John McEuen's latest solo album Made in Brooklyn is both an homage to his longtime group The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a collection of material recorded with musicians he's crossed paths with on the road over the years, always harboring the desire to someday record with them.
A good case in point is soul singer John Cowan, who sang lead vocals in the 1970s and '80s with the great progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival.
"He's been my favorite singer since our first meeting in 1972," says McEuen, who enlisted Cowan to sing on Made in Brooklyn's "She Darked the Sun."
"My friend Bernie Leadon wrote it—with [the Byrds'] Gene Clark—before he was in the Eagles, and I've always thought it was an overlooked classic."
The Made in Brooklyn take, adds McEuen, has "a wonderful guitar solo from David Bromberg that I spent a day trying to figure out—the kind of solo I'd like to learn off somebody's record." McEuen has sat in with Bromberg over the years, but it’s the first time the two have done "a real recording" together.
Like the other performances on Made in Brooklyn—whose stellar participants also include Steve Martin, David Amram, John Carter Cash, Martha Redbone and Jay Ungar—the recording was made the old-fashioned way, for the audiophile label Chesky Records.
"We did it the way I like to record: 'Let's get it right the first time!'" says McEuen, specifying "one take—everybody around one mic at once. Binaural microphones in a dummy head. Then we played it back on headphones and speakers and there was more depth than many recordings mixed to right and left speakers: You hear a bird in a tree, dropping keys on the floor, and the spaces in between--whereas stereo records are mixed so that everything is mixed so it's all 10 feet in front of you. Chesky's developed a way of recording that puts people around the microphone and everybody plays at once, capturing the old-time passion of people as they put a song together. It is a record--what happens in a few moments of time, in the sense of the old use of the word. And I don't think my banjo and guitar ever sounded better!"
He points to "I Rose Up," which puts words from poet William Blake to music composed by him and Redbone. "She split the vocals with Matt [guitar and mandola player Matt Cartsonis] and John Cowan and the outcome is incredible. The song came out like an old hymn in the Flatt and Scruggs tradition, with Martha singing it right out-of-the-park, and with the stellar back-up singers, it felt like we were at a camp meeting two centuries ago."
Other songs, like the late Warren Zevon's classic "Excitable Boy," "I've been wanting to record for many years," says McEuen.
"Matt sings the first part and David Bromberg the next. It seemed to be a new bluegrass murder ballad—instead of just doing the same old ones: There's something in our culture that we need dark things, but here is a dark song with a light approach musically that's ironic and interesting."
"I've felt that Warren Zevon should have greater recognition, and included two of his songs," McEuen adds, the other Zevon composition being "Dirty Life and Times."
"It's the perfect vehicle for banjo frailing [downwards picking with the back of the fingers or nails], but I was planning to play mandolin," says multli-instrumentalist McEuen. "So needing a good banjo player, I called Steve Martin—the first time, I think, that his talents were requested as a musician-only' He came prepared, wrote his own chart, and after a few hours of rehearsal the day before the session, brought new life into the tune. He also came up with the album title."
Cartsonis was Zevon's accompanist the last years of his life and sings "Dirty Life and Times" because Zevon wrote it for him to sing, notes McEuen. Also meriting special mention is "My Favorite Dream," which originated from late songwriting legend Boudleaux Bryant's home tapes.
"I'd been putting the album together for a couple years, talking back and forth with [Chesky president] Norman Chesky, and Del Bryant called and said, 'John, I've got songs my dad made demos on. Would you be interested?' That's like someone calling and saying, 'I have tapes of my grandfather John Lennon!' Boudleaux is one of America's least-known songwriters who wrote some of its best-known songs."
Bryant, often with wife Felice, wrote such hits as "All I Have to Do is Dream" and "Love Hurts" for the Everly Brothers, and the bluegrass standard "Rocky Top." McEuen went through 15 or so of the demos, finally settling on "My Favorite Dream," for which he provided a 1930s-style swing band arrangement featuring jam band Railroad Earth multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling on concert zither and clarinet, Bromberg on guitar, Cartsonis on lead vocal and guitar, and McEuen on banjo.
"The zither is an instrument that nobody plays, and it's one of the tastiest things on the album," says McEuen.
Besides "Excitable Boy," two other covers stand out: Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone," with his son John Carter Cash taking the lead vocal, and "Mr. Bojangles," the Jerry Jeff Walker song that was a 1971 No. 9 pop hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
"I emailed everybody the songs to make their own charts and rehearse independently, and then went into the studio with them and hashed out the arrangements and recorded everything in two 12-hour days," relates McEuen. "I was inspired by [1927 Bristol Sessions producer] Ralph Peer, who went to Bristol, Tennessee, and recorded lots of people in 10 days or so. Some of my favorite recordings I've done in one take—which is a good thing because everybody's energy is up. But here, not only were they first takes, but we couldn’t overdub or fix things: Adding instruments and background things afterwards creates too much of an audio problem—and turns it into some other thing."
The end result, says McEuen, rewards both listening via headphones and "as background music for everyday life"—and offers plenty of sonic variety.
"I've always felt that an album doesn't have to necessarily be hit song-oriented," he notes. "There might be some songs that stand out with radio—like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's [1970 album featuring 'Mr. Bojangles'] Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, which went from guitar-and-vocals to a bluegrass tune to Kenny Loggins' 'House at Pooh Corner' with the full band to Buddy Holly and Stephen Foster. Every three songs sounded like a different kind of album, and Made in Brooklyn also takes you somewhere on a little entertainment journey—which is something I feel that's missing in many recordings--even the Dirt Band's."
Speaking of the Dirt Band, McEuen did some 75 shows with the band last year, and another 40 or so of his own. Last year the band hosted a star-studded PBS special filmed at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium in celebration of its 50th anniversary.
"It was a great capturing of a historic slice of one of America's strangest bands," says McEuen. "We've gone from everything from a jug band to bluegrass to folkie to country to even some pop records--a wide swath of Americana. We played a lot of music in our early years that later became known as Americana but the label didn't exist then--when it might have helped us!"
Meanwhile, McEuen continues his SiriusXM show Acoustic Traveler, named after his 1996 solo album.