John McEuen Reflects on Departure from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Lee Zimmerman on October 31, 2017

While parting ways with a band you co-founded after five decades may
seem like something of a shock, multi-instrumentalist John McEuen’s
announcement that he’s leaving the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was also a
long time in coming. In announcing his decision last Friday, McEuen
suggested that one reason for his dissatisfaction was the fact that two
years ago he was dismissed from the band corporation he helped
establish, and from that point on he was relegated to the role of an
employee. “In assessing the situation and our musical, performance and
business differences, the timing is appropriate for my departure,” he
said in a prepared statement. “I will move forward with great pride in
my personal and musical contributions to NGDB and now can fully
concentrate on my independent endeavors.”

The independent endeavors McEuen refers to include six solo albums, the latest of which, Made in Brooklyn,
received widespread acclaim, including the best reviews of his solo
career. In addition, he’s been performing 50 shows a year all on his
own, most recently in the company of original Dirt Band member Les
Thompson, NGDB alumnus John Cable and longtime sideman Matt Cartsonis.
At this point, he claims to have more than two dozen dates scheduled for

“I was never able to book myself more than two
months in advance because I had to wait to see what the band calendar
was going to be,” McEuen explains. “Most people book eight months or a
year in advance. By opening the gate, I have flood of cool places saying
yes. My agents are doing a great job.”

The separation
apparently frees him up financially as well. McEuen claims he’s always
made more money performing solo than he did with the band.

Speaking by phone the day after the press release went public, McEuen
elaborated on the reasons for the decision to depart, one that he had
pondered for a couple of years prior to taking action. (McEuen also
noted that he had only informed his colleagues of his move just before
the press release went public. “It was a surprise, but it wasn’t
surprising,” he says.)

McEuen explains that he delayed
taking any action earlier only out of respect for the group’s fans. “If I
was going to leave, which I was going to do, I needed to get ready,” he
continues. “That meant I could also make it through the 50th year tour
for the people who wanted to see it. However, it did come up a little
sooner than I had planned. I was thinking that maybe I could make it
into the 51st year, until I realized, ‘Wait a minute, we are in the 51st
year.’ It was time.”

As McEuen tells it, deciding to
leave was all but inevitable. “It was mainly a difference of opinion on
all things,” he maintains. “So I said I’m done. The difference of
opinion was a big topic.”

His former colleagues —
singer/guitarist Jeff Hanna and keyboard player Bobby Carpenter in
particular — replied with short, amicable messages wishing him well,
but at the time of our conversation he had yet to hear from longtime
drummer/singer Jimmy Fadden. “There had been constant frustrations over
the past many years,” McEuen reflects. “As I said, differences of
opinion. And when I was voted out of the corporation and told, ‘We think
it’s better that way,’ it was not something that felt good.”

McEuen also says he has been left out of several critical decisions
for the last couple of years, including matters related to touring and
finances. He lists a long liturgy of grievances, including the fact he
wasn’t allowed to sell his own CDs at the merch table, his music was
being ignored as far as both concerts and recordings were concerned, his
arrangements had been shunned, the band refused to vary the set list or
incorporate video into their performances, and his opinions in general
were ignored and overlooked. “We couldn’t make anything new,” he argues.
“Our time is limited here, and I felt like it was important to move
ahead. We should have things that were new, that people could talk
about, and not just things we did so long ago.”

inspiration has always been part of his equation. “One of the problems
they had, which maybe I created, was that I’ve always been inspired by
people who keep putting out new things. I think that’s important. But
what’s also important is putting things out in general. The Dirt band
never put out more than two albums in 14 years. I’ve had six solo
projects, and then along came Made in Brooklyn, which had the
best reviews I received in 20 years. I’m very fortunate that all my solo
projects would get Grammy nominations or something like a Western
Heritage Award. The Steve Martin album I did got a Grammy award. I
played and produced it and arranged all the music, and then I would go
from that into the band situation and not have any suggestion that I
made get used. The only time my music would be used on a Dirt Band album
since 1972 was if I did it myself, or maybe with some other player. I
would always get outvoted.”

He had hoped that with the
live recording of the band’s 2016 anniversary show at the Ryman
Auditorium, it would be a good enough summation of past glories to
encourage the band to reenter the studio and record new material. “How
many times can you hear ‘Mr. Bojangles’ or ‘Fishin’ in the Dark’ on a
record,” he muses. “We had a platform that worked very well for so many
years, and I was able to be in that situation which brought us to a lot
of the world. But I’ve also done it on my own, and now it’s happening
even more.”

McEuen admits that it can be scary to step
away from a group and have “formerly of,” as he puts it, added to his
billing. “Fortunately, I started billing a solo career in 1977 when we
came back from Russia,” he explains. “That’s how I got into the group,
when I was playing on my own around L.A. I wanted to be on the radio. I
knew I couldn’t do it on my own, so I auditioned them and taught them a
song I wrote in the ‘60s with my brother. The band had just gotten going
only two or three months before, and so I got my brother to manage us
and he got us a record deal, and we formed a corporation and put out the
first album. I was president of that corporation for 21 years until I
left in the ‘90s. Jeff Hanna once said to me, ‘You don’t have to put a
banjo part over this because we have someone else to do it. That was in
1985 and it was a tough day for me. But again, it was about difference
of opinion.”

When asked if he might reconsider his
decision like he did after that initial departure, McEuen demures.
“There’s just been too many good things happening over the past couple
of years related to what I do on my own. It’s so much fun. I can’t

Still, McEuen hasn’t abandoned the Dirt Band
legacy entirely. His solo shows find him embracing it, not only by
offering his own interpretations of their songs and including an
archival video component, but also by sharing some anecdotes. “That’s
something that’s been missing from the Dirt Band shows,” he says.
“People eat it up like crazy.”

For now though, McEuen
says that his main impetus is to keep going forward. “I’ve been given
this privilege of making things for people, whether it’s a story or a
radio show or whatever it is,” he says. “People that follow you like to
have something to follow.”

So while internal friction and
frustration played a major role in deciding to depart, McEuen insists
he has no regrets. “It was a good run. I pursued my teenage dream and it
became a major part of my life. We had cool moments for sure and made a
lot of people happy. We made history together.”

pauses to reflect. “It was a long hard road, and a lot of good things
came out of it,” he muses. “What made it not of interest to me may only
have been of interest to me. Maybe I was wrong to assess things so
critically, but I just have to go on and do more things.”