hard to get it out,” said McEuen. Jonathan had aptitude as well as enthusiasm. “I would teach the acorn one lick,” said McEuen, demonstrating sample riffs over the phone, “and within a short period of time, it would turn into 10. At 14, he’d ask, ‘How do you play that opening on “Mr. Bojangles?”‘ I’d show him, then he’d say, ‘OK, what’s next?'”I said, ‘I want this to take a little longer.'”The glowing reviews of his sons’ musicianship appears to be more than just a father’s biased ramblings. Jonathan has released a series of CDs, including, with fiddler Phil Salazar, “A Tribute to Jerry Garcia,” one of the more distinguished such tributes. The debut CD “Hanna McEuen,” released in 2005 by the major label Dreamworks, is a solid country-rock effort. And Jonathan is a substantial presence on a forthcoming CD by former Traffic member Dave Mason.”When Dave was working on his current album, he didn’t call me to play guitar. He called Jonathan,” said McEuen. “He’s the lead guitar player on the whole album, and Dave does one of Jonathan’s songs.”Nathan’s career is not quite as advanced as his older brother’s. His solo debut, “Grand Design,” released in 2005, features 10 original tunes and contributions from his father and brother, among others.
Pick the right record, and the McEuens can seem like peas from the same rootsy, country-folk pod. Onstage, too, they are cut from a similar mode. Jonathan plays some electric guitar, but, his father notes, it is a quiet electric guitar. Apart from that, the sons stick to acoustic guitars, while John does his usual wandering from mandolin to fiddle to a piano, should one be available.But there are also the occasional indications that the younger McEuens are of a different generation, and a different orientation. One of Jonathan’s signature tunes is a killer cover of Prince’s “Kiss,” sung in falsetto. John didn’t steer his kids toward any particular kind of music.One day, when Jonathan was in his expansive teenage years, McEuen heard Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, repeatedly, from downstairs. “I told him, ‘Turn that crap down. I’ve heard that enough,'” he recalled. “He yelled back, ‘I’m not playing the album. I’m playing guitar.'”I knew a change was coming.”Jonathan’s “Jerry Garcia” album, a country-swing twist on the Grateful Dead songbook, is evidence of the diversity of his talents. “That’s an example of how he can take a certain kind of music, dig in, and make it live,” said his father, adding that Jonathan went through a Stevie Ray Vaughan phase as well. “When he plays blues, he’s probably one of my five favorite blues players. And that’s not because he’s my son.”McEuen says the strongest piece of advice he gave his kids was not in the realm of what to play, but why. He says he quoted for them, more than once, the late Hunter S. Thompson’s observation on the music business: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”McEuen added his own wisdom to the message he gave his sons: “I told them to pursue it with passion, and like it. Because there’s often not very much money involved. When Jonathan was living in his car, I wasn’t going to subsidize a lifestyle. And he knew that. If this is what you’re going to do, you’ve got to love it.”
McEuen is sometimes amazed at how deeply the message has taken hold. He and Jonathan played a Father’s Day show last year at the Grand Ole Opry.”He said, ‘We’ve got to kill! We’ve got to kill!'” said McEuen. “We did two songs, standing ovation, to the point where the guy who runs the place said, ‘Do you want to do an encore?’ And we said, ‘We can’t follow that.'”The absence of formal father-to-son lessons has not meant that a specific artistic heritage has not been passed down. McEuen says he can be stunned when – particularly in fast bluegrass songs – Jonathan or Nathan plays a phrase, an accent, that reminds him exactly where his bandmates came from.”It’s really weird,” he said. “Some of the triple guitar things we do, we don’t talk about them but we play them doing the same thing, at the same time.”Just as gratifying are the non-musical moments, when McEuen sees that the other lessons he has tried to hand down have been learned.”I’m proud of the fact that people tell me they’ve worked with them and they’re really nice, that they showed up on time,” he said of Jonathan and Nathan. “That means more to me than if they were the hottest players – and jerks.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org