Founder of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band John McEuen will perform March 30 at the Opera House of Boothbay Harbor. Alan Nahigian

Last week, I chatted with a new-to-me bluegrass band, the Kitchen Dwellers, and this time ‘round I reconnected with none other than Mr. John McEuen, a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who will be coming to the Opera House in Boothbay Harbor on March 30. He and I have chatted back when the Dirt Band came to Maine many years ago and since then he’s been doing the solo route which is what brings him back to our neck of the woods. As a multi-instrumentalist (he can play banjo, guitar, mandolin and fiddle) he’s been entertaining folks from coast to coast and released more tham 46 albums that have garnered many nominations and awards of all types, so the opportunity to converse with him again was a true pleasure.

Q: You’re coming into the Opera House at Boothbay Harbor, I believe.
McEuen: Yes and I’m looking forward to that show … the reason I left the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is a show like this, I tell ya.

Q: Oh, really?
McEuen: After 50 years of being on the road, we did our 50th-year tour and at the end of it I said, “I’m gonna go do these other shows!” (Laughter) Because I’d been playing solo all along those years as well as with the band and it’s just more fun to play a place like the Boothbay Opera House.

Q: Have you performed there before?
McEuen: You know, I was talking to the lady there and I think I was there like 12 years ago — or maybe 15.

Q: How did all this get started?
McEuen: The guy that called me in 1966, Les Thompson, he was 17 years old, and he said, “Hey, John I’m starting a new band at McCabe’s Music Store.” and I went and checked it out and I joined the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It was named but it hadn’t really gotten going yet, and two months later my brother got us a record deal, he became our manager.

Q: When the band got into gear did you ever think it would be as long a run as it turned out to be?
McEuen: I wanted to do something in the music business that would get me on the road in front of people around the country. I wanted a job that, as you got older, you became more valuable, I didn’t want a gold watch, I wanted a gold record (laughter).


Q: Well, I’m sure you got one or two of those over those 50-plus years.
McEuen: I’ve been very lucky, five of those and five platinum, well, you know, when you get a platinum record it means you already have a gold one (chuckle). You know, the fun thing was that I got to give Maybelle Carter her first gold record, it was about three years after the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, which I think you’re familiar with?

Q: Oh, yeah, I’m familiar with that one!
McEuen: Oh, good, and I went over to her house in Nashville and said, “Maybelle, this album has gone gold and I’d like to thank you for that!” “Well, I’ll be, I didn’t think that many people even heard these old songs,“ is what she said.

Q: It must be neat for you to see all of what has happened in the music world, it’s got to be rewarding, in a way.
McEuen: It’s definitely interesting. I mean, when the Urban Cowboy thing was happening, they were like, “Oh, country music is over — it’s all disco, it’s all whatever!” And I went, “Just give it a few years, it’s resting.” And then, for sure, the Dirt Band came along and we had “Long Hard Road,” and “Dance Little Jean,” songs I do in the show along with some other favorite Dirt Band songs, and that era of, say, ’77 through ’82 or 3 or something was perfect for the Dirt Band because we went out and found out that we couldn’t play rock and roll (raucous laughter), we tried to but it didn’t work very well. Then we went to Nashville and made several albums and they worked, and that’s where I record now, in fact, I have an album coming out April 12th called The Newsman and I’ve been working on it for over a 10-year period — it’s kind of my hobby.

Q: Which is?
McEuen: Collecting stories to tell, with music behind them. It’s a spoken-word album, now spoken word is often misunderstood: for example, if you say “Devil Went Down to Georgia” most people wouldn’t say ‘spoken word’ but it is — it’s basically spoken word with some singing. Songs like Jerry Reed’s swamp songs and Hank Williams Sr. — he did “Luke the Drifter” which was all spoken word, and I’m doing one of Hank Sr’s songs on this album. It’s a project where the material comes from the Civil War, the Vietnam War, the 30s, the 40s, the 60s and 70s and a couple of recently written pieces. It sounds like a war album but it’s not (laughter), I mean the letter home from the guy in the Civil War is really something to match up to the letter from the guy in the Vietnam battle, they go together somehow, it’s completely different music.

Q: What are some of the other tracks on this album?
McEuen: Well, there’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee”…

Q: Oh, I love that one!
McEuen: So you’re familiar with that. Well, I tested that and I found out that maybe a third or a half of the people our age, in their 70s, know that, they remember that and remember that fondly. Robert Service was so good when he wrote that.


Q: I’m curious, how do you go about picking what you do, you’ve got so much music to draw from, it must be kind of hard to put together a set list.
McEuen: I always try to play songs that I know people are going to like, I draw from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band catalogue doing my favorite Dirt Band’s music; I’ve made six solo albums and I play something off each one of those. I tell the stories behind the music which is more fun, people don’t know how those songs came together, like how did Kenny Loggins fit into the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s history? Well, the same way that Leon Russell and Willie Nelson and Maybelle Carter: they showed up and we talked to ‘em (laughter)! It’s just fun to tell people about the things that I have traversed the world doing.

Q: So what can folks expect from your show in Boothbay?
McEuen: Well, I think they can expect to see some people on stage that are really happy to be playing for them, and it’s a great venue. I’ll be playing my favorite songs from the Dirt Band catalogue and a lot of bluegrass from the Will the Circle Be Unbroken record and that’s going to be fun, it’s really good to go more into that album.

Q: Is there anything, John that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article?
McEuen: Just that it’s going to be a good time to get to Boothbay Harbor because it’s the last date of a two-week run, and that is always the one that has the most energy. Also, if they want to know what this guy is about, they should go to my website: … and that I’ve been doing this, happily, for 55 years — oh, my God: that sounds long (laughter)! And I haven’t been to Maine to play for five years, at least, and I’m really looking forward to it!


Lucky Clark, a 2018 “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award winner, has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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