John McEuen was born in Oakland, California. After seeing the Dillards perform in 1964, he began playing banjo when he was 17 years old. Eventually, he took an interest in fiddle and mandolin. In 1986, after twenty years with the Dirt Band, McEuen departed to pursue a solo career. From 1991-1997, he released four albums for Vanguard Records. He composed music for movies and television and he appeared as a guest on albums with several artists including 5 albums with Michael Martin Murphey. He then returned to the Dirt Band in 2001. John departed the band once again in late 2017.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s roots came from three diverse places. One was the duo formed by two high school friends, Jeff Hanna (guitar/vocals/washboard) and Bruce Kunkel (guitar/vocals/sax/kazoo) during the early 1960s in southern California, The New Coast Two, bringing in the ‘folk’ aspect. Jimmie Fadden brought the ‘blues’ contribution with his harmonica while Les Thompson and John McEuen (Les called his previous band mate from their first group, Willmore City Moonshiners) brought in the ‘bluegrass’ and Appalachian side. During these formative years (guitarist/singer Ralph Barr was included in the early line-up), they formed the folk-rock-country group the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1966. John got his brother Bill to manage, and their career got under way. In February 1967, the band released its first album, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, on Liberty Records, with a minor hit – “Buy for Me the Rain”.
With no hits from their next three albums, they auditioned for and landed the job of musical miners in Paramount Pictures Paint Your Wagon (with Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood). Four months on the set caused the group to disband, initiated by Jeff Hanna. Six months later Jeff and John were watching POGO (later to be called POCO) and said to each other Let’s get the band back together, which led to Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy, with William E. McEuen now producing. Charlie included their cover version of Mr. Bojangles, by Jerry Jeff Walker, House at Pooh Corner, by Kenny Loggins and Some of Shelly’s Blues by Mike Nesmith, three chart hits from the one album.
After having met in 1970 at an NGDB concert at Nashville’s Vanderbuilt University, John asked banjoist and new friend Earl Scruggs if he would record with the band in June 1971. (Earl’s son Gary had suggested to his father they not go to the Grand Ole Opry that night, but the concert instead). A week later he asked Doc Watson the same question – both enthusiastically said yes. Bill and John McEuen suggested the band go to Nashville to record, which they did 8 weeks after that question, with the idea of recording acoustic traditional bluegrass and country music, different from the electric folk-rock they had been playing in Long Beach, California. And, honoring a part of Nashville they all felt was being overlooked, the result was a triple album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972), that featured guest appearances by country musicians Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, and Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Vassar Clements, Jimmy Martin, and Bashful Brother Oswald. The album received critical and popular praise, was certified gold, later platinum. It is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress. In 1977, they toured the former Soviet Union, the first American band to do so. They did 28 sold-out shows on that trip, and a television show that played to 130,000,000 viewers!
John McEuen has known Steve Martin since high school, when he would give Martin occasional lessons on the banjo. In 1978, he was asked by Martin to provide the backing band for a comic, novelty song called King Tut. With Martin on vocals, the Dirt Band recorded the song under the alias the Toot Uncommons.
John McEuen produced and played on Martin’s album The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo (Rounder, 2009). The album was #1 for 7 months and won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album.
McEuen published an autobiography in 2018 titled The Life I’ve Picked – A Banjo Player’s Nitty Gritty Journey.
Some of the artists McEuen has performed or recorded with include: David Bromberg, Dolly Parton, Steve Martin, Willie Nelson, Bill Wyman, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, June Carter, Jerry Garcia, Phish, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kevin Nealon, Les Dudek, Alison Krauss, Jackson Browne, Bill Cosby, Stephen Wright, Tommy Lee Jones, Sissy Spacek, Linda Ronstadt, Eric Andersen, Leon Russell, Little Richard, Maybelle Carter, Levon Helm, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Kenny Rogers, Steve Vai, Doc Watson, Jimmy Buffett, The Smothers Brothers, Rowan & Martin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Alan Arkin, Bobby Sherman, Deanna Carter, Jose Feliciano, Allman Brothers, John Denver, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Jack Benny, Glen Campbell, Steve Goodman, Waylon Jennings, Robin Williams, Little River Band, The Band, Marshall Tucker Band, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Doobie Brothers, Andy Williams, Merle Travis, Vassar Clements, Dizzy Gillespie, The Osmond Brothers, Everly Brothers, Crystal Gayle, Gary Morris, Doug Kershaw, Michael Martin Murphey, The Doors, Donovan, Lee Marvin, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, David Amram, Arlo Guthrie, America, Bill Monroe, Asleep at the Wheel, Aerosmith, Chris Thile, Mark O’Connor, Lyle Lovett, Gary Busey, Tom Petty, The Great Gonzo (Muppet), Paul Williams (songwriter) … and others.