Transcript: Transcript Strings & Stories: John McEuen’s NGDB Odyssey and beyond

Welcome to A Breath of Fresh Air with Sandy Kaye. Cause it’s a beautiful day, mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

A breath of fresh air. Beautiful day, or maybe any day that you’re gone away. It’s a beautiful day.

Hi to you, great to have your company today. I hope that you, like me, are a big fan of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, because if so, you’re in for a real treat. For those of you who may not be a fan or perhaps haven’t heard of the band, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is one of the best country rock outfits that’s been active since the 60s.

The band originally included Jackson Browne, and they’re known for hit songs like this one. I knew a man bought jangles and a dance for you In worn out shoes Silver hair and ragged shirt and baggy pants The old soft shoe Jumped so high, jumped so high And then he lightly touched down Today founding member, banjo, fiddle and mandolin player John McEuen joins us to share stories about the evolution of the band, his successful solo career and his latest release, which, as you’ll hear, is a huge departure from anything else he’s ever done. John McEwen, great to have your company on A Breath of Fresh Air.

Thanks so much for making time. Why do they call you the String Wizard? I don’t know. I stood up in three or four different reviews over a few years, and I had an album to make, one of my best bluegrass albums, called String Wizards, plural, because everybody on it was astounding.

You know, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, David Greer, Roy Husky, the bass player, Stuart Duncan, and they hadn’t won their awards yet, but as years went by, they all got best of, best of, best of. I’m still, I’m still waiting. You’ve done all right, you can’t complain.

Fifty years with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, you were the founder of that group, and you’ve been one of the founders, excuse me, and you’ve been on the road with them and as part of your solo career pretty solidly all that time, haven’t you? Yeah, that’s what I did. Aren’t you tired? Right now I am, yes, but going on in front of people makes one not tired. You get that adrenaline rush, don’t you? And you discovered that love of being out front of people from a very early age.

You were actually a magician in Disneyland as a teenager and loved people’s attention then. When I was 16, I was trying to get a job in the magic shop in Disneyland in Anaheim. It was a dream job and me and Steve Martin were both trying to get the same job and strangely enough, we got it the same day in May of 63.

We celebrated by having lunch in Tomorrowland. We didn’t play music yet, we were just pals. Then we worked in Disneyland for three years.

He sent me an email a while back and said, look what I found on eBay, and I thought it was going to be a new Picasso or something because he collects expensive art. And it was the sign Merlin’s Magic Shop from Disneyland. How did you discover music after that? Well, my brother played guitar and I, after a few years, decided to hang out with my brother and I decided to learn guitar.

And after six months, I couldn’t play anything that he hadn’t taught me. So, hey, can you play this one again? You know, okay. But then I saw a group called the Dillards playing at a coffeehouse in Orange County.

And in Orange County, which was like British Village of New York, but spread over miles and miles, the Dillards were hot and they played seven different clubs a week here, a week there. They’d go all around the area. Anyway, so seeing the Dillards five, six times a month, or sometimes more, I got hooked on Doug Dillard’s banjo playing at 17 and it ruined my college career.

It only happened yesterday You got a restless look You turned your back when you went away Like I knew you would Do you remember, do you remember Everything we said A promise made with a kiss for sure Like a book I read It’s about time you came back anyway It’s been a long, long time I’ve been gone almost every day You’ve been on my mind You’ve been on my mind I always wondered where you went To find some peace of mind You never seemed to give much thought To leaving me behind Do you remember, do you remember Everything we said A kiss for sure Like a book I read It’s about time you came back anyway What were you setting out to become? Well, I was a math major. When I got my first D in school, it was in calculus. You cannot cram calculus.

I’d been a really good crammer, so I’d been really good. And the night before the final, I’d better open this book. I read four pages and I went, what did I just read? I got a D in calculus and I started practicing more.

Maths and music kind of go together. They use the same part of the brain, I think, don’t they? I think they’re related somehow. I like the mathematics of the banjo.

You’ve made a huge success out of all the strings that you’ve picked all of these years. What led you to founding Nitty Gritty Dirt Band? And why did you do all of that? I wanted to be on the radio. Here I am playing the banjo and I play the guitar a little bit.

And I was driving to school one day and I heard this song by a group called The Birds and I knew that that bird playing the bass was Chris Hillman and he was in a bluegrass group. He was a mandolin player from a bluegrass group called the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers. The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers.

Easy for you to say. In San Diego. Yeah.

And he got the group together and they were on the radio. I thought, well, if Chris can do it, anybody can. A year went by and I was playing with various people and then Les Thompson called me.

He was 17 years old and I was 20. He says, hey, the guys at the music show are putting a group together. Why don’t you come down and play with us? And I did.

And my gosh, we didn’t know where we were starting. I got my brother to manage us. I joined officially in August a group that was three months old and by the following February we had our first radio record, Bye For Me The Rain.

And we were wondering, what took so long? Bye for me the rain, my darling, bye for me the rain. Bye for me the crystal pools that crawl upon the plain. And I’ll bye for you the rainbow and a million pots of gold.

Bye for me now, wait, for I am too old. Do you think the same would happen today if a young band started out or has it changed so much that those sort of miracles are not possible anymore? I don’t know. Yeah, it’s like they’re together five, six years and nothing happens.

Or something happens and the bass player gets divorced and quits and the guitar player goes into rehab and various things happen. It was different 50 odd years ago, wasn’t it? Much more innocent times. Well, I don’t know about the innocence.

You look at the innocence the innocent people that started doing drugs and they started drinking just like their predecessors and then the drugs took over and I heard an interview with David Crosby a couple years ago where somebody asked him what about the drugs? And he said the drugs didn’t do any good. No good at all. They didn’t do any good.

I wish I hadn’t taken them but I did and I wrote some music but they didn’t do any good. I wish he had said that 30 years earlier. The good they do is outweighed by the bad that follows.

Even marijuana. Oh, it’s legal now. Oh, great.

I think it’s opened a whole Pandora’s Box legalising it, hasn’t it? Yeah. John, why did you call the band Nitty Gritty Dirt Band? It’s a rather strange name. We were sitting around and one guy says well, we got this job what are we going to call ourselves? And one guy says well, what about the dirt band? And the other guy says well, I thought Nitty Gritty Band would be good.

And I said well, what about putting them together and call it Nitty Gritty Dirt Band? Okay. That was it. It actually took a little less time.

And it stuck. Did you ever question that decision or it just grew on you? Often questioned it because the name was strange and it sounded cute or it sounded contrived or it sounded like somebody made it up that was trying to make money. Well, we weren’t making money but we were making recordings.

By 1978 and 80 it was a detriment because we had American Dream was a pop hit and the radio did not identify it ever. They said well, that was an American Dream and next coming up we’ve got Wagon to Messina or whatever. They just didn’t want to say Nitty Gritty Dirt Band because it sounded like they were saying 1910 Fruit Gum Company or something.

I beg your pardon, Mama What did you say? My mind was drifted off on Martinique Bay It’s not that I’m not interested, you see Augusta, Georgia is just no place to be I think you met it in the moonlight Sandy Beach is drinking rum every night We got no money, Mama We got no pots, we can’t go We’ll split the difference Go to Coconut Grove Keep on talking, Mama I can’t hear Your voice that tickles down inside of my ear I feel a tropical vacation this year Might be the answer to this hillbilly fear I think you met it in the moonlight Sandy Beach is drinking rum every night We got no money, Mama Pots, we can’t go We’ll split the difference Go to Coconut Grove Voila! An American Dream Where we can travel, girl without any means When it’s as easy as closing your eyes And Dream Jamaica is a big neon sign Plus the music kinda didn’t really go with the name at all it didn’t, the two didn’t really match And that’s why in the late 70s the guys voted to change it Let’s call it the Dirt Band Everybody calls us the Dirt Band anyway And I’m going, mistake, mistake Three albums later they voted it back in to be Nitty Gritty Dirt Band because you can’t throw 10 years of marketing out the door We send out an album to record stores where are they going to file it? Well, they’ll put it under Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Well, these people in the store don’t know They just say, the Dirt Band, okay I’ll put it under D Did it have an impact? That name change? Yeah, we went to Country Music We started recording in Nashville and we had 21 country top 20 records Way back in my memory There’s a scene that I recall Of a little run down cabin in the woods Well, my daddy never promised that our blue moon would turn gold But he lay awake nights wishing that it would When the world was on our radio hard work was on our minds We lived our day to day in plain dirt fashion With old overalls and cotton balls all strapped across your back Man, it’s hard to make believe ain’t nothing wrong But mama kept the bible read and daddy kept our family fed And somewhere in between I must have grown Cause someday I was dreaming That a song that I was singing Takes me down the road To where I wanna go Now I know It’s a long hard road The Long Hard Road was the first number one record It’s 17 years into the existence of the group Jimmy Ibbotson sang, he was a new guy that joined when we made the Uncle Charlie album which was our fifth album It had House of Pooh Corner and Mr. Bojangles and it put us on the map on the road It was our fifth album and it still took from 1966 when we started it took until 1981 or 2 for Long Hard Road to be a number one country song and that was a struggle but it made it What was the impact when you actually changed the name when you dropped the Nitty Gritty other than record stores not knowing where to file the albums We were searching We were trying to make albums that were different or maybe this could be more like Little River Band Best vocals on the road Little River Band but when Glenn Shorrock left and B. Burgles left Anyway Some of the music grew up a little bit We went to Country Music in 1981 I believe it was and we recorded Jimmy Emerson wrote that song about his destroyed marriage that he had He played it for his ex-wife He says What do you think of the song? She goes It’s a fine song Send me the money Okay that’s over The song made it to number seven but it got requested like it was number one for a long time It must have resonated with a lot of people Yes it did I was told a bride and groom Just what I think of marriage and what’s in store after their honeymoon And I was grumbling to the dancers about how men and women ought to live apart How a promise never made cannot be broken Never break a heart Then suddenly from out of nowhere a little girl came dancing across the floor And all her crinolines were billowing beneath the skirt of calico that she wore Oh what a joy fell on the honored guests as each one of them was drawn into a dream And they laughed and clapped their hands and hollered at her dance little jeans John McEwen says Jimmy Ibbotson was the heart and soul of the Dirt Band and that he and Jimmy simply made beautiful music together

This is a breath of fresh air with Sandy Kaye. It’s a beautiful day. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band continued to tour and record throughout the 70s, releasing a string of successful albums and hit singles.

Their decision to turn country certainly paid off. Lazy yellow moon comin’ up tonight, Shinin’ through the trees. Crickets are singin’ in the lightnin’ Bugs are floatin’ on the breeze Baby, get ready Across the field where the creek turns back By the oak stump road I’m gonna take you to a special place That nobody knows Baby, get ready Ooh You and me go fishin’ in the dark Lyin’ on our backs and countin’ the stars Where the cool grass grows Stayin’ the whole night through The new manager that was taking over from my brother’s management, my brother took photos, produced the records, and managed the group up until 78 or 79.

And I said, there’s only one man that can handle the band, and I think that’s Chuck Morris. We called Chuck Morris in Denver, who’s one of the presidents of AEG, Anschutz Entertainment Group, and he was managing them, and he goes, well, are you gonna stay in the band? I said, I’ll stay in the band for five things, one of them being we get a national record deal, two, we record country music the way we can do it, and only we seem to do it, three, Jimmy Evans is back in the band, because he had been out a few years, and whatever the other two were, but I wanted to record country music. And if he sings, he sounds country, so it’s kind of, you’re stuck with it.

And we went to Nashville, we made a record deal, and it started working with Warner Brothers. Why was your passion so for country, though? You’d had this blend of country, folk, Americana. I’ve got a group for you.

They have acoustic guitars, a harmonica player, a banjo and a mandolin player, and a guy that also plays the lap slide like the old 50s country songs. Your country. A guy that sings kind of like he’s country.

Why? It was right in front of us. Often people don’t see what’s right in front of them. That is the easiest path, take it.

Before that you’d been following different musical influences and trying to create something from the group that perhaps wasn’t what you did best, obviously. No, there’s an album called Jealousy that was the last effort at dirt band rock and roll that was a failed, miserable piece of work. The short way home Jealousy After that, the country music, hey, that went to number 12, that went to number 7, that went to number 1, that went to number 2, this is another number 1. Gee, they’re pretty friendly over here.

And, you know what’s weird? You’ve heard of the Country Music Hall of Fame? Sure. Well, they have stars on the walkway in front, across the street. We got a star right out the front door, right between Elvis and Merle Kilgore and Hank Williams Jr. And Garth Brooks presented it to us.

And that was 10 or 15 years ago. And I’m going, how did that happen? I was in Orange County two days ago, learning how to play the banjo. And now, OK, well that’s nice.

I’m chatting with John McEwen from legendary Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. You’ve now left Nitty Gritty. Are you still playing with them at all? Or do they no longer exist? No.

Which one? No. I’m not playing with them. Right.

But do they still, do they exist? Yes, they do. They play the finest Indian casinos in the country. I gotcha.

They play some regular halls too. It’s just Jeff and Jimmy from the original group. And the keyboard player has been there since 70s, 80 or something.

Of all of those fabulous tunes that you made with them, do you have a favourite? I just say anything on the album will in the circle be unbroken. That just has a lot of great music on it. It was a collaborative effort.

And Mr Bojangles, Dense Little Jeans, Ripplin’ Waters and, you know, different things come to mind. Well, they say about Mr Bojangles that that was the best ever cover version. You’re infamous for your cover of Mr Bojangles.

I knew a man, Bojangles, and he’d dance for you In worn out shoes Silver hair and ragged shirt and baggy pants The old soft shoe He’d jump so high, jump so high And then he’d lightly touch down I met a man who sailed in New Orleans I was Down and out Looked to me to be the eyes of hate As the smoke ran out Talked of life, talked of life Laughed, clinked his heels and stared I find it funny that people still call it a cover record when it was the hit. It was on the charts 36 weeks. 36 weeks, that’s three quarters of a year.

And it was a record that wouldn’t go away. We were lucky to get it. If it hadn’t been for a certain Catholic girls’ school in Manhattan it wouldn’t have been in the top ten.

There’s a story there, tell me about that. Well, it wasn’t ABC in New York. And the guy that programmed ABC had said I’m not going to play that bitty gritty dirt band record.

If he didn’t play it, Boston wouldn’t play it. Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis. You know, other major stations followed ABC.

His name was Rick Squaw. His daughter went to a Catholic girls’ school in Lower Manhattan. And if we played the school, yeah, you might get considered again.

So here we were setting up at a Catholic girls’ school on a Friday morning. Junior high school. Long tables leading up to the stage.

It was like Las Vegas with chocolate milk. The sister walked in and I said pardon me, sister, who else has played your junior high for your girls? Oh, this year we’ve been very lucky. We’ve had, oh, the Jackson 5. Boy, they can dance.

And Aretha Franklin, Aretha Franklin. And oh, oh, that, oh, what is his name? Simon, no, Paul Simon. That’s it, yes.

And early in the year, Mr. John Lennon. What a nice, you know, the British boy. You know him.

You boys need anything? I said no, we’re getting ready for an important show. And we played the 11.30 lunchtime soiree on Friday. And Monday, driving out of New York, I had the radio on, ABC.

And the guy said, here’s a new song by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Mr. Bo Jangles. And it went to number nine. So everybody else had played there for the same reason.

Yeah, yeah. They didn’t just, oh, we’re the Catholic girls’ school. Let’s go play it.

You’ve written a book fairly recently also. There’s some good stories in there. When I finished the manuscript and they had to turn it in for final print, I had to read it.

I couldn’t put it down. You’re hilarious. And really, I go back and read some of them.

I go, you can get depressed doing certain things. You can, and you can’t, or whatever. I haven’t eaten for 12 hours, and the flight’s late, and the room’s not ready, and the promoter ran with the money.

One guy, well, I can pay you, or I can write you a check. He had a suitcase full of crumpled dollar fives and tens. I’ll write me a check.

He did that to everyone, and he left that concert venue with $47,000 in cash. I had no idea I was going to play Mickey Mouse’s funeral. His wife called me and told me, my husband just died, and he was your biggest fan.

What did he do? Well, for 35 years, he was the voice of Mickey Mouse. What did you do, ma’am? I’m the voice of Minnie. I thought she was pulling me on, but it was true.

I played her funeral, too. Darn it. I’m standing next to the casket doing a 20-minute set, you know, and she says, it’s time for the song.

She hands me his banjo, Wayne Allwine was his name, and she said, it’s time for the song, and so there I am. Now’s the time to say goodbye to all your company. Everybody in the gravesite was singing it, and not just people.

Pluto and Goofy and Mickey and Donald and, you know, all the characters were there. You know the part where it goes, Mickey Mouse. Donald Duck.

It wasn’t just some jerk that yelled Donald Duck. It was Donald Duck. I’m next to the coffin, and I never did drugs.

I’m so glad I didn’t because they would have kicked in, and I would have floated away, but I’m next to the coffin, and she comes up, Minnie, Roosie, Allwine, and I get to the part, M-I-C. She goes, see you real soon. K-E-Y.

Why? Because we loved you. We’re going U-S-E as the coffin goes into the ground. Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me? M-I-C-K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E.

Hey there, hi there, ho there. You’re as welcome as can be. M-I-C-K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E.

Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse. Forever let us all love Anaheim.

Come along and sing a song and join our jamboree. M-I-C-K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E. How amazing that you’ve come full circle from starting off in Disneyland in Anaheim to playing at Mickey and Minnie’s funerals.

Unbelievable. Yeah. The other thing I wanted to ask you about, though, is the fact that Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was the first American band to play in the Soviet Union in 1977, weren’t you? We did? Yeah, it was.

It was like a whole other country. Sorry, cheap joke. You could feel the importance of American music.

We did some Buddy Holly songs, some Linda Ronstadt, Chuck Berry songs, we did one of his. And I had to think of a duck walk. No, just like Chuck Berry.

That’s right. And all three of us up front did the duck walk. What was the reaction like? It was crazy.

It was illegal to stand up at a concert or a public event. Don’t get up. You don’t get up.

And one of the best nights was in Leningrad, because Irina, our party member, one of the tour guide ladies, wore red a lot. The audience is very good. Yes, they’re a little bit crazy sometimes, you know.

When we get to Leningrad, Leningrad, they will be very respectful. They will clap nice. But you might get one encore.

We got to Leningrad, the first show. After the third encore, one soldier had rushed up on stage to play air guitar next to Jeff. The next encore, a girl ran up and kissed one of the guys and ran back.

Some people came up to the front and threw flowers at us. Just before the fourth encore, they’d rush to stage or up there like an MTV video. There were more and more.

And I walked by Irina. She’s in the wings. She’s looking out at the audience.

And she goes, I never thought in Leningrad. Well, I’ve been out walking. And I don’t do too much talking these days.

These days. These days I seem to think a lot about the things that I forgot to do. And all the times I’ve had the chance to.

Well, I start my rambling. And I don’t do too much gambling these days. These days.

These days I sit on cornerstones and count the time from four to ten. Or will I see that highway again? I don’t think I’ll risk another these days. These days.

And if I seem to be afraid to live the life that I have made in song. You’re enjoying a very successful solo career. You’re a fabulous storyteller.

And a brilliant musician. Very glad that you didn’t stick with selling in that magic shop in Anaheim. Even more glad that you didn’t become a mathematician or something.

It would have been very wasted talent. I wouldn’t have had much of a book. And the life I’ve picked is the book.

And it’s available on Amazon. I’m really proud of it. People have told me they couldn’t put it down when they read it.

So I appreciate that. But if you’re married, don’t get one and leave it laying around or your husband or wife will take it and read it. And well they might because the book, The Life I’ve Lived, is chock full of really funny tales.

John McEwen left the Dirt Band in 86 after 26 years with the band in order to pursue a solo career. From 91 to 97 he released four albums and composed music for movies and TV. His favourite song is Return to Dismal Swamp from his String Wizards album from 1991.

It’s got the best players on it. Joining me, it’s one of my better pieces of music. I’m really not sure why the song is called Dismal Swamp.

It’s anything but. John says it was instrumental to the formation of the Dirt Band. He wrote it and told friend Les Thompson that he’d join his budding band if the band all agreed to learn and play it with him at an upcoming banjo contest.

Well they did all agree. John won the contest and the Dirt Band was born.This is a breath of fresh air with Sandy Kaye. It’s a beautiful day. Nearly 60 years have now passed since the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band first got started and at almost 80, John McEwen, the country, bluegrass and Americana legend, has just released his latest solo album, his eighth.

Although he’s one of the seminal figures who conceived and originated the fusion of folk, rock and country, this album is something entirely different. It’s a bunch of talking with music behind it, music that I’ve put together over the last 10 years. I’ve been collecting these stories, starting with the Mountain Whippoorwill in the 70s and Hank Williams’ Talking Blues and finally I said, you know, I’ve got enough stories to do an album.

I could do a talking record. Well yeah, but who wants to buy a talking record? And I thought, well wait a minute, Alice’s Restaurant? You might have heard this before. I know I have.

This song is called Alice’s Restaurant. It’s about Alice and the restaurant. But Alice’s Restaurant was never the name of a restaurant.

That was always just the name of this song. And I guess that, well that’s probably why I still call this song Alice’s Restaurant. And Alice’s Restaurant.

A boy named Sue, devil went down to Georgia. There’s been a lot of talking records, but there hasn’t been one for 15 years, maybe 20. And I’m hoping people will give a few of them a listen.

So you said that you’ve been collecting these stories. Have you just written them down as you went and kept them somewhere locked up in the hope that one day they’d be useful? I recorded some of them. One I did with John Carter Cash, the son of Johnny and June.

He likes to say, yeah, I come from a musical family. PJ, Pineapple John, kept his house like a squirrel with a penchant for fish hooks. Lining the oak panels around the living room, the bedroom, the kitchen, and the washroom were every leader and barber and luer he ever bought.

I did it in one take, too. I was proud of that. Why is it called Pineapple John? Because it’s about a guy, PJ, Pineapple John.

It’s just his nickname. And he shouldn’t have gone out and, well, maybe he should have played pickleball with his guitar. And that’s kind of just a fun little getaway story.

And then when you get to Nui Ba Den, it was written by a guy in Vietnam. And he sent the letter to his brother in Massachusetts. He wrote it in 1968 as the battle of Nui Ba Den was going down.

We were just boys on the flight to the fight. And it’s expected to act like men. They put a gun in our hands and said, you don’t have to win.

It’s such a tough Vietnam story. I had to do that to honor the veterans. We were just boys on the flight to the fight, expected to act like men.

The sun was setting as the chopper sat down at the foot of the rock called Nui Ba Den. The mountain loomed over as we ran for cover. They shelled us, and by the rocket’s red glare, we crouched in the night, concealing our fright.

Then there’s a Civil War one, Killed at the Ford. Those words were written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I look at old books a lot, and I’m looking through this old poetry book.

And I put it away for a couple of years. About five years ago, I went, oh, I know what to do with that. It’s about a guy that didn’t make it home, which is what the poem is about.

And I think it goes together really good. The title of it intrigues me, John. It’s called The Newsman, A Man of Record.

A Man of Record. Yeah. Well, the newsman was a guy in Hollywood.

This guy I saw going to work at 530 in the morning when I thought my job was hard. I hadn’t even changed my strings a dozen times, and I thought I was well-weathered. And there’s this guy on a motorbike covered with newspapers all around, going up to Sunset Boulevard.

And I saw him a week later when I got home off the road. He came into Ben Frank’s restaurant. He was stumbling.

He was like a paraplegic kind of guy. And in those days, we called them cripples. Hey, you see that crippled guy selling newspapers? It wasn’t a disrespectful thing.

It just wasn’t appropriate, and it changed the handicapped or disadvantaged. This man, he sold newspapers to the alcohol burnouts that were hanging out in the restaurant, having breakfast along with soon-to-be drug-crazed hippies. And he had respect from all of them.

Oh, I always gave him an extra buck or two. Poor guy. Sometimes in my early showbiz struggle days, well, it seemed like a struggle.

It was easy to get down about how slow it was going. We’d been together seven months and hadn’t gotten on the radio yet. Probably hadn’t changed my strings more than a couple dozen times by then.

And I thought I was well-weathered. In the midst of all those hardships of a new band in the late 60s, we made our first album and started heading out on the road, getting on the road to the airport a bunch, down to LAX. I felt like it was my good fortune to be inspired by one person in particular, a newsman.

And he’s come to mind so many times over the years. Especially any time when it seemed like what I was doing was tough. He didn’t write the news, and he didn’t make it.

I found out after studying him a bit that his name was Steve. I was afraid to talk to him. He couldn’t talk very well.

And I was only 19 when I saw him first. I got a paper, and I just didn’t want to talk to him. I didn’t have the nerves.

And I’m kind of ashamed of that. I wanted to get that in this story. This is a story I wrote that I hope ends up in Reader’s Digest someday.

He had access to record company presidents, everybody, agents, lawyers. He’d go to their office. The receptionist would say, Hey, Marty, Steve’s here.

Do you want a paper? He’d stumble into their office, and he probably made more money than half the people in Hollywood. He was a nice guy. Do you know what became of him? No, I don’t.

He had respect from everyone, and I just wish I could have told them. I didn’t tell them. I didn’t know.

What a lovely homage to him, though. There’s definitely a mix of tracks from different eras and genres. How did you select which ones you’d put on this album? They just came about, you know? I mean, there’s five or six that are not on there.

It’s not quite ready yet. You just had to decide. It’s like taking four of your children to Disneyland and leaving one at home.

So from that I could imagine that there might be another album in the wings to come. Well, we’ll see how this does first. It’s been a lot of years on the road, John McEuen.

You keep reinventing yourself, but you don’t appear to have lost any of the passion for the music. I just feel lucky that I can do it. You know, a lot of people are passing away, and I’m not.

So I’ve got to go out and do my story of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and my story of what I do, playing the banjo and guitar, mandolin and fiddle, and it’s all like auditioning, you know? Maybe it’s all like this. And I’ve had various inspirations, from Linda Ronstadt to Steve Martin. Steve I went to high school with, and even in high school, he would always be working on something, always.

He’d have a book that he was finishing and a play that he was starting and a road show that he was doing. Just constantly doing that. And I thought, man, well, he’s way beyond me, but he’s a good friend.

Where do you take the energy from? Well, the lower half of me, down here, is asleep right now. I don’t know. I think it comes partially from… I never did drugs.

And I didn’t drink alcohol. I never got it. Why do I want to put that poison in my body? You know, whatever.

Hey, man, you want to try… Here, take a hit on this. No, no thanks. I like it when you do it, though.

Oh, why’s that? Because it cuts down the competition, you know? Well, that’s a bummer. This is not for me. You play worse, or you’re going to die sooner.

Every now and then, a player can play high. But he does it in flashes. And often, the recording machine isn’t on in the upswings.

I’ve seen that so many times in the studio. The guy out there is high, or whatever. Hey, man, play that thing you just did.

What was that? You know, it was up around the 12th fret. You mean here? No, not that. It was more like, you know, you get into striving.

He was just working from his own loaded soul. You know, Frank Zappa was straight. He wouldn’t let anybody do drugs around the sessions or working.

He did a lot of orange juice. You’ve looked after your health all these years, yeah? I’ll try to. I’ve got other things I could do to be healthier.

I drink too much Coca-Cola. What’s left on your bucket list? Are there any projects that you haven’t done yet that you still want to complete? I have some pieces that I have charts for, for orchestra. And they’re absolutely wonderful.

I’ve done it five times, and it’s been 20 years since I did it with an orchestra. I just hope I can do that when I get older, play Miner’s Night Out with the orchestra. I did it with one orchestra.

Well, I did it with two or three different ones. And they all did the same thing when the rehearsal was over. They clicked their bows on their violins.

It was really great. You know, this was the time that they liked it. That’s what they do instead of clapping.

Yeah, instead of saying, oh, OK, next song. Anyway, that was really cool. Recording with John Fogarty or Paul McCartney or both.

I found out that John Fogarty likes what I do. And I’ve met Paul McCartney twice. I just like to play mandolin or banjo on a song.

Continue working until you can’t do it anymore? The work is getting there. I don’t mind the playing. Well, I am 78.

So you’re still travelling as widely and fully as you ever did. You handle life on the road just as well as you did when you were younger? I think sometimes it’s better. You know, it’s easier.

My wife is wonderful. She’s 64 years old and looks like she’s 35 or 45, but no more than that. And we have a nice house in Franklin, Tennessee.

And things are good. I got a children’s book out called The Mountain Whippoorwill. It’s one of the poems on the record.

There’s an illustrated children’s book telling the story. I didn’t know Vassar Clements was born in 1928 until I was writing an obituary on him. This story is about a young fiddler, and it was written in 1928.

It could have been about Vassar. Years ago, I did O Susanna with 50 goats and a cow and 20 kids. We were at a farm, and they were all running around.

And I come from Alabama, and my granddaughter is a real Photoshop expert and a great graphic artist. She’s putting together a songbook for O Susanna. You can go look at it now.

John McKillen, O Susanna, Sesame Street. I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee And I’m going to Louisiana, there my true love, Florida City O Susanna, now don’t you cry for me For I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee Now, late last night I had a dream when everything was still I dreamt I saw Susanna, she was coming down the hill O Susanna, now don’t you cry for me For I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee John McKillen, thanks so much for your time today. Oh, well, thank you.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McKillen, who has lots of diverse offerings right now. For fans of Will the Circle of the Unbroken album, there’s a book out where John details stories behind some pretty amazing photos. You can pick this up from his website, Thanks for your time today.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the story of John McKillen and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I’m looking forward to being back in your company again same time next week. Till we meet again.

Bye now. It’s a beautiful day You’ve been listening to A Breath of Fresh Air with Sandy Kaye Beautiful day Oh, baby, any day that you’re gone away It’s a beautiful day