The last thing John McEuen expected at this stage in his career was a surprise radio hit. But his “I’ll Be Glad When They Run Out of Gas,” a comic swipe at high gas prices, is gaining airplay and strong listener requests on maverick radio stations across the country. Of course, after 40 years as a touring musician—he was a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1966—McEuen realizes he shouldn’t be surprised by anything.
Throughout his career, he’s produced records, taught a young Steve Martin how to play banjo, launched South Dakota’s annual Deadwood Jam and scored several movies and TV shows, including the 10-hour mini-series The Wild West.
He’ll reach another career landmark when he and his son Jonathan McEuen perform at the Station Inn on Thursday, June 15. “I’m looking forward to that show probably more than almost anything I’ve done in the last two years,” he says. “The Station Inn is like the Grand Ole Opry of the acoustic underground. Everybody there knows their stuff!”
He also appears on the Opry this weekend with his son, who has a current country album out as part of the duo Hanna-McEuen.
Scene:Your “Gas” song is a bonus cut on a 2005 re-release of a live album recorded in the late ’90s. You must be glad you tacked it on there.
John McEuen: I thought it brought some comic relief to the situation. I exist under the radar these days, so I never expected anyone to pick up on it. It’s always exciting to get a song on the radio, and it reminds me that anything is possible. The Dirt Band backed Steve Martin on the song “King Tut,” and the record label didn’t want to put it out as a single. They thought it was a goofy novelty song and didn’t think it would do anything. It sold a million-and-a-half records.
Scene: You were friends with Martin in high school. Are you still in touch?
JM:Sure. I saw him on New Year’s Eve, and he’s still playing the banjo. He’s been been practicing and playing more the last few years, and you can tell.
Scene: The banjo’s enjoyed a comeback lately. You hear it on country hits, and on rock and pop songs too.
JM:It’s always been a popular instrument; you just hear it more on radio now. That’s encouraging to an old picker like me. I especially like the way the Keith Urban is using it on his songs. And the Dixie Chicks, too. I love them.
Scene:The Dirt Band will always be famous for the first Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, where the band recorded with a lot of aging mountain music legends. But it took the old-timers a while to accept a bunch of longhaired musicians. How have things in Nashville changed since then?
JM:In some ways Nashville is more accepting than it used to be. But in other ways, it’s a lot tougher, especially because there’s so few major labels now and the rosters are so small and concentrated. But I think the city’s musicians are more accepting of outsiders, and more interested in mixing it up. There’s been a lot of cross-pollination since then. I have a lot of old L.A. friends who live and work in Nashville now. So in that way it’s changed a lot.
Scene:You also have a show on the satellite radio station XM called Acoustic Traveler. Is satellite radio having any impact?
JM: I think it’s already having a great impact. [Guitarist] Leo Kottke is selling more records now than he has in years, and the only place he’s getting airplay is on satellite radio. I think it’s a place for discerning listeners to go, and in that way it’s a lot like HBO and what it did for television. It ups the quality and gives you a broader spectrum of choices. It reminds me of the old FM radio of the ’60s and ’70s, when you’d hear Joan Baez, then Led Zeppelin. I think it’s the future of radio.