Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Grittier Half 

McEuen and Ibbotson play Smokebrush

When John McEuen performed in Colorado Springs at the little- known Western Jubilee Warehouse last year, the show was equal parts musical autobiography, campfire sing-along and multi-instrumental, guitar-pickin' vaudeville act.

Vaudeville, folk style, that is.

McEuen wove his personal experiences -- working with Tommy Lee Jones on a documentary project in Texas, his years with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band -- into a flowing and often hilarious musical narrative.

Add to this mix another Coloradan, Jimmy Ibbotson, who has remained with the Dirt Band, but has continued a solo performing and recording career as well.

"A hippie from Philly," McEuen jokingly referred to him, "who had a hit about a dead dog" (among many others), then moved to Aspen, where he lives on a mountain, next door to Hunter S. Thompson.

This weekend's reunion engagement at the Smokebrush Center for Arts and Theater -- the first leg of a mini, national reunion tour -- should be like McEuen's Warehouse show last year to the tenth power.

A master of guitar and banjo, McEuen also picks a storm on mandolin and fiddles a lot like that kid from up the holler when he has a mind to. As for Ibbotson, he's not only a wacky guy who writes a column for local Aspen paper and cracks up audiences with his hilarious ravings -- he's an accomplished songwriter and singer whose pen and voice were responsible for many of the Dirt Band's hits.

The Indy caught up with McEuen last week, to talk about the upcoming show.

I: This is the first time you two have toured together in a long time.

JM: Jimmy and I have always played together a few times a year, just the two of us, whether we were in the Dirt Band or whatever. Last year, we must have done a dozen shows together and it was too much fun. He basically left the group last October so we could work together. We've got about 40 dates on the calendar right now.

I: What's it like playing with him, given your very animated kind of performance approach?

JM: It's like two people being one person. It's like he can change songs in the middle of the lyric because it fits good there, and he doesn't have to ask or tell. It's the same thing with me. It's like a combination of the Dirt Band, the Grateful Dead and the Smothers Brothers.

I: You're almost like a one-man band on stage: there's a real theatrical aspect.

JM: One thing both Jim and I try to do onstage is take people to a different space, as opposed to somebody just sitting there playing a bunch of songs. There's more to playing live than just playing the songs. It's good to take people into a window of your own life, or a reflection of their life. That's an important part of performing, you want people to feel like, "Oh no, they're done! We don't want this to be over. It was better here!"

I: In addition to the old Dirt Band hits, will you be playing some new stuff?

JM: There's a little of both. I have a new CD that's number 12 on the bluegrass charts. It's called Round Trip (available at www.chromerecords.com). Some of my new instrumental music on the guitar revolves around unusual tunings. Some are examples of things I've done for various film scores.

Jim does this song of his called "It's Morning," about waking up in the morning in Costa Rica. It's just a beautiful song.

I: Did Jimmy have trouble getting some of these songs recorded by the Dirt Band?

JM: Jimmy had the same problem that anybody in the group had. When you're making an album that's going to have ten songs on it, everybody gets paranoid after a while about which ten that should be. One of the reasons I left is that they didn't want to record any of my new music any more. Some of his songs supposedly haven't "fit." But it would have been better for the group to expose their own inside point of view on the music than of some Nashville songwriters.

I: I don't necessarily want to focus too much on the past but...

JM: Oh I don't mind. It was a great part of my life. It's a continuing part of my life. Now, it's the kind of thing that, ya know, I opened for them a few times, I've recorded with them, I did a TV show. What is it that people say, "ever since we got divorced, we get along great." That's how it is. We get along great now.

Especially I get along with Jim. He and I were always the two who stayed after the concert and hung out in the dressing room and played for an hour, or stayed up in the back of the bus playing until four o'clock in the morning, or played a little longer in the sound check.

I: Jimmy's got an interesting mind. I was reading some of his columns. It's a pretty funny, crazy column ...

JM: Imagine yourself growing up in Philadelphia, ending up in a hippie-country-rock band and having a huge hit about a dead dog. Then throw into that mix having Hunter S. Thompson as your neighbor.

I: I would think that would have an influence ... were those two destined to meet?

JM: I think probably so. I think Jim is one of those under-recognized Colorado artists. He did "Colorado Christmas," which gets played every year. "Ripplin' Waters" was a Dirt Band staple and was recorded by John Denver, "Dance Little Jean" was written in Colorado. "Telluride" is a cool tune about driving the road to Telluride.

I: During your last gig at the Warehouse, you used your nose in playing a tune. What body parts, other than his hands, does Jimmy use?

JM: He uses his hands and his feet. When he plays percussion he'll bang on anything with anything.

I: But no ears or noses?

JM: Oh, he uses his mouth great. I'm glad you brought that up. One of the hotter parts of the show is this percussion break when he takes to beating on his face. Then he takes these drum brushes and plays my guitar during this really fast instrumental. It sounds cool. It's something we look forward to each time we play.

And then this dog comes out and does a trick. I feel like I'm describing a vaudeville act. It's like (adopting the voice of a young circus barker), "Oh yeah Mr. Johnson you're gonna love this show. He beats on his face and then plays the guitar and drum at the same time and then he beats on the guitar with a stick. Really, it's a good act."

I: You need to get some fire in there. People love fire.

JM: Well, I have been known to use fire.

I: There is a sense of vaudeville to your show.

JM: I like to have fun on stage.


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