RAMBLIN' ROUND: John McEuen: Hot pickin' at The Ice House

JAMES BEATY | FILE PHOTOMcKay 'Mackey' Eales, son of the late Oklahoma Highway Patrolman Rocky Eales, reaches for musician John McEuen's beard as the boy's mother, Kelli, and his sister Allison, watch in this 1999 file photo. Proceeds from McEuen's October 1999 show at The Ice House were donated to the Eales family.

Musical artists who performed in McAlester 20 years ago during the city’s 1999 Centennial Celebration included the celebrated musician John McEuen — a virtuoso on the fiddle, guitar and banjo.

McEuen is well-known as the multi-instrumentalist for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the group with which he played all three of the aforementioned instruments. I first heard him playing on the group’s hit recording of “Mr. Bojangles” — the band’s version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s celebrated song.

The song reached the Top Ten on the record charts — peaking at the number 9 position. Even so, it entered the rare echelon of songs that become a bonafide classic. Even though everyone from John Denver and Neil Diamond, to Bob Dylan and Tom T. Hall — as well as Jerry Jeff himself — has recorded the song, it’s the version by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band that most people remember.

Back before concerts became the huge industry they are today, I traveled to Oklahoma City for an outdoor concert on a football field featuring three acts. The first two alone would have sold me — Jerry Jeff Walker, the writer of “Mr. Bojangles,” was billed alongside the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Wow! A chance to see Jerry Jeff, already part of the Waylon and Willie and the boys pantheon, with the band that recorded his song “Mr. Bojangles.”

Jerry Jeff — riding high on his “Viva Terlingua!” breakthrough album with his celebrated “Lost Gonzo Band” album, recorded in Luckenbach, Texas, long before the Waylon Jennings recording celebrating the small Texas town made it a household word — was a major draw in his own right at the time, at least in Texas and Oklahoma.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, in addition to having the band’s hit records, had also won respect for the group’s musicianship — with a major portion of it coming due to John McEuen’s multi-instrument prowess.

Oh yes ‚ the third act on the bill was none other than John Hartford, another celebrated fiddler and banjo player, who had written Glen Campbell’s enduring “Gentle On My Mind.”

With the sun beating down, Jerry Jeff decided to beat the heat in his own inimitable way. He appeared onstage for his entire performance wearing only a bathing suit and cowboy boots, with a huge Stetson atop his head — it’s an onstage getup I’ve never seen replicated anywhere else!

Jerry Jeff tore through a set that included the best of “Viva Terlingua!” — including Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother”, along with Guy Clark’s immortal “Desperado’s Waiting for a Train” and Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues.”

Both John Hartford and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band played outstanding sets — but the highlight for me came when Hartford returned to the stage, fiddle in hand, to join the Dirt Band for a few songs.

With John McEuen standing on one side of the stage and John Hartford on the other, the band tore into a furious version of “Diggy Liggy Lo,” the Cajun country song popularized by the singing fiddler Doug Kershaw.

Both McEuen and Hartford kicked into overdrive. With McEuen playing from one side of stage and Hartford from the other, we heard “Diggy Liggy Lo” in fiddle stereo! When it came time for the Nitty Gritty Dirt band’s singers to run trough the verses, the fiddlers moved to the rear of the stage — but when it came time for the fiddle breaks, they practically ran to the front, leaning down toward the audience and occasionally turning to face each other – each inspiring the other to new heights.

Wow! It’s still one of the greatest musical performances I’ve seen.

Which goes to show that when I heard in 1999 John McEuen would be coming to perform at The Ice House in McAlester as part of the city’s Centennial Celebration, I was stoked. At the time, he had left the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — which had removed the Nitty Gritty and was performing simply as the Dirt Band.

Not long before John McEuen was scheduled to perform in McAlester, Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Rocky Eales was gunned down while helping the OHP Tactical Team conduct a drug raid near Sallisaw. Ice House owner Chris Clark decided to make John McEuen’s McAlester concert a benefit performance for Rocky Eales’ wife and two small children.

Remembering what a virtuoso musician McEuen is, I looked forward to the McAlester concert — and he did not disappoint. While I was already well-aware of his virtuosity on fiddle and banjo, I had not previously heard him play much guitar.

Before Hank Williams Sr. recorded the classic songs for which he’s so well known, he had some lesser hits, including one called “Fly Trouble.” Different from many of his later classics, the bouncy song featured an almost jazz-like electric guitar solo,

During John McEuen’s Ice House performance, I was amazed to see him pull out an acoustic guitar and launch into “Fly Trouble.” His hands moved up and down the frets in a flash, zinging out notes so fast they emulated a buzzing fly.

McEuen opened the concert standing alone with a banjo, playing “The Ballad of Jed Clampett. He later had John Baumert and the Panhandlers join him onstage for a fiery version of “Orange Blossom Special.” He seemed surprised when couples took to the dance floor when he began “Mr. Bojangles.”

After the concert, I spoke with McEuen and told him how impressive his agile guitar picking sounded on “Fly Trouble.” I then learned that John McEuen is a very humble man — when he referenced the number of notes on a musical scale.

“There’s only seven notes,” he said. True John, but it’s what you do with those seven notes that makes all the difference.

I mentioned that McEuen had left the Nitty Ditty Gritty Dirt Band to go out on his own, and around the same time, the group began performing and recording simply as the Dirt Band. Later, in 2001, he reunited with the Dirt Band and eventually the group began once again using its original name of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

I guess the other band members could bring the Dirt on their own, but it took John McEuen to provide the Nitty Gritty.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com

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