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String Blizzard

Stewart Oksenhorn

Jonathan McEuen seems to have been delivered the world on a platter. The good news is that the musician appears to be making the most of his opportunities.

Some two years ago McEuen, the son of former Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member John McEuen, performed at the Woody Creek Hoedown, an annual summer fund-raiser for the COMPASS education organization. There he met COMPASS benefactor George Stranahan. Stranahan had wanted to add a record label to his array of interests; he was impressed enough with McEuen to sign the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist as the first artist on Flying Dog Records.

The 25-year-old McEuen got busy. Backed by Flying Dog, McEuen rented a huge old house, complete with recording studio, in the musically rich central California town of Ojai. Working with the local talent (guitarist Robben Ford, singer Kenny Loggins, former Traffic member Dave Mason) as well as his bandmates (bassist Cliff Hugo and drummer Jim Christie), McEuen spent the last six months cranking out material.

McEuen figures he now has five albums worth of material ready to deliver to Flying Dog Records. The wealth of music is a bit overwhelming: McEuen’s upcoming Aspen appearance, Sunday, March 18 at Hannibal Brown’s, was originally planned as a CD Release Party to celebrate the first album on the new label. But McEuen and Stranahan are still poring over the pile of tracks, trying to figure out how to divvy it all up. McEuen plans to have the first CD ready next month, but he’s still hoping to make this weekend’s gig a CD Party of a different sort: McEuen plans to tape the show, and take orders that night for a live CD, which should be delivered in two weeks times.

McEuen is enjoying all the benefits that come with releasing live shows and working with a small, start-up label. The main benefit is freedom – total artistic freedom to create what he wants, how he wants, with whom he wants. And for McEuen – who sings in a high, sometimes falsetto voice; rips on guitar; and is equally well-versed in traditional acoustic music and modern pop – can take that freedom in most any direction.

“We recorded everything from DJ grooves with banjos, straight bluegrass, straight singer-songwriter stuff, to Robben Ford and I doing ripping guitar stuff,” said McEuen. “I can go turbo-folk, Afro-grass, all in the same performance. It covers the bases. Versatility, you know. That’s what we want. It’s like having a Napster setup.”

Only instead of being connected via wires, modems and monitors, McEuen and his collaborators were able to work face to face. Much of the music was informed by the approach to making it: McEuen opened the studio doors, and welcomed most everyone to drop in. In total, some three-dozen players – from Kenny Loggins to Hippie Mark to John McEuen – appear on the accumulated tracks.

“It’s just like Big Pink,” said McEuen, making reference to the notorious Woodstock, N.Y., house where The Band recorded in the late ’60s. “But we’ve opened the door to more than Bob Dylan and The Band. There have been thousands of people through the door these last six months. And it’s not just musicians. It’s like Andy Warhol’s Factory, in an orange grove.”

McEuen himself has been very much the center of all that activity. “It’s me in collaboration with all these people,” he said. “I’m present in some form on all these songs. Most of the energy has been me playing guitar and singing, and the other people are throwing in their musicality.”

“I’m a fucking manager,” he concludes, amused.

The managerial aspect aside, McEuen recognizes how fortunate he has been with this project. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, as an artist,” said McEuen, who also found time to get married – in a performance-art ceremony, featuring the Cat in the Hat as the marriage official, and music by his father’s String Wizards band – earlier this month. “And it’s all because of George. If not for George, I’d probably be in Nashville right now. And that would not be a good thing.”

One person who approves of McEuen’s career path is his father. “He’s doing exactly what he needs to do to be in the music business,” said John McEuen. “If you’re in the auto business, you don’t go to Salt Lake City. If you’re in the insurance business, you don’t go to Amarillo, Texas. He’s gone to Ojai, which is inundated with musicians. He’s put himself in the middle of this high level.”

McEuen’s options at the moment are not what anyone would call limited. While he has been recording in the Ojai house, as well as playing regular trio gigs, he has also been working his way into the world of major labels. Though he has no finalized deal yet, Virgin Records has provided McEuen with the services of Greg Penny, a producer who has worked with k.d. lang and Rickie Lee Jones.

“That will be a completely different approach,” said McEuen of the music he makes with Penny. “We’ve started recording me as a solo-songwriter.” McEuen calls the project a “modern, traditional album,” and likens it to albums by Lenny Kravitz, Madonna and the Dave Matthews Band.

The gates to the music world were opened wide to Jonathan McEuen at an early age. McEuen made his first public performance, at the age of 7, at Red Rocks. The event was billed as the Rocky Mountain Opry, and the lineup included Willie Nelson, New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, and Jonathan’s father’s group, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The younger McEuen limited his contributions that day to singing: “I couldn’t hold a guitar,” said McEuen, who grew up in Evergreen, with frequent family vacations to Aspen. “I was a little guy.”

It wasn’t long before McEuen did take up guitar. By the time he was 12, he was a frequent touring partner with his dad. His formal music training, he says, was “in backstage situations, from family and friends.” He eventually racked up hundreds of gigs, and tens of thousands of miles, with his father. “It screwed up my life forever,” said McEuen. “In a good way.”

Jonathan was hardly screwed up, musically anyway, by his father. On the acoustic side, McEuen gives his father a lot of credit for teaching him what to do. On the rock ‘n’ roll side, he gives his father credit for staying out of the way.

“He taught me how to play bluegrass,” said McEuen. “He taught me how to play banjo. As far as rock ‘n’ roll and electric guitar, he let me learn that on my own. He was more of a traditionalist.”

But the elder McEuen says he was more of a guide than a sit-down-and-teach instructor to his son. “I would say I was a gateway,” said John. “I was the guy at the gate saying, `Here’s this album by Stevie Ray Vaughn.’ `Here’s this lick.’ I was a catalyst, a conduit.”

The challenge for McEuen now seems to be getting some kind of handle on his talents. Several years ago, McEuen released his debut CD, which was as eclectic as it was promising. There were pop tunes, covers of old rock and folk songs, instrumental tracks, and even a bluegrassy cover of Prince’s “Kiss,” with McEuen singing in an assured falsetto. Two years ago, McEuen released “A Tribute to Jerry Garcia,” a powerful acoustic interpretation of the songs of the late Grateful Dead member. (McEuen plans to distribute the tribute album through Flying Dog Records.)

And now McEuen has a pile of tracks ready for release, and just waiting for some organization.

“I need to partition it so it’s not such a smorgasbord,” he said. “You have to be careful how you present the package.”

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