Banjo player John McEuen is one of the unheralded giants of American roots music. He was a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, one of the first to blend rock and country in a new way that didn’t even have a name yet in the late 1960s. And he was the instigator of the landmark album Will the Circle Be Unbroken that brought together that band with members of an older generation of Nashville performers to play and sing classic country, hillbilly and bluegrass songs.
Now he gets to helm yet another album on which a generation of roots music players gets together and plays some classic songs. For Made in Brooklyn McEuen brought together a bunch of players that he knew but had never recorded with (on the 40-some albums he’s played on), including extraordinary guitarist David Bromberg, fiddler Jay Ungar, bluegrass singer John Cowan, and more, including Steve Martin on banjo on one number and John Carter Cash on another. McEuen and some of te musicians talk about the project in a video here.
It’s a lovely acoustic ramble through old-time, pop, folk and gospel music. The highlights include:
- A melancholy take on Jerry Jeff Walker’s classic “Mr. Bojangles,” which was the Dirt Band’s first hit. Part of the story here is that Bromberg introduced the song to the Dirt Band; part of the story is included in a spoken-word track at the end of the album. It’s got great solos throughout, including one on clarinet from Andy Goessling and one on whistle from the 85-year-old David Amram, and vocals by, I think, Bromberg and Matt Cartsonis.
- A stunning gospel song with everybody singing along , called “I Rose Up” with Martha Redbone on lead vocals.
- The beautiful “Acoustic Traveler” theme from McEuen’s satellite radio show of the same name, with some great picking by Bromberg and chilling arco bass from Skip Ward.
- A knockout version of McEuen’s banjo classic “Miner’s Night Out.”
There’s more, including McEuen’s gypsy tango “Jule’s Theme.” We previewed the bluegrass cover of Warren Zevon’s “Excitable Boy” here a few weeks ago. The album has another Zevon cover, “My Dirty Life And Times,” led here by Cartsonis, a former member of Zevon’s touring band. Other covers include Earl Scruggs’ “Blue Ridge Cabin Home,” Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and “She Darked The Sun” by proto-Americana pioneers Bernie Leadon and Gene Clark.
This recording was made to listen to with good headphones. All the songs were recorded live with no overdubs in a Brooklyn church, the musicians and singers circled around a patented Chesky “Binaural +” microphone setup meant to mimic the human ears’ listening experience. It really does sound amazing and immediate on a good set of cans! But what you mostly notice is the joyful sound of a bunch of seasoned pros taking on a set of solid, durable classics of the American roots canon.