John McEuen and the String Wizards are coming to town

John McEuen performs on his banjo.

After 53 years of traveling

around the world and performing at more than

10,000 shows, musician John McEuen is not

ready to stop or slow down.

“I’m just getting underway,” he told the

Roundup . “It’s getting really good and I don’t

have to audition anymore.”

Formerly a member of the renowned Nitty

Gritty Dirt Band, McEuen now tours with

an ensemble of veteran musicians called the

String Wizards. McEuen has fired up the

strings on his banjo, mandolin, fiddle and guitar

for millions of fans in famous venues like

the Ash Grove club in Hollywood, the Ozark

Music Festival and Red Square in Moscow.

The self-taught virtuoso learned to play

primarily by ear and from collaborating with

other musicians. He is fluent in a wide range

of musical genres from bluegrass to the classical

music of Muzio Clementi.

McEuen recorded a total of 40 albums as

part of an ensemble or as a soloist. Four albums

went platinum and five were certified

gold. Several won Country Music Association

and International Bluegrass Music awards,

while others were nominated for Grammy

honors.

McEuen worked with a star-studded lineup

of artists including Steve Martin, John Denver,

Linda Ronstadt, Merle Travis and The Doors.

Young artists like Kenny Loggins and Gregg

Allman recorded some of their first music in

McEuen’s living room before they launched

national careers.

But McEuen does not consider himself a

“celebrity.” He is a humble guy who can have

a chat on the phone without agents, managers

or other minions interfering.

“We’re just people who are doing the

same thing,” he said of his profession. “Flying

somewhere really early in the morning,

waiting for a hotel room to be ready that’s not

ready yet, dragging a suitcase around, getting

on a bus or getting on a van – we finally get

to a show where there’s a room full of people.

That’s what we’re out there for. All that other

stuff doesn’t matter.”

The ordinary people who show up in front

of the stage to escape their everyday lives

through music matter more to McEuen than

the awards and famous venues where he performs.

“The nice Facebook comments and the people

who come to the show – the lady in Minnesota

who always brings pies to the show, or

the one who brings cookies in Kansas and all

the families that come. That’s what keeps me

going,” he said. “I don’t just go play a bunch of

songs. I try to take people away to the spaces

and times where those songs come from.”

The String Wizards consists of four musicians

with decades of experience under their

belts from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band or other

groups McEuen has worked with. In addition

to McEuen, the members include NGDB cofounder

Les Thompson on bass and vocals,

Matt Cartsonis on guitar, vocals and mandola

and John Cable on guitar and vocals.

Music is all about collaboration for

McEuen and he does not believe in outshining

other members of an ensemble or playing

over a singer.

“John Cable does a song that is absolutely

adored by the audience, even though they

haven’t heard it before. And when I play

mandolin on that, I feel like I’m putting the

icing on his great cake. Everybody gets to do

something that spotlights them. Like when

Matt sings or does that funny song he does – it

always brings the house down.”

McEuen didn’t set out to be a musician.

He never took formal music lessons as a child

and didn’t pick up an instrument until he was

inspired to try the banjo after hearing the bluegrass

band The Dillards perform at Disneyland

when he was 17.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was a

math major in school and pretty much a dork.

And then I started playing banjo, so I graduated

to nerd.”

McEuen knew he liked performing in front

of people. Before the NGDB formed in 1966,

McEuen worked as a magician at Disneyland’s

Magic Shop. While juggling a variety

of complex magical tricks, he quickly learned

what made a performer sink or swim in front

of a constantly changing audience.

“The thing about working there was that

every 20 to 30 minutes, you’d have a whole

new audience,” he said. “You can go from

being miserable (in front of an audience) to

making it work.”

McEuen learned music by listening to others

and studying how they played but he soon

forged his own style and started writing music.

“I couldn’t play like everybody else who

was great,” he said. “I couldn’t sound like

them. So I figured out I had to sound like myself.

That was quite a revelation. (At first) I

tried to get my banjo to sound like Doug Dillard’s.

One night Dillard broke a string and I

gave him mine to play but it still sounded just

like his banjo. That’s when I found out that it’s

all about the archer, not the bow.”

The NGDB struggled at first to find a record

label. They performed in front of live

audiences at clubs in Los Angeles or at local

high school sports fields. Record company

representatives sometimes attended the live

shows but were hesitant about the Dirt Band’s

new sound.

“Often record companies go with what

they know and with what they’ve seen work,”

McEuen said. “If something is different,

they’ll shy away from it. In the early years, before

we had a record deal, our first review said:

‘quite entertaining, but doubtful if it will ever

be captured on record.’ I have that quote in the

same frame as the (band’s) first gold album.”

Liberty Records was the first label to take

a risk with the NGDB. They produced the

band’s first albums “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band”

and “Ricochet” in 1967. The single “Buy For

Me the Rain” hit radio stations across the

country and made it to the top-40 on the Billboard

Music charts.

In 1970, the band produced their fifth

album, “Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy.”

The album featured “Mr. Bojangles,” written

by Jerry Jeff Walker. The song became an instant

hit, soared to the Top 10 on the charts,

and made it into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

But the song almost missed the cut on the

album. This time, the band hesitated instead

of the record label.

“When (the record company) said they

wanted to put ‘Bojangles’ on as the next single,

we didn’t think it would work. We said,

‘It’s too long, the title isn’t in the song, it’s

about a dancer with a dog.’ It’s not a single!

I’m glad that (the record company) persevered

and put it out as a single. It was on the charts

for 36 weeks.”

In 1977, at the height of the Cold War, the

NGDB was invited to perform in the Soviet

Union – the first American band to receive that

honor. McEuen and his band mates performed

shows at a bicycle track in Soviet Armenia,

and in hockey rinks or stages in Soviet Georgia,

Latvia, Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and

Moscow.

Tens of thousands of Soviet citizens showed

up to get their first glimpse of an American

band. A few of the shows were televised to an

audience of more than a 100 million viewers.

“Our shows went over so well that the Soviets

didn’t let an American group in for another

eight years,” McEuen said. “People got

too excited.”

The KGB kept close tabs on all the musicians

and the band was not allowed to leave

the 10-mile radius around their hotel. One

day, however, McEuen slipped away from the

world-class security agency with help from a

farmer who lived outside Leningrad. At the

farmer’s house, 20 other Soviet citizens sat

in the living room, waiting to meet an American.

They all sang, “This Land is Your Land”

twice.

“They knew more of the song than we did,”

McEuen said. “They wanted to hear about

America. People would say things like: ‘If I

ever want to defect, I want to go to Montana,’

or wherever they would name.”

McEuen has been to hundreds of cities and

towns across the country, but this will be his

first time in Pinedale. McEuen has visited

many other parts of Wyoming as part of the

NGDB and the String Wizards, though, and

he is used to the state’s vagaries.

“Wyoming is an immensely beautiful

state,” he said. “But I think Wyoming invented

wind and then it blew down to Kansas

and Wyoming showed them how to use it. I

was going down I-80 once in a van. The wind

was so strong it blew me around in a circle and

I ended up going backward.”

McEuen’s exciting 53-year journey started

with a banjo, and he ended the interview with

a quote from one of his favorite humorists.

“Mark Twain once said, ‘Those of you who

want something that will run through your

body like strychnine whiskey, throw away that

piano and get the glory beaming banjo!’”

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