On a sweltering September Sunday, Ojai was the site of a rare and wonderful performance. No one advertised it, and the occasion was kept deliberately hush-hush. But the lucky few who showed up at Topa Mountain Winery on Sept. 18 enjoyed an afternoon of fantastic bluegrass music, from a family with a rich legacy.
John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took the stage with sons Jonathan and Nathan for an unforgettable afternoon of music and storytelling.
McEuen is one of the most respected names in bluegrass and folk music. The singer/songwriter is a master of the banjo, guitar, fiddle, piano and mandolin, and has worked with some of the biggest names in country, Americana and rock ’n’ roll. Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash are just a few of the famous musicians with whom McEuen has performed or recorded over a career that spans five decades.
As a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, he helped pave the way for roots and contemporary country rock. The band is currently touring in celebration of its 50th anniversary, and McEuen took time off between Orange County and Nashville to make a special appearance with his sons in Ojai.
McEuen has a strong association with Ventura County. “Ventura was our first out-of-town job,” McEuen recalls. “We played at the Hey You Coffee House for $90. We each ended up with about $12, which basically paid for the gas.” The band went on to bigger and better things, of course: It was featured in the movie Paint Your Wagon; and its 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken was such a showcase of musicianship and talent that it was inducted into the National Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress. Strings of hits, critically acclaimed albums, awards and an ever-changing lineup followed.
McEuen was with the band until 1986, when he left to pursue a solo career. (He would return in 2001.) “I play a lot of music that can’t be contained by one album,” he explains, noting that he’s constantly exploring new territory and sounds. There were personal reasons as well. “I was getting divorced, wanted to spend more time with my kids. Being a single father, most of my weekends with them were on the road.”
Oldest son Jonathan remembers those days well. “I was gone about 25 percent of the school year. In the summers, I went on tour with my dad. I played every strawberry, avocado and mushroom festival in the world.”
Unconventional? Perhaps. But the McEuen boys speak of those days fondly. “We were surrounded by a lot of great talent,” Jonathan says, noting that it became commonplace to hang out backstage with the likes of Dolly Parton, John Denver, Willie Nelson, June Carter and Johnny Cash. “A lot of those guys started to school me at a young age. I had many, many fathers.”
Jonathan’s first paying gig was at the 1982 Rocky Mountain Opry at Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Colorado when he was 6 years old. His father offered him $5 to sing a solo. He got a standing ovation, so McEuen asked Jonathan if he wanted to sing another song. The overjoyed Jonathan answered, “Yeah, I do. But are you going to give me another $5?” First rule of show biz: Get the money up front.
Being on the road taught the McEuen offspring what it takes to be a working musician. “He taught us how to work and earn it,” says Jonathan. “You’re never done paying your dues.”
Both have gone on to successful careers in the music business. Jonathan formed Hanna-McEuen with his cousin Jamie Hanna, and is active as a soloist, too. He’s recorded several albums, toured with Brad Paisley, Wynonna Judd and Dwight Yoakam (and in fact he’ll open for Yoakam at the Ventura Theater next week), and wrote a song to commemorate Yosemite National Park’s 125-year anniversary last year. He’s currently working with musicians from all genres to record 100 more.
Nathan’s path has been tied more closely to the entertainment industry. A writer and composer, he has scored soundtracks for film, television and theater, written screenplay shorts and is co-producing a biopic about bluegrass great Bill Monroe. “My dad always told me, if you can make it in writing, you’ve got it! Everyone needs content,” he says. He just released his third album, Dynamite Tonite, which is a departure from his more Americana work. “I started my career in the folk and acoustic world, but I was also writing grunge music,” he explains. “Dynamite Tonite is almost like musical acting, where I ‘play’ the part of a rock musician.” Curious? Catch him at Grapes and Hops this weekend.
The elder McEuen just put out a new album this year as well: Made in Brooklyn, his latest solo work, featuring David Bromberg, Steve Martin, Martha Redbone and several other talented musicians. Rumor has it that it’s McEuen’s best work to date.
Will locals have a chance to see all three on stage again? One can hope. Jonathan is a longtime Ojai resident, Nathan splits his time between Ventura and Los Angeles County, and McEuen, who worked in the area all throughout the 1990s, returns frequently to visit his family (he currently resides in Florida). If we’re lucky, this won’t be the last time the bluegrass legend — and his talented sons — come out to play.
Nathan McEuen performs Saturday, Oct. 29, at Grapes and Hops, 454 E. Main St., Ventura. Jonathan McEuen joins Dwight Yoakam on Thursday, Nov. 3, at the Ventura Theater, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura. Keep track of the McEuen musicians at www.johnmceuen.com, http://jonathanmceuenmusic.com and www.nathanmceuen.com.