Acoustic Music Legend John McEuen Talks Dirt Band, Hip-Hop, and His New Spoken-Word Album

John McEuen photographed at the Gibson Guitar Showroom in New York City on May 17, 2016.

Into nearly his sixth decade as one of the architects and founding fathers of popular Americana, John McEuen was an original member of California’s Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a group which made history with the recording of 1972’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken album at East Nashville’s Woodland Studios. McEuen left the Dirt Band in 2017, but not before helping the band provide the world with some classic tunes, everything from (Jerry Jeff Walker’s) “Mr. Bojangles” to the top 10 hit “Dance Little Jean.”

McEuen’s been staying busy with movie soundtracks and other projects, and has now taken a sharp turn, though maybe not that sharp, with his new album, The Newsman: A Man Of Record, a spoken-word recording inspired by the diverse works of such artists and poets as Hank Williams (as Luke the Drifter), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Carter Cash and others. Speaking by phone from his home in Williamson County, McEuen discussed how the new album came about.

“Over a 10-year period I started putting this album together,” he said. “I find that people aren’t as familiar with things I would expect them to maybe be, like (Scottish-Canadian poet and writer Robert Service’s) ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee,’ only a third of the people I asked were familiar with it, maybe a quarter. And (movie and TV star Walter Brennan’s) ‘Old Rivers,’ I don’t think anyone remembered that. But to people who are familiar, they like hearing it again.”

McEuen recorded the project at various locations over the years, and played most of the string instruments and produced most of it himself, with the exception of the smokin’ fiddle by Mark O’Connor on Hank Williams’ “Fly Trouble,” which was produced with some assistance from Music Row legend Paul Worley (Lady Antebellum, Big & Rich).

“Spoken word has always been around,” McEuen said. “Like with the Hank Williams thing from 1948, or Arlo Guthrie with ‘Alice’s Restaurant,’ or (the Robert Preston movie) ‘Music Man’ – ‘Trouble right here in River City!’ – or (Charlie Daniels’) ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia,’ ‘A Boy Named Sue’ by Johnny Cash…oh, and ’King Tut,’ it was the Dirt Band that played the music for ‘King Tut.’”

When The Newsman: A Man Of Record was in the planning stages, McEuen needed a label to handle it, and he went with Nashville’s Compass Records, known for its eclectic roster of primarily acoustic acts. “I didn’t do this with them in mind until the last year or two,” he said. “I realized that, out of all the labels in Nashville, the one that would give this the most attention and handle it right was Compass Records. I know other people who are on the label, and I know the owners, (banjoist) Alison Brown and (bassist) Garry West, and I trust them. They’re a good boutique label.”

He agrees that today’s hip-hop can be compared to spoken-word music. “Hip-hop and rap and all that, it’s not all bad,” he said. “Pusha T, he’s a good rap guy, he has good messages. I can’t listen to it for too long because it’s just not in my wheelhouse or whatever, but it’s good stuff.”

McEuen had known since he was a boy that he wanted to do something more with his life than most people, but just didn’t know what it would be. “I got a job when I was 16 in a magic shop for three years,” he said, talking about how he first met magician-turned-Hollywood icon (and banjo player) Steve Martin. “But I started practicing my autograph in high school. I thought I might need to do it someday. I didn’t know what I was gonna do, but I wanted to do something. I wanted to be something. I didn’t know I was gonna be in America’s first band to go to Russia. That was really neat.”

Check out McEuen’s never-ending musical adventures at

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