Nathan McEuen shoots for the stars |

Nathan McEuen shoots for the stars

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Nathan McEuen, left, performs at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House on Friday, Jan. 15, along with Chuck Hailes on upright bass, center, and mandolinist Scott Gates.

ASPEN – Nathan McEuen is shooting for the stars. The Ventura, Calif. musician envisions a project that would tour the world’s planetariums, a multi-media performance of video, light and original live music with an appropriately cosmic vibe. “Where you can make the moon rise over your head and stars move around you, and it all looks real,” he said by phone.

McEuen’s idea is not as far-out as, say, colonizing Mars. He knows there are planetariums in virtually every major Western city, and that almost each one has a medium-sized theater with all the coolest technology. McEuen already has many of the details worked out, including a format of two, hour-long shows a night. He even has a contact list for the planetariums scattered across the earth: “If you happen to know the people who run the planetariums – which I do – you could build a tour around that,” the 29-year-old said.

For years, one of McEuen’s projects has been recording soundtracks, with his brother Aaron, for the star shows presented at planetariums. Part of the motivation to occupy this unique niche was a knack for technology. Though McEuen claims to be a computer dunce, among his early jobs was building recording studios. By the time he was 20, McEuen and Aaron had built two spacious, professional recording facilities. “I liked building things – worked in construction, ripped apart pinball machines to see how they worked, recorded things,” he said.

The planetarium music had the side benefit of putting artistic space between Nathan and his father, John, the longtime instrumental wizard of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Where the elder McEuen played the most earthy music imaginable – the Dirt Band’s signature achievement was “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” the 1972 collaboration with Nashville’s old guard that explored traditional country sounds and songs – Nathan attempted to create a soundtrack for the observation of the galaxy. For Nathan, who was always timid about following his father into the music universe, getting started on his own path was probably a good thing.

“I did it quietly, in the background,” he said of his development as a musician. “For the longest time, I felt insecure expressing that I wanted to play. I had a lot to look up to, a lot to be compared to. It took me a long time to be comfortable saying, Yeah, this is what I want to do.”

McEuen had not only his father’s legacy to contend with, but his brother, Jonathan. Jonathan was not only four years older, but also had never been hesitant about pursuing a career in music.

Nathan was on a slower track. With instruments readily at hand in the household – first in Salt Lake City, then in Evergreen, Colo. – it was inevitable that he would have some contact, and at 5, McEuen started messing around on the piano. At 8 he wrote his first song. But he didn’t pick up the guitar till he was 13, and he says, jokingly, that he learned a chord a year for the next few years.

“It was hard to find inspiration,” he said. “If you’re going to be great, you know it’s going to take, like, 100 years.”

But at 16, he hit the accelerator, and signed up for every music class and club he could, from a cappella choir to jazz band. When he moved to California, about a decade ago, McEuen began developing a community of musicians to work with, including Crosby Loggins, the son of Kenny Loggins, who became a songwriting partner. He also gave lessons and taught at band camps. And in 2005, with backing from an investor, he launched his own label, Lint Records, and released his debut album, “Grand Design.”

Despite the lingering desire to launch the planetarium tour, McEuen’s music has inched closer to what his father plays. On Nathan’s 2007 album “Festival,” the sound is singer-songwriter folk-rock, with touches of country and Celtic sounds. Nathan plays acoustic guitar, banjo, piano and percussion on the album; he also sings plenty, which his father does only sparingly.

When McEuen performs at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House on Friday, Jan. 15, he will be joined by Chuck Hailes on upright bass, and Scott Gates, a mandolinist who is all of 17. “Those who see the show will see why I bring him with me on the road,” McEuen said of Gates.

In his early teens, McEuen began discovering music that had nothing to do with the country-folk his father played, both in the Dirt Band and under his own name. “When I found music and said, ‘Wow, that’s so cool,’ it was Nirvana, the Offspring, Green Day. I was heavily into that. I went to see Beck, Bush,” he recalled, adding that the phase may have been part of the ordinary teenage rebellion against music with the parental stamp of approval. “Possibly it could have been, not lashing out, but, ‘This is completely different!’ But eventually that got old.

“I played them for my dad, played him a Nirvana song. He said, ‘Why are they so depressed? Why do they sound like they have everything?’ That was when I realized me and my dad had different opinions on music.”

But perhaps it was inevitable that their differences would be relatively small. Even though McEuen was reluctant to follow his father into music, he was raised in the thick of it. John McEuen brought his six kids on tour with him as often as he could, and Nathan remembers being 5, getting on an airplane, and flying from Colorado to Taylorsville, Utah for his dad’s gig. At that show, the younger McEuen was invited onstage to sing “Picture,” a song from the 1920s. Some years later, Nathan became his father’s roadie, handling merchandise and instruments, while Jonathan got to sit in regularly onstage.

Along the way, John warned Nathan away from the music business. John would say how lucky he had been to get in a band that became popular and remained viable for decades. “There were times I was growing up when he worked 20-hour days, couldn’t stop. So I saw that side of the music business,” McEuen said.

But he also saw another side – close-up and personal. “On tour, he’d show me, ‘OK, there’s Del McCoury, one of the best rhythm players. Watch what he’s doing,'” McEuen said. “Then he’d introduce me to the guy backstage, which was cool. Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Michael Martin Murphey – I got to know a side of these people before I was interested in music, before I was awed by the icons that they were. I’d ask them different questions than other people asked.”

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