John McEuen is willing to play the role of proud father, but only so far.
Ask the renowned banjoist, multi-instrumentalist and longtime member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band about his current recording and touring rounds with his sons, guitarists Jonathan and Nathan McEuen, and he will beam — but with a studied, discerning slant. He speaks fondly of their musical abilities and the fun he experiences when making music with them. But the "cute" factor, that kind of blind pride that comes from placing familial ties ahead of artistic ingenuity? Daddy McEuen will have none of that.
"Jonathan and Nathan were first getting onstage with me when they were around 9 or 10," said McEuen, 66, who performs with his family trio in Lexington on Monday for a taping of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. "And even then, I'd only get them up there if they could do something and not just be a bunch of cute kids onstage.
"Of course they were cute. They were damn cute kids. I always resented them for that. I was a dork at their age. When I was 10 or 11 and my parents would move to a new town, I kept trying to figure out why I was getting picked last for sports teams. It was always, 'OK, who gets the new kid?' I just thought, 'Can't you just let me swing the bat and fail first?'"
Such candid and whimsical remembrances are keys — disarming ones — to McEuen's ageless Americana appeal. Since 1966 (save for a 15-year break from 1986 to 2001), he helped animate the extraordinary cross-generational country music of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. As a producer, he won a Grammy in 2010 for helping to raise the banjo profile of one of America's greatest funnymen, Steve Martin, with his album The Crow. And outside of the Dirt Band, McEuen has cultivated numerous Americana inspirations with the multistylistic String Wizards.
But the increasing visibility of work with his sons, which takes a huge step forward with the release of their first album together, The McEuen Sessions: For All the Good, McEuen is returning to his roots while pushing forward — and he's having a blast in the process.
"After all these years, people kept going, 'Why haven't you made an album together?' And the answer is that until right about now, it wasn't time. Nathan is 31. Jonathan is 35. They both have become men of honor and professional talent.
"But I'm not doing this because they are just OK. That wouldn't do me any good. I've been very lucky in that I have received a lot of good reviews on the stuff I do. I wouldn't say it is has been as commercially successful as my music with the Dirt Band. But audiences seem to like it. And top of that, Jonathan, Nathan and I are just having a great time."
In a way, the songs on For All the Good are an extension of the traditional and progressive string-music blend pioneered by the Dirt Band, but with a lighter, more folkish feel. In fact, McEuen purposely chose to highlight that link at the album's onset by covering the Dirt Band's first No. 1 single from 1984, the Rodney Crowell-written Long Hard Road.
"I wanted to touch on the Dirt Band on our new album and spent a lot of time trying to think of the right song. Then it became so obvious. Long Hard Road should be done acoustic and folky. It was our first No. 1 hit. Nobody has recorded it since we did. It hasn't been on the radio in forever. In a lot of ways, it was like being in the Dirt Band during the '70s going, 'Hey, we just found this Buddy Holly song that nobody has ever heard of.'"
McEuen is known primarily as one of Americana music's most skilled and industrious banjo players, but his work with his sons has helped rekindle his playing on guitar, mandolin and occasionally fiddle ("I'm no Kentucky fiddler, but I get by," he says).
Curiously, the California-born McEuen was forging a voice on guitar in his teens until he heard Doug Dillard take up the banjo with The Dillards.
"I started playing the banjo because of The Dillards," McEuen said. "When I first saw them, I was about 17. I went, 'Now, that's what I'm looking for,' because I was really looking for a way to get out of Orange County."
In fact, it was through Dillard that McEuen was introduced to bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin and the crafty banjo ace who was by his side during the '50s and '60s — a young Lexington player by the name of J.D. Crowe.
"How did I find out about J.D. Crowe? Well, one night — and I remember this distinctly — I was hanging out with The Dillards. Doug was walking from his dressing room to the stage and played the entire banjo lick from You Don't Know My Mind," McEuen said, referring to the 1960 single that the Dirt Band would later cover with Jimmy Martin on its landmark 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken. "I had never heard a banjo lead on the four-string like that. I was like, 'What was that? What did you just play?' And Doug said, 'It's J.D. Crowe, man. Go check him out.'
"No question. When you're talking bluegrass banjo, you're talking J.D. Crowe."