Interview

John McEuen on Made in Brooklyn-Another Circle Unbroken

John McEuen, c0-founding member of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, talks about the creation of another Americana milestone
John McCuen can't hide the glee in his voice as he talks about his new album, Made in Brooklyn,. Recorded live with one microphone in an Orthodox church in New York City, the album reflects the same musical energy and inspiration that has made Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's finest work spontaneous, timeless masterpieces.

Indeed, the album is this year's juiciest slice of Americana music. Just as Will the Circle Be Unbroken and Uncle Charlie and his Dog Teddy, added new dimensions to the tradition of great American string-band music, this album forges new creative and technical ground in the simplest, most unsuspecting and spontaneous way--from within a great room, with fine songs, and a gathering of gifted friends performing before one microphone. Made in Brooklyn is a wonderful, musical movable feast.

Among the friends of McEuen who turn up for this banquet are acoustic guitar wizard, David Bromberg, Steve Martin-banjo in hand, who inspired the album's name- David Amram-who plays penny whistle, flute and percussion, New Grass Revival's vocalist, John Cowan, songstress-Martha Redbone, fiddle great, Jay Ungar, John Carter Cash, Skip Ward on bass, Railroad Earth's Andy Goessling.  

But front and center, is long-time friend and road warrior, Matt Cartsonis, who handles lead vocals, guitar, mandolin and a share in many of the creative ideas that made the sessions happen.

In a recent interview, McEuen talked about the formation and making of this unique, historic album.

I think this is one of the best albums of the year.

Can I hear you say that again, did you say one of the best albums of the year? Thank you.  My idea was this, let's get some of my friends together, ages 50 to 85, who don't know each other, but are kindred souls, and record a bunch of songs that go from the 1800s to 2015 and let's see what happens! And, let's do it in two days with one microphone.

But, wasn't that a particular kind of mic you used? And you even had a name for it.

(Laughs) Yes. Its name is 'Lars.' It is a special binaural microphone. It catches everything. You can hear a pin drop on the ground. You can hear a bird up in a tree. And, it puts you in the middle with a surround feeling to it.

You used some great veteran musicians for the sessions.

 The thing I'm glad about with this album is that Matt Cartsonis finally has a platform that will get his talent out there for everyone to hear.  He is one of the most unknown under-appreciated talents I know. He was worried about playing with David Bromberg because he grew up learning to play guitar to his records. He was worried he couldn't hold his own. I said, "Listen Matt, you ARE one of these people. It's just that nobody knows it.

Matt once worked with Warren Zevon.

Yes, he did. He told me that Warren Zevon wrote "My Dirty Life and Times" with him in mind-to help highlight his talents. So, we had to record it. We asked Steve Martin to play the banjo. I think it's the first time Steve has ever been called to just be a musician on a session. He is where the title of the album came from. Steve suggested it. Made in Brooklyn. I couldn't get it out of my head. It's good because it takes it out of the bluegrass world. Some of the material isn't bluegrass. So that worked well.

In bringing these musicians together, there is a sense of community formed that is similar to the musical family feel of Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

 You may quote yourself on that. I agree. Everyone had similar sensibilities.  I don't know how to put this into print, but there were no assholes present at the sessions. 

 I'll quote YOU on that.

It was a group of cooperative people wanting to hear what I wanted to have done and contributing ideas that support that.  An example is Jay Unger suggested I play second fiddle. I said, "Jay, I can't play next to you, you're too good."  He said, "don't be silly."  It was just a very friendly attitude of what will serve the material best putting egos aside. Rather than worrying about who the lead singer was on a given song, we all just said, "let's make a good record."

That must have felt really good as an artist and an orchestrator of this gathering.

I felt like we were in Bristol, Tennessee in 1927. I say that because I know that story. I stayed at Maybelle Carter's house and traveled the same road to Bristol that they did in 1927. I saw the place where Ralph used one microphone to record all kinds of people coming through. I felt like we were making an actual record of an event.

This was a marriage between the modern and the vintage, using innovative technology coming from this one microphone.

You can pick up that feeling? Good.  I haven't heard this much passion at one time since the "Circle" album. I like to record like this way. I made an album called String Wizards in two days. The process is more intense and scarier.

Creatively dangerous but the payoffs are high.

You get to the point where you're working something up and if you know it, you know it and if you know and you play it three more times you might not know it as well. If you already know it and you're happy with what you know, then play it with focus and attention and the edge of almost not knowing.

How did the project begin?  

Norm Chesky at Chesky Records offered to make the album. He listened to the ideas I had and he thought it was perfect for what he likes to do. It fit with his record label's' system of recording. It was the most effortless recording session I've ever experienced. We didn't have to worry about the technical side of recording. Nobody had headphones. If somebody was playing the lead solo and you couldn’t hear him, you're probably playing too loud. That was the formula. That one mic hears what you are hearing as you play. There's no mixing after the fact and no compression. It just full and musically real.  

How did you decide on this church for the recording?

David Chesky, Norm's brother, decided on the venue. Chesky records is known for this. The engineer friends I usually work with heard that I was doing the show with Chesky and they asked how I managed to get the opportunity. They're known for that kind of quality.

Let's talk about the technical side of this album. It has a kind of circular dimension that's different from most live-in-studio roots music recordings.

The music comes at you from all directions. From behind, off to the side, like you can pick the music out of the air. I believe even if you don't like this kind of music, you'll like the recording.

There's this balance between raw, spontaneous recording and pristine technically produced sound.

I think record buyers have been under served by the over use of technology. This feels like we got it right. I know I keep going back to it, but it just feels like we were in Bristol with the Carter Family.

It also has such a variety of songs.

I love that we have those Warren Zevon songs and then, we have "I Rise Up" a gospel song with Martha Redbone singing that has lyrics from the 1800s by William Blake. I look back on what's been successful. Uncle Charlie was the same kind of album. It went from a bluegrass song to a singer with one guitar like Randy Newman's "Living without You," then on to a country-rock blast like "Yukon Railroad" with a full band. If you didn't find one song you liked, you would find another.

One of the things that's always been true of The Dirt Band including Uncle Charlie, is how they've championed the singer-songwriter. What drove the choice of Warren Zevon's "Excitable Boy?" 

When Matt and I decided to do "Dirty Life & Times," the label manager was a Zevon fan. With "Excitable Boy, Matt had wanted to do it for a couple of years, but he thought the lyrics were too dark. It occurred to me the album needed a bluegrass murder song on it. There's a shortage of new bluegrass murder ballads. People are really attracted to them. Look at Game of Thrones where they kill the king's son and serve him as soup!  I thought taking this song, with these dark lyrics arranged with a banjo and happy-go-lucky background vocals, would be the perfect mixture. Matt does a great job setting the story up on the first verses, then David Bromberg comes in as if he was the character. It was funny. Matt told David that he was perfect for it. David asked if he really thought so and his wife, Nancy,-who hated the lyrics-chimed in, "Yes honey. I'm afraid so." Then, she ended up helping arrange and sing the background vocals.

Tell me about the song, "My Favorite Dream?"

I got a call from Felice and Boudleaux Bryant's son. He had tapes of never-before-heard songs that his dad had made and asked if I wanted to hear them. Without missing a heartbeat, I said yes. Matt and I were going over these songs and "My Favorite Dream" came up. It sounded like it could have been a hit from the 1930s.

 It has that Stardust kind of feel to it.

It wasn't my favorite at first, but as time passed I couldn't get it out of my head.  Andy Goessling, who plays for the jam band, Railroad Earth, suggested a zither. So, we had Skip Ward on bass and Jay Unger on fiddle. We added a Dixieland feel to it and there we are, it's just like you're sitting in with a band on Bourbon Street.  I was the orchestrator and here's how I did it: I pointed to each musician and they did the rest.

 "I Still Miss Someone" is a really special moment on the album.

It has a Cash feel to it with John Carter singing lead. I'm really happy about my solo on that song.  I worked on it for three days. I used the capo up as high as I could go. I put it down with John Carter next to me. I told him, 'you made that your song.'   What's funny to me is that a lot of these songs have a certain feel. One is bluesy, one is Celtic, but when John Carter plays "I Still Miss Someone," it sounds like it could have come from the "Circle" album. There is a real sense of Johnny Cash in the recording. Some Nashville record producer would say that it's kind of loose. But, Roy Acuff would have said, 'now that's a fine record.'

Why did you decide to re-visit "Mr. Bojangles?"

We had gone through two days of recording. We were at about the eleventh hour of the second day. Matt asked how David Bromberg and I met. I told him the story. It was before "Bojangles" had come out. David was playing with Jerry Jeff Walker at a coffee house in Philadelphia. I made sure I got there after one of our shows, but I was too late. The show was over. I went backstage and Jerry Jeff was passed out on the floor. It was what Jerry Jeff used to call a 'Wild Turkey Night.' David played his version of "Bojangles" for us. It was a real sensitive, folk version of the song. He was known for it on the east coast.  As I told the story, David said he had a solo for the song that was never recorded. I looked over at Matt and asked, "Can you play David's version of "Bojangles?"  Matt grinned and said, "I cut my teeth on it. That's how I learned to play guitar."    We ran through the first part of the song and I stopped and said into the microphone, "we're going do "Bojangles" in about a minute, so be ready." They started rolling, I just looked around at whoever's turn it was to do a solo or back up.   I'm very proud of the hit version by The Dirt Band, that's why we're in the Grammy Hall of Fame. But, this is how I pitched it to the band back then. It's like the difference between the two versions of "Layla." There's nothing wrong with a different reading of a great song. Like when we did the bluegrass version of "Get Back."

So did David record the solo?

Yes. I had Matt sing the last two verses so David could play more back up and get ready for the solo. It was like we were sitting around the kitchen, talking about a song that everybody likes and somebody would say, 'let's play that one!'  It has that 'sit around the kitchen' feeling to it and its fine. 

Any final thoughts about the making of this record now that it's done and ready for release?

It feels to me like the way it felt when we made Uncle Charlie and Will the Circle Be Unbroken. And that happened because we were a kind of family. It is the same with this record. Everyone was willing to go with me and support my ideas. It's the way I love to make records. I would love to go back there again.

 

 

 

Terry...amazing read...unbelievable access to the making of a record by one of the great artists...crazy good...

Thank you, Jim. He was so cool and, as you can probably tell, very happy about this new album.

Really interesting Terry, a lovely read. Now I'm looking forward to hearing this record..

Very nice piece, Terry. When I saw John in July (NGDB was opening for Kenny Rogers), he was so excited about this album and the chance to move in his own direction. Some great music here, too.