Weekly Wire
Salt Lake City Weekly Nitty Gritty McEuen

By Kimberli Patterson

It wasn't until he was 17 years old that John McEuen started life as a musician. And, even then, it wasn't the standard way of breaking into the business. Picking up a guitar one day, McEuen decided to teach himself the art. He's also done the same thing with a variety of other instruments, including the mandolin, fiddle, banjo and lap steel.

Never having taken a music lesson from an instructor, many people might believe McEuen didn't have a chance at success. But after some 34 years on the music scene, McEuen has accomplished much more than some musicians who have studied music with the "best of the best" for a lifetime.

McEuen's big break in the music business came in the mid-'60s, just four years after he started plucking at the guitar. While living in Southern California, McEuen started making tunes with Michael Martin Murphy. One day, while hanging out at a local music store, he and a bunch of guys decided to put a band together.

"That seemed like more fun than playing with Michael," McEuen says of his decision to join the group. After a short period of time together "we won a talent contest at some club where we could play and eat pizza for free. But we needed a name."

And they came up with one: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Six months later, the group had a contract with Liberty Records and "Buy For Me the Rain" was a top-40 hit.

McEuen, who now lives in Murray, spent 21 years with the Dirt Band, with their biggest hit being "Mr. Bojangles," which reached number nine on the Billboard's Hot 100 Singles chart. When Nitty Gritty's music started pulling away from the sounds of bluegrass and started leaning toward country, McEuen decided it was time to try things on his own.

Jonathan McEuen (right) performs with his father's band, John McEuen and the String Wizards.
Of course, McEuen's biggest duty to Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was to deposit acoustic instrument sound bites into the band's recordings. And while deciding to take the country music direction, the group also determined it would be best to take the instrumental music out. So McEuen decided he would also go out.

Although McEuen loved the time spent with the band, he has never regretted embarking on a new journey — a journey where his music has become more visible.

"It's exciting to sit in front of a microphone and know it's going to be on the radio," McEuen says of recording sessions. "It feels like you're playing in front of a million people. It's fun. It's a responsibility. It's a cool thing to do."

On the other hand, McEuen says his talents weren't really getting out there. On any given recording, McEuen would get about eight seconds at the beginning to produce acoustical sounds before he faded to the background while the vocalists took over. Sometimes he would have another couple of seconds to exhibit his original sounds at the end. When a CD would come out, with 10 to 12 songs, he'd have, maybe, a total of two minutes to show off his unique abilities as a musician.

But that isn't the scenario anymore.

With four CD's under his buckle and a talent for composing musical scores for films and documentaries, McEuen's natural music abilities have become extremely visible. Of course, his deserved recognition wasn't free: It cost him a lot of time and a lot of hard work — especially when it comes to the films.

With every film, McEuen says he is looking at a minimum of 55 music cues, which translates into about one-and-a-half hours of music. And not just any music. "The music guy has to make sure the music doesn't distract from what's happening in the picture," McEuen says.

Depending on the film, some of the music has to be produced in advance, while other music is added after all of the camera work is done. And being the "music guy" also means playing to the director's tune.

"The director is king," McEuen says, "which is fine." And while working with director Tommy Lee Jones on The Good Old Boys, McEuen learned just how "king" Jones was. McEuen received a call from Jones after composing the music for the movie and the conversation went something like, "John, the opening cue is just perfect, the music for the rodeo scene is great, but what is that Goddamned Nashville elevator music? Rewrite it."

McEuen responded with an OK and when do you need it?

Jones said, "Tomorrow morning at 10 a.m." Looks like it's another long night.

And there are a lot of long nights. While working on a 10-hour mini series, "The Wild West," McEuen says he worked 71 days in a row, 12-14 hours each. "I was working for Warner Brothers and I couldn't screw up," McEuen says. "I worked with 88 people, in 12 cities, in less than two months."

McEuen had to produce 300 minutes of music for the mini-series.

Needless to say, McEuen says he does become a little agitated after about the 60th day and tells people to "leave me alone. I've got problems to handle and if I don't do it I'm in trouble. And I don't want trouble. My attitude does become a little brittle. It's like if you've been driving a car for 12 hours straight and you finally get home and don't want to have a conversation with mom [asking], 'How you doing?' You don't care. You want to go to the bathroom, which you've had to do since one o'clock and it's now nine, and you want to go to sleep."

Long, strange trip: John McEuen (far left) with Steve Martin and Jerry Garcia.

Despite the natural, stress-related irritabilities, McEuen says he loves putting music to film. He explains that most of the anxiety takes places doing the layback, which is when you lock the music into the picture. "Your ass is on the line and you're bored to death with the project, but that's what makes it exciting."

Through his hard work, McEuen's efforts have been recognized. He received an Emmy nomination for the musical score of National Geographic Society's "Braving Alaska" and a second Emmy nomination for "The Wild West" mini-series.

McEuen released a new CD in May entitled, Best of ... String Wizard's Picks, which features an enhanced CD-rom that gives access to music videos, live performance video, interviews, stories and photos.

What's next for McEuen? "I'm in the middle of what was next a couple of months ago," he says. His interpretation of that statement is that he has summer shows coming up, a couple of film scores that are looking good, two concert productions to do, a new album, work to do on his web page and needs to find time to spend at home with his kids, right here in Utah.

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