STORIES FROM THE ROAD
In the 90's...
From Cordova to the Isle of Belle’s.. on the solo road
I asked my Anchorage promoter to find a ‘back-up’ for an early ’90’s gig, but one that I could not drive to. To go to a little frontier town that you actually ‘could not get there from here’ with a banjo on my knee was a longtime fantasy. He called back with an offer from Cordova, serviced by a couple of daily flights and a semi-weekly ferry – the only way to get there, I accepted the foray to this wilderness fishing village – a new land to go and make my noise.
Libby and Gary Graham, our hosts (two of the finest people I have ever met) met us at the Cordova airstrip. I had Marilyn, her son Richi, and four of my boys on this trip (Jonathan, Ryan, Nathan, Andrew). Gary handed me his Suburban keys and said “meet you at the house.. It’s the brown one a couple of streets up on the right side when you get to town”. I knew I was in a different place when he turned the question of where’s the house key over to Libby, to which she replied “Well.. let’s see..you gave it to me.. I had it when we moved in.. when was that? Umm.. 18 years ago.. But haven’t seen it since.” a different part of the world. It was reminiscent of what my mom had told me what was the one good part of The Depression – no one locked up.
Later in the week we’d hear about ‘no drive-by shootings.. nothing to drive by’, and how, when they went in to the grocery store in the winter, everyone would leave their cars running to keep them warm.. Who’d steal a car in a place with only 50 miles of road?
My call to this wild area brought us to The Powderhouse, a scene lost in time that felt like at least 3 pages of a Jack London novel. Crammed full of fishermen, bush pilots, school teachers, canning factory people, mechanics, and others fed up with the lower 48, they made up an anxious audience looking for something from out of town, as most people in Cordova were at sometime in their foggy past. Like the old days in the good ways – Libby taking ticket money and cooking shrimp, Gary tending bar and taking tickets… Marilyn shucking shrimp in the kitchen and selling tapes and CDs between sets.. to an age range of 8-80 filling up the room. I was their king of shobiz, the biggest act to hit town!
After a couple of nights playing, we prepared for unforgettable adventures, thanks to our wonderful hosts: overnights on their two 45′ fishing boats. Then the pontoon plane rides, and Zodiak (rubber raft with motor) running.. the 5 boys ate it all up.
Besides being restaurateurs, Gary and Libby both were fishermen, as their boats were to catch the fishing season’s money flow, and Gary also doubled.. or tripled…as a charter bush pilot. The first hour out away from the dock we counted 30 Killer Whales passing us, a complete family that included grandchildren as described by Libby. Two boats and about 7 kids and 4 adults.. It was an Alaskan version of taking a couple of motor homes up to the park, only this park started about six feet after leaving the little town’s boundary, and seemed infinite.
Glaciers and blue skies, dozens of Bald Eagles and otters, moose and salmon, whales and 90 lb. Halibut catches, Alaska is a wonderful wilderness to run around in, water so clear it hurt to look in to it. After a couple boat overnights and back to town, the suggestion to head out to Belle’s was intriguing, as it seemed good to search out even a more wilderness adventure.
We’d met Belle at the Powderhouse, and her invitation became more inviting as our Cordova days dwindled. Leaving our town hosts behind, we headed out one crispy morning on two small motorboats, a 30 minute full-throttle run following Belle’s lead to her corner of the wilds.
As the motors droned on in harmony breaking the hoar frost’s silence, it was easily noticed that there were not any signs of humans on the shore passing by. Belle’s cove finally showed up, like it was dropped out of some fairy tale itself.. in a good way. We docked our boats for two nights in their wilderness to stay at what looked as if it were built by the Swiss – as in Family Robinson – made from a combination of lumber, Lincoln logs, plywood and giant Legos. It was the kind of place I would have built, but then.. I can’t hang a pre-hung door. I felt at home for a while.
At the next morning’s woodstove breakfast it sunk in that out here things were very different. As the phone began to ring, Belle’s husband lazily chatted away the dawn fog telling their home’s history over his steaming coffee. While his historical monologue pleasantly droned, it was soon accompanied by their phone bell’s pealing punctuations, with me apparently the only one hearing its demand for attention. Ring ring, chat chat, ring ring.. coming from a big black toaster sized radio phone (no lines could run out this far), with a toggle switch on the side. With him ignoring the seemingly incessant caller, I commented, “Pete, I don’t mind if you get that.. go ahead and I’ll wait..” as I had musician’s phone paranoia: get EVERY call .. it might be someone wanting to hire you. I tried to give my ever cordial host a polite exit for the phone to be picked up.
He turned and stared at it with an Oliver Hardy burn stare a few seconds. It rang again. He stared. It rang again. Then he reached as quickly as Zorro and threw the side switch, killing it mid-ring, commenting “that damn thing does that every time I turn it on!” – and picked up his place in the story, about all the bird watchers that visit them every summer.
THE REST OF THE STORY IS IN ‘THE LIFE I’VE PICKED”, AVAILABLE ON AMAZON
Where has all the radio gone Waves of the old daze
Radio.. the magic of the airwaves – late at night, alone on the road.
Static, starry skies, open road, scanning faint stations for company after a show heading to another .. and then – there it is – that perfect station you will live with for a while as it makes your night better! I think of finding that cool station, with a DJ who knew about the music he was playing and told you things about the songs, the singers, the weather, the road conditions, and something you might like to buy.
Such a friend was KFDI, WSM late at night with Charlie Douglas, The Truckers Network out of Dallas, Allison Steel The Night Bird or Joey Reynolds in NYC… and others.
It was like listening to a friend playing music, or talk about life, reaching your senses in a way that was disappointing when you started getting out of range… KFDI and their Ranch hands were that Tradition. The were, like Eddie Stubbs at WSM, radiomen. You could tell they lived to be on the air. That was the KFDI I got to know, a station that made you love having radio be a part of your life.
Owner Mike Oatman’s candor and gentle grace spearheaded this operation (one of the last indy guys) , and I got to know both over the years. He talked to thousands of his friends he never met, but you felt like you knew him. You trusted him… he, or any of his cohorts on his radio – Orin Friesen, Johny Western – were there just to talk to you… to play music for you.. to keep you tuned in to the day or night. I not sure they ever had to say ‘stay tuned’, as their faithful listeners just did.
I fondly remember often calling Orin, one of the longtime captains of Mike’s flagship station (his family-held Great Empire Broadcasting company had stations in 5 or 6 cities, all equally friendly), and being put on the air to chat about music, the road, life and such. Even when not in range to hear the station, I could hear Orin deftly handling ‘the business’ (commercial tape cartridge inserts, news blurbs, weather warnings) and keeping me on the line for yet another talk about Roy Acuff or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, while taking a request from a listener and the rustling of paper getting a live spot copy ready to read – he was on the air.
I don’t see that type of operation much anymore in the stations I visit or search for on that air. Many are automated from 2,000 miles away. Impersonal, cookie cutter programs that ‘fits any size’ or location…and they are missing something. Something that KFDI had that made it its continuing success: they were YOUR radio station… and still are.
It is hard to explain if can’t hear it, but maybe you will be lucky enough to do that, experience radio the way it was in the days of Biff Collie, Hugh Cherry.. it’s one of the best parts of America that may be gone.. if you find it let others know.
This is the type of feel and direction I try to emulate on my Sirius/XM show on The Bridge – Acoustic Traveller (also broadcast on their internet channel). I thank those mentioned above and many others for giving me the template and hope you can catch my show sometime.
John McEuen 2013
Alaska - early late mid- '70's. ..THE FIRST TIME
Alaska – early times
Road dread for me was fueled by other’s interest in drugs and lack of interest in new music. The shows were usually fine and looked forward to, but between leaving A to get to B there was not much R & R, a lot of C, D,. In the ’70’s ‘it’ got boring sometimes. Not the audiences, nor the shows. It. Just the overall it. Logistic problems were often the most rewarding challenge.
Approval of tentative concert dates being lined up by our agency had long fallen in my lap as Bill got further in to managing Steve and the film business, and that made it more interesting. Looking at the map of America, and figuring how we could get from A to B and net enough $s to get home was a challenge. I was good at it.
One overcast Denver day, in our agent’s duck hunter appointed office, I told Lance to confirm a few ‘far apart’ dates just to test the American Transportation System and my judgment of what was do-able logistically. It seemed the ‘system’ was built for rock and roll anyway. Airports were everywhere, right next to car and truck rental places; hotels next to those. We could knock off 22 cities in 21 days, and sometimes did. So, I approved a trip for would be called extreme touring even now.
The dates taken, each consecutive day in this order, were: Denver to Central Park (NYC) to Grand Junction (Colorado) to Anchorage to Phoenix to Aspen. We spent over 44 hours in the air that week yet made it early to all the gigs. Unaware I was the approval culprit, the band wanted to kill our agent – until our checks arrived. There was a lot left over, as most nights we were in the ‘air hotels’ at 35,000 feet.
From my first time in Seward’s Folly, this last frontier was noticeably spirited. Anchorage is great, different than any American city or place, and it wears out most people from ‘below’ with its pace. Especially during ‘Daytime’, when people play golf from 7:00 a.m. to Midnight, and the winter zombies are out everywhere.
Although in Alaska only 9 hours the first time, it has been appearing in my night vision and life since that first love affair fling with it. That first mid- ’70’s visit we flew in at 2:00 p.m., played at 7:00, left at 11:00. Thoughts of this first trip were with me years later as I headed a motor home north from Santa Fe, during an I-hate-us from the Dirt Band, for a much better time in a later chapter.
DOC WATSON / 1923-2012
He will be missed.
Years before the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album, I was infatuated with Doc’s guitar styles, of which he had many. Fingerpicking was especially appealing and “approachable,” but his flat picking always seemed to come from a space where only he was allowed to play. I am glad I took the initiative to ask Doc to record with the the band. He was kind of familiar with us because of his son, Merle.
Merle had played our music for Doc – he liked the mandolin, banjo styles, acoustic guitar and the vocals. And I could also tell him Earl Scruggs had just agreed to record with us two weeks earlier.
Doc said simply, “Well, if Earl’s going to be there to pick, I want to too.” It was that night I put him on the phone with my brother. (our producer/manager at the time.) Doc was the real deal.
I felt like we were on the verge of making some historical recordings… and, thanks to Doc’s contribution, we did. (Now in the and the Grammy Hall of Fame as well as Library of Congress, the Will the Circle Be Unbroken, our Triple Platinum album is considered one of the most important of American recordings).
Doc’s influence will be felt for many years, as he was a true American treasure who has continually seen more and more people become his followers.
I miss him, and hope others will still discover his music the way I did – on records that transport you to a place you have never been, but wish you had found earlier. I hope it is on the Circle album!
IN MEMORY OF EARL SCRUGGS
Earl Scruggs was a leader who demanded nothing of his countless followers, determined to perfect his art, yet unassuming as to his special talent and role as a legend in music. Scruggs was always excited and grateful to meet a new fan. My first encounter, he played Sally Goodin for 5 minutes to me in a 1967 dressing room after a San Francisco show, showing yet another unknown young admirer an easier path his notes.
Prior to that, outside the north windows of the Grand Ole Opry (Ryman) in 1965, as a teenage Orange County Calif. banjo picker hoping to see country music history only heard on records, I stood on my toes and looked in. While hot southern summer rain hit my head, right then Lester Flatt said on the mic “Earl and I’d like to bring out Mama Maybelle Carter to do the Wildwood Flower.” I almost passed out from sheer excitement. I hoped to meet him someday. Earl was the reason I was there, and the reason I have a life in music.
Many have followed the Scruggs fingersteps, some taking that banjer (as he called it) to new ground. But, hard as they may try, they don’t really ‘sound’ like Earl… and they know it. It is rare that a player’s name is indelibly attached to an instrument as its description, especially as an integral part to a whole form of music. As for bluegrass, we all know you have to have ‘Scruggs style banjo’.
When Earl responded “I’d be proud to” to my 1971 question asking if he would record with us (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), the yet to be named Will the Circle Be Unbroken album started taking shape. Earl’s essential input, and that of his wife Louise, gave us the needed credibility to call on some of the icons (Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, Junior Huskey, Mama Maybelle, Roy Acuff, Oswald Kirby), all of whom respected him, and who, after the Scruggs’ introduction, came to make that landmark recording with us. We could not have done that without them.
Earl, you were everyone’s friend, and an inspiration of how to look at life to anyone who met you. I am glad I am one of them. Your life’s work will influence and inspire forever, as a rare few have over the years. You made it a better world.
John McEuen – left *** Earl Scruggs – right
A Night in the Ozarks
“A Night in the Ozarks…”
… an Ozark Home Movie, on DVD
A long time ago in a land far away, I was caught in the ’60’s L.A. haze daze of southern California’s Orange County, looking for a way out. 6 months in to playing the guitar at 17, and a master at the basic Freight Train, some friends invited me to a strip mall coffee house to see something called dillards, of which I knew nothing. Appropriately named The Paradox, its facade not at all letting on what I was in for, it happened.
Not one to have neither nervous jumpy legs nor sweaty palms, but experiencing both, I waited as a patient audient for the unknown show to start. Then the announcer said “Please welcome, from Salem, Missouri, The Dillards!”, and my life changed.
Kicking off Hickory Hollow with confidence and hi-speed, Doug ripped in to my life with his precise grinning picking presence and joy of playing hot music, and kept me from breathing until Mitch made that happen with between song hilarious comments about their Ozark life. Rodney was the first great singer I experienced live, and Dean’s driving mandolin filled the spaces waiting between banjo solos with excitement, a far away glaze in his eye that spoke of coming from a mysterious different time and place.
The Dillards would play a week or two at around the circuit of 7 L.A. area clubs, selling out two shows a night, and showed me the path to a way out. Simply put, they were hot – a perfect combination of Smothers Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs. Let me say right here thanks to them – for their mentorship, friendship, and Ozark hospitality that let this Dillard disciple in their dressing rooms over the next two years, 2 or 3 times a week.
Without the Dillards there would not be a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (at least with me in it), or a Will the Circle Be Unbroken album (that is for sure). I would still be shifting majors in some school, or continuing to turn tricks in the Disneyland Magic Shop. Doug who showed the way for me to Scruggs, Bill Keith, Don Reno, J.D. Crowe, Alan Shelton, and Bobby Thompson. He often, unknowingly to me, reflected their licks in his live playing. Rodney’s energy, dedication, comedic timing and rhythm guitar showed me how to get the other parts of sho-biz right.
I spent many hours slowing down Doug’s picking (in the days when you could make the 33 1/3 go 16 2/3 rpms), listening to the banjo an octave low growling along and trying to catch all the nuances. Going back to live show after show I’d find out if it was right or what was missing. Then I’d show those newly learned tricks to my first banjo student, fellow high school senior, Dillard fan, and Magic Shop cohort Steve Martin.
Walking up the Golden Bear stairs for their 2nd set one night, Doug turned to me and did the 4th string J.D. Crowe lick from You Don’t Know My Mind that several years later I was to emulate on the Circle album with Jimmy Martin. Doug simply said, to my “what was that!?” .. “J.D. Crowe .. Go find out about him.” Those instructions were followed, as well as an important lesson a bit later that night about how to ‘sound’.
At a later post show picking party that night I had invited myself to, Doug broke a string on his banjo. It was such a heated session that I offered up my banjo (still in its case, as I never had the nerve to take it out around him), and to change his string. Excited about the honor of changing the master’s string, I then worried that, although I had done everything to make my banjo sound like his, it still didn’t – would he like it? The Lesson: Once he started picking mine- it sounded exactly like his. Thus was my introduction in to how every one of us can have our own tone and style, and… it’s the archer, not the bow.
Fast forward to 1991, my career they unknowingly nurtured well under way, I realized the Dillards had not been captured properly on film and was determined to document their playing – close-up – in a way that I would have wanted to see them in their nascent days; in the way I saw them at that long ago picking session. Others should be able to experience their musical magic. Having learned by then most of the things necessary to make something like this happen, and figured what I didn’t know would be obvious, we got in to it. It came together because the Dillards believed in me, to let me do it, and a great team was assembled.
Especially important was long-time Dirt Band fan Scott Flanagan, who put up the money. One thing you learn in sho-biz is ‘the money is everything…without the money you just have an idea”.. so, thanks to my Executive Producer Scott for making it happen, for this group had also effected his life greatly.
I had to save on the shooting budget where possible, so brother Bill was tapped for some do-re-mi ‘angel’ dollars. I convinced him to buy two Super-8 film cameras for the project and added two rentals and added a video camera (I wanted to use several formats within the show for mood changes). The opening of Ozarks, for instance, is video. and segues in to film when we cross in to the living room of the farmhouse (hopefully transporting the viewer in to a different space).. And, then allow for it to ‘breakdown’ a bit as the filming proceeded. No real justification for this, but hey. I was the director, so I could.
The picture needed to be lit, and d.p. Gary Regester was enlisted not just because he was my best friend, or that he was cheap, or because he was between inventions. He is such an expert on lighting that he has often been highly paid to lecture on it, and had shot over 200 album covers (like the famous Jefferson Airplane aircraft carrier cover). He also wanted to try out some of his new low-heat lighting umbrella inventions, and loved the challenge of a live film shoot while recording sound.
Then sound. My lifetime friend, Mike Denecke, engineered Mr. Bojangles (produced by my brother Bill, with NGDB in 1969). Mike won an Academy Award for his invention of the time code slate (the one with flashing LED lights, used on every film shoot.) He came on board as soundman to capture live audio with two, and sometimes ‘as many as three’ microphones, and place them invisibly in the set. With enough film to shoot each song 1-_ times, the sound had to be failsafe. Since many songs were first take, it went fine.
I needed one more cameraman. Knowing one of my early fans in Florida was a Dillard freak too, I called Jon Mark Fletcher with an offer he couldn’t refuse: if he’d get to Salem on his own, including cost – to run a camera and be a production assistant to ‘the director’ for 5 days – I would pay him $50. And, assured he would get to watch Doug from about 5 feet away most of the time and shoot close-ups, I think he was in his car before I hung up. He was glad to paint the fence and not pay for the privilege.
Finally, staffing the crew for 1st A.D., grip, camera crew foreman, line producer, talent coordinator, gaffer, and most importantly editor, layback, etc., I filled the positions with the following people: Craig Burnett. Let’s say he filled the positions, as this genius from Kansas City knows his craft and shows that well here. We are all indebted to him for covering so many bases so well, as without him I would have had a pile of great footage and a pile of great audiotapes. He put the puzzle together and made it a painting.
We found a deserted farmhouse in the Ozarks, a few miles outside of Salem, and set it up as if ‘the boys’ were getting ready for a concert road trip, and, well, it is all in the film. It was the time of our lives.
John McEuen, director/writer
A Night in the Ozarks
Memories of Johnny Cash...
Priceless time with Cash – 1985
It was the best NGDB tour.
In a 10-act European tour country road show, the Dirt Band ended up going on just before the Johnny Cash show. We started the tour at London’s Wembley Arena where we were scheduled to go on early, around third slot, in the first half of the five-hour show. But, when the promoter saw our sound check we were moved up to close the first half. After that night, we were moved up to go on just before Johnny Cash, the headliner.
It was a little hard to follow us. This was a proud time for the guys and me.
We were hot!
Knocking them out in Hitler’s halls (one was where he gave his last speech) was an unknown part of my teenage Orange County dream to get on the road.
The overall show was great, putting us on the bill with George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Bill Monroe, Cash (with June Carter) Johnny Russell, and a host of Grand Ol’ Opry greats.
Everywhere we played was a hot crowd, until we got to Zurich.
Seems like the audience there was just a bit quiet, sedate, reserved ….i.e., dead. I fortunately found this out just before our set, when I asked Russell why the whole cast was walking out to the side of the stage area just before we were to go on. Russell informed me, “Well, no one is going over tonight. Dead audience, and very little response. So we figure if you guys don’t get them, then it isn’t us. But, we hope you do get ’em.”
What a responsibility! We had to come through for all! I ran back to the dressing room for some insurance, and headed up to the stage where I joined the band as we faced the gladiators. Fifteen minutes into the set was going slow, but not horrible. We had seen horrible by then, and knew what it was. This wasn’t it. But it wasn’t hot yet.
The bluegrass picked it up a bit, and then we got to “Bojangles.” Then came some respectful response, but not killer. Various other of the show’s performers stood by the stage side, nodding to each other as we continued trying to wake up the Swiss. Either they had come for Cash only, or we were simply losing the battle.
Time came to rock and roll Dirt Band Cajun style, and jump into “Battle of New Orleans”. Kicked off on the fiddle, following a little lecture about how we kicked British ass a long time ago and still sing about it, I disappeared before the first fiddle solo. When I jumped off the drum riser now wearing a British flag shirt and got chased around by Ibby, the audience started waking up.
By the second solo, fiddle blaring, I had disappeared again to show up with an American flag shirt, and heard another rise in the audience level as I chased Ibby back across the stage. Finally, getting to the last solo, I ripped off the American flag shirt to reveal a Swiss flag shirt and ran up on top of the p.a. speaker stacks, where I took off my silver shoes and threw them into the audience. Some of the crowd went nuts. Ibby chased me out into the middle of the front row and they all went more nuts.
Starting it from the audience barefoot, “Diggy Diggy Lo” got them to their feet. We had proudly done the job, and, for the whole cast and crew, had won them over. If we were ever great, that was the night. After that show I invited Bill Monroe to stop by a night club where I had set up a jam in.
3 hours later, downtown Zurich
Sure enough, I am on stage jammin’ at midnight, about an hour in to it, in walks the Father of Bluegrass with a dutiful Swiss sweet young thang carrying his little black mandolin case, right by his side. I invited him up on the mic, not expecting him to actually come up with the players I had up there at the time.
That white hat came trotting through the crowd with Bill under it, and he hops up on stage with his! Monroe turns to me and says, “You know ‘Uncle Pen’ on that fiddle? Pick it up, an’ we’ll get some music played.” Jeff sang harmony and Carlene Carter joined in. And here I was playing behind the God of Bluegrass, digging every bar, in one of those bars my father had warned me about.
We did about six tunes that night with him, creating one of those moments that stay with me my whole life. I felt like I had lived up to Johnny Cash’s introduction in Wales earlier in the week.
a day off for the Dirt Band in London
He did not have to say “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” and didn’t when he came up behind me in the hotel lobby.
I knew it was him when he asked: “Hey, McEuen you wanna go with June and me and the band to Wales and sit in? We could use you on the Carter Family songs – hop on the bus with us.”
This invitation from the Man in Black could not be turned down, and promised to be a much better situation than Marty Stuart could have anticipated.
This one I could write home about.
One night, two shows in Wales. Cash introduced me, I had a great time playing the first set. Pretty heady stuff for a kid from Orange County.
But Cash wasn’t happy.
Back in the dressing room he said, “You did great. But I need to give you a better build up for the next show. These folks need to appreciate you more. Don’t rush out, give me a minute more on the intro this time.”
So I waited in the wings as the second show got under way, not knowing what to expect. The “Carter section” comes up, and Johnny Cash goes in to this rambling yet focused diatribe about acoustic music, those who love it, and those who play it.
He talked about the Circle album.
How that was his mother-in-law’s (Maybelle Carter) first gold record …how I put it together with my brother Bill and my band, “the GREAT NITTY GRITTY DIRT BAND”, his voice rising a bit.
He then starts describing a performer I had never met… one who, well one who sounded like a combination of Earl Scruggs, Chet Atkins, Roy Clark, Vassar Clements, Roy Acuff, and Johnny Russell combined.
I started looking around, figuring we were also going to be joined by someone who’d just arrived from either Nashville or Hillbilly Heaven, as he continued…..
“And tonight, coming to play not only with us as we love him to do whenever June and I get a chance to have him along, but because he did not want to leave the United Kingdom without playing for, in his words, ‘the great people of Wales,’ it’s his first time here.”
“Please make our good friend feel welcome.”
I heard my name, and was jolted on stage, arriving at the mic to a standing ovation from the whole room of people who had never heard of me.
After the show, Cash walked up, softly punched my arm, and simply said, in that signature voice: “I told you I could do better.”
Thoughts from the Road. YEAR 44
I wonder, maybe you know him…
He could’ve been a contender… well, actually, he was a contender, but his intentions weren’t clear to even him. Those who supported and admired him (with constant comments like ‘you’re great’, ‘love your songs’, etc.) even began to wonder, after a while, if his intention was to be contentious.
His early dream, like many have had, was to go to L.A. and become a star; unlike many, it worked for him. A group came along, the songs came, and the records were recorded. His career started with him now on the radio, bringing fame, family, fun, and folly. And money. It worked! But, all the while there was often a visible undercurrent of being displeased with ‘making it’, not making it enough, or something no one could quite figure out. (One should always know, when trying to ‘make it,’ just what it is you are trying to make.) With him, you could never be sure.
Songs written and borrowed he sang with success, getting radio hits many times. Accolades and awards followed in a manner to which he soon grew accustomed, and then expected.
Usually effectively playing the humility card at ‘appropriate’ times, the nice guy image covered up sporadic underlying problems bandmates had covered up and made excuses about.. for years… until it started becoming the mainstay. So much so the mainstay, that those who believed in him finally did not care anymore if he stayed or what his contribution might be, as even his pseudo contrition was disappearing in his lurking anger and angst with … success? Life? Not enough?.
As a result, with too many things going his way to handle, he decided to quit, which was greeted with yawns and sighs of relief by his coworkers. Accolades would still come for past works, and often people, in commenting about someone’s new song on the radio, would say: “Boy, that sounds like him.. That singer listened to him and learned a lot”. But sooner than expected, they quit doing that.
SO, band mates were mates no more, and continued plying their wares, at times even replicating some of the past mutual successes. They played all the hits, and no one really seemed to care if he was there or not. All was well in the land, and the beat went on.
Someone once said: “money can’t buy happiness.. but it can buy the things that make you happy” (Steve Martin, to Johnny Carson in 1978). Some things should not have been bought. It has been said, in retrospect, that it was too bad drugs and alcohol took down one more; some say that was just his way, he was old enough to know better. Some said “That stuff should be illegal” (John McEuen, 1972)
It must be strange to occasionally hear yourself on the radio, or see an old TV performance or something on youtube, or overhear a conversation extolling your past musical virtues … and wonder – what happened?
I occasionally wonder myself.
John McEuen 2010
Many great moments were to come and pass with my boys as I tried to create memories for them, especially at the DC monuments around 1995. With cheap airfares for four to a few East Coast dates, we had to fly in and out of Baltimore. The last gig of that “weekend with dad” would now require a three-hour drive from Norfolk, Va. at midnight to make the early flight home – unless they agreed to the alternative.
“Guys, to make our 7:30 a.m. flight home out of Baltimore, we’ll have to leave right after the gig, drive straight to the airport and get there about 3:00 a.m. We can get a room for about 2 hours, then get up to turn in the car, catch the plane…” I delivered this lousy news before our Father’s Day show that night in Norfolk. They listened attentively, as I added, “Or, we could go to downtown DC in the middle of the night, spend a few hours at the monuments and see the Vietnam Wall and visit Viet Nam vets.”
They all excitedly agreed “THE MONUMENTS! Then to the plane!” I was blessed with great kids, and we just saved about $300 on rooms.
One thing about DC at 2:30 a.m. then was that you could park right next to the Lincoln Memorial, and that’s next to The Wall. At The Wall, with night fog rolling around us, I told my boys how the statues represented guys who were not much older than they, and how many met their deaths at this terrible mistaken venture. It was amazing to see my young men respectfully talking with and studying the vets who maintained their overnight vigil in their various booths, questioning them about life’s experiences.
Then, one of the strangest events in my life occurred. I wanted to make the point about how war is a terrible thing, how government “things” should be kept track of, how there’s always an “over there” over there somewhere and young people get sent to fight the old men’s wars. I wanted to make it believably sink in not knowing exactly how. Pointing at the names, I randomly placed my finger on the wall, saying: “A lot of these guys were 18-21 years old, and when they got over there most did not know why. They fought for their lives and lost. My name could have been up here. And I …” As I continued on to make my point, one of the boys said, “Hey, Dad, look at the name you’re pointing at.”
I looked at the name my finger was on: McEuen. I was a bit (okay, more than a bit) freaked out at this happenstance. AND, I recognized the first name, and I stopped talking. As my surprised brood watched, I looked up his information on the name register there.
“I thought so. Guys, one day when I was 18, I frantically opened my mail because it was my draft notice, and I hadn’t even had my physical yet! This guy on the wall was two years ahead of me and lived two blocks from me in Garden Grove when I was in high school. But, like some of his other mail had often done, his draft notice had come to my house that day by mistake. I took it over to his house. He wasn’t home, so I gave it to his mother. She thanked me. Ronald was over there 2 months when his trip ended. He was 24.”
The point was made. I wanted to thank him for helping me, for after that brief moment when I thought it was my draft notice, I realized mine wasn’t too far away. It was that week I started working on my 1-Y; he had literally helped me dodge a bullet, and I felt guilty 15 years later.
They then realized it could have been me, and if it had, they wouldn’t have existed.
Again, Jonathan said, “Dad, is this ever weird for you?”
Yes, it was good for me, too.