Grammy-Award Winning String Wizard, producer, and songwriter John McEuen possesses a keen knack for multitasking. He’s both a renowned picker and anthropological force in roots music. His biweekly syndicated Sirius XM Radio Program; Acoustic Traveler has further uncovered his pursuit of tracing the origins of country, blues, folk, and bluegrass. He rose to prominence as a member of the treasured Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. As a primary songwriter, skilled banjoman (and multiple other stringed instruments), and co-vocalist, McEuen and The Dirt Band were among the first to achieve mainstream success fusing elements of folk and country with the raw sound of rock’n’roll music. The Southern California band are unanimously viewed as pivotal in the progression of country music and its palpability in an evolving electrified Americana.
The most fascinating intersection in The Dirt Band’s story was their collaborative album Will The Circle Be Unbroken? (1972), featuring giants of country and folk such as Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements, Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin, and others. That vital partnership in the country music world continues to garner praise to this day as one of the most important albums in the history of the genre. Read more about the classic album and McEuen’s history with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in Grateful Web’s lengthy interview earlier this year. The “Circle” album garnered two sequels aptly titled “Volume 2” (1989) and “Volume III” (2002). To the joy of McEuen’s vast admirers, the unofficial forth installment in the “Circle” album tradition arrived in late September with Made In Brooklyn. The concept is an unconventional take on semi-impromptu live-studio magic where likeminded country/roots greats get together and break it down. The production tradition of the musicians gathering in a circle around one mic to record was preserved and the results are solidified on this masterful sixteen track collection featuring the “best of the best.”
John McEuen’s sixth solo album is a career-spanning retrospective of renewed classic arrangements and cherished contemporary originals. The stunning cast of players included David Amram, David Bromberg, Matt Cartsonis, John Carter Cash, John Cowan, Andy Goessling, Steve Martin, Martha Redbone, Jay Ungar, and Skip Ward. Recorded and released thru Chesky Records as part of their Binaural + Series, McEuen and company utilized the acoustics of an old church in Brooklyn, New York to capture the best sound possible in the circle mic recording configuration. The results are stunning and the surroundings perfectly encapsulated what is already being regarded as a pivotal follow-up to those cornerstone “Circle” albums of the Dirt Band. “Brooklyn Crossing” is an appropriate beginning to an experimentally rooted album, exploring unlikely D-minor guitar tunings. The assured fiddle leads of Ungar flowed beautifully with elder Amram’s picking.
The album’s ethos of exploring unlikely classics in the bluegrass vernacular begins with a boisterous cover of Warren Zevon’s “Dirty Life and Times.” Steve Martin’s banjo playing is a highlight as is Matt Cartsonis' strong lead vocals. It was during this tune that it occurred to Martin, “This album should be called Made In Brooklyn!” He proclaimed and then it was. John Cowan executes “She Darked The Son,” (an overlooked country classic and favorite of McEuen’s,) dashingly on lead vocals. Cowan’s pipes first became recognized in the revolutionary progressive country group New Grass Revival. “Miner’s Night Out,” a McEuen original composition, dates back to 1980 written on a tour bus driving through Colorado, imagining what the miners a hundred years earlier might have perhaps picked during the Gold Rush in Colorado. The marching snare hits of Kevin Twigg brashly meet Andy Goessling’s (of Railroad Earth) clarinet before charging forward alongside McEuen’s fiddle. The down-and-dirty Warren Zevon classic “Excitable Boy” is given a campy “grassified” adaptation. “My Favorite Dream,” opens with a stunning zither serenade from Goessling again, which unfolds into a classic 1940’s style lament. John Carter Cash and his wife Ana take the lead on “I Still Miss Someone,” which would surely receive a standing ovation at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
In the straightforward bluegrass realm, McEuen leads with his signature banjo on the Lester Flatt/Earl Scruggs classic “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.” The McEuen classic, “Acoustic Traveler” is reworked in a fascinatingly unusual instrumentation including an alto sax, penny whistle and mandola. Still the instrumental unfolds organically, indeed a mesmerizing take on the original. Perhaps McEuen’s most beloved song “Mr. Bojangles,” (popularized with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band,) is led by the virtuosic David Bromberg. The two first met John at a coffee house in Philly around 1970. This weight of this nostalgia is honored as the year of the hit “Mr. Bojangles” and John meeting David. It’s a deeply evocative moment on the album and indeed the entire “Circle” series. “The Mountain Whippoorwill,” a longtime staple of McEuen’s performances, is undoubtedly a tribute to the great fiddler Vassar Clements, a key player on the original Will The Circle Be Unbroken, album.
Made In Brooklyn is the essential next chapter in the “Circle” series and a wonderful standalone collection alike. The ensemble of virtuosic talents that accompany McEuen is testament to his reverence in American music. It’s a must-own for any fan of John’s, The Dirt Band, country, folk, bluegrass or Warren Zevon. The selection and execution is demonstration of McEuen’s adventurous musical spirit, the continuing journey an acoustic traveler.