A man without genre

Nathan McEuen throws out a statistic which has yet to be scientifically confirmed, but seems accurate: “In Ojai — what is it? One in two homes has a recording studio?”

Two years ago this singer/songwriter came from Utah to live, play, and record in the valley, which he describes as “a nice melting pot of people who are artistic.” He pauses. “There wasn’t enough of that in Salt Lake.”

When I ran into him one night a year and a half ago, he was a solitary figure with a guitar case, walking down Main. He’d just logged a full day working out tracks for his CD, putting him in league with the hoards of novelists, poets and performers of the area who undertake noble artistic missions that are often life-long. But he made good time in completing his: Grand Design, his first solo album, was released on Oct. 28 of last year, under his own label, Lint Records — a nod to his high school-era band.

The album’s name sums up the misery of embarking on a musical career. The title track, one of the more orchestral of the album, was co-written with fellow celebrity son Crosby Loggins (Nathan McEuen’s father, John McEuen, is a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band).It’s the experience of “somebody like myself,” McEuen says; a tribute to artists and musicians who, on the road to fame or obscurity, undergo the frustration and self-loathing characteristic of being in the business. Fortunately, McEuen has made some headway; the autobiographical truth to the line “the Grammies ain’t playing my song” might be diminished by the fact that during Grammy time he was able to meet with the president of Capitol Records and hand off a copy of his CD.

All of Grand Design was written in Ojai and funded by local producer Randall Richman. McEuen had already begun recording the album when Richman said he would finance it; it became a largely collaborative effort, with 15 other musicians contributing to various tracks, including McEuen’s father on mandolin and his brother Jonathan stepping in with vocals and guitar.

The term “Grand Design” refers not only to McEuen’s best-laid plans as an artist, but to, McEuen says, the fact that “my girlfriend lives on Grand [Avenue], and the first song I wrote was on Grand; it’s a woodshed of a place for sculpting my life. We only left the valley to have [the album] mastered. We went to Hollywood.” Incidentally, he used the same studio that had mastered some of Pink Floyd’s releases. “I got to hold the masters of Dark Side of the Moon in my hand,” McEuen recalls with a grin.

His work has been called “future retro folk rock.” But McEuen quickly explains, “I don’t like being pinned down to one genre, and I’ll confuse it right away and let the audience decide.” While his music acknowledges folk traditions, little of the album seems overtly folk. In its entirety, Grand Design is an impressive stylistic cross-section of McEuen’s larger catalogue, from its morosely melodic opener, “Can’t Live Without You,” to its retro “Sad Songs,” to the more poppy “Alarm Clock.” And, surprisingly, a tribute to vintage surf rock on “Halloween.”

Last on his album is the conspicuous “Jesse James Hollywood” track, which McEuen is the first to call a departure if only, he jokes, “because we used a turntable.” The song was originally suggested by his “song-writing guru” David Holster; the subject matter was current and apropos for a CD that was recorded within an hour’s drive of the crime scene it recounts. While the lyrics stop short of being sympathetic to Hollywood, who will soon stand trial for kidnapping and murder, they do focus on his youth and the social ills that breed a killer. Interestingly, despite its deviation status on the track line-up, “Hollywood” plays out as an edgy rock-folk fusion and in keeping with the folk tradition of epic storytelling, conjures the image of McEuen as a modern-day cowboy songster. Through what he regards as a “six degrees of separation” connection, he’s heard tell that the judge on the case was handed a copy of his CD.

Next Sunday, McEuen will gather Mario Calire, Chuck Hailes and Jonathan McEuen and spend an evening performing at Dargan’s in Ventura. “It’ll be some originals,” he says, “traditionals, classic covers — not top 40,” but bygone hits that are vaguely familiar. “People will have trouble picking them up. And,” he adds, “it will be free.”