The unexpected gift of a treasured heirloom pushed Nathan McEuen down a new musical path
By Bliss Bowen
Nathan McEuen’s fifth solo album, “Side By Side,” opens with a series of midtempo instrumentals — assured, often contemplative, bluegrass-flavored folk.
McEuen, of course, is one of those McEuens: son of John (of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), brother of Jonathan (of Hanna-McEuen), the thoughtful product of a childhood spent backstage and on the road, watching and also performing with his famous dad and his celebrated friends. Yet despite being a respected instrumentalist in his own right, “Side By Side” is the first of his albums to extensively spotlight his instrumental compositions.
“I’ve been writing a lot of instrumentals over the years and I was just looking for an excuse or reason to finally put that out there,” he says over the phone from a tour bus in Carson City, Nevada.
There was another, emotional motivation for McEuen’s banjo instrumentals: voice actress Russi Taylor, aka the voice of Minnie Mouse. A few years ago Taylor approached McEuen after a show and gave him a banjo that had belonged to her late husband, Wayne Allwine, who’d been the voice of Mickey Mouse.
“It’s a custom-made banjo that has a Mickey head inscribed [on it] with his initials, and I was speechless when she handed it to me,” McEuen recalls. “The first two tracks on the album, ‘Mice (Part 1): They Meet’ and ‘Mice (Part 2): The Magic,’ are absolutely in honor of Russi and Wayne, their love and marriage.”
After McEuen played the tunes for Taylor, she asked him to write one more.
“We were just sitting down to dinner one night, and she pulled me aside and said, ‘I have a line that I think would be perfect for a song and I want you to have it; do you think you can do it?’ As she was telling me this story, she said, ‘I have to tell you, the line is the last thing Wayne
said to me before he passed away.’ Pretty heavy. The last thing he said to her, as she was walking out of the room, was, ‘It’s all right, Russi, I have pictures of you in my heart.’”
“Pictures of You in My Heart” thus became a final track on “Side By Side” — an elegiac love song played over pretty acoustic guitar and cello.
Aside from “Pictures” and three other poppier, full-band tracks, “Side By Side” is dominated by banjo instrumentals. Prior to releasing it, McEuen says he, like his siblings, had “shied away” from the banjo out of respect for their dad, a renowned multi-instrumentalist who produced Steve Martin’s Grammy-winning 2009 album “The Crow” and whose lightning-hot banjo picking has fired legendary albums like 1972’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
“He’s amazing at it,” McEuen says. “I was really looking for my own voice on the instrument, without stealing; I didn’t want to be a copy. So I developed my own way of playing and had this story behind the instrument, and I just told my dad when I was about 30, ‘OK, I want to do it now, we’ve given you enough time, right?’ We kind of joke around about it.”
Growing up in the shadow of a famous parent’s musicianship can be intimidating, though it bestows informal benefits: observing up close what it takes to learn musical craft, build a solo, write a song, set up a show, entertain audiences.
“Being a fly on the wall backstage and watching Dad go to work with his friends, ’cause that’s what it was — I don’t know how to really put it in perspective,” McEuen says. “A lot of my time I would just be quiet. We always went to public school, and my mother was good about saying, ‘Don’t talk about it,’ because she doesn’t like bragging, and we’re all the same. My contrast was summers and weekends on the road with Dad and then going back to school, I couldn’t tell my friends, ‘Hey, I just hung out with Levon Helm.’”
Fast forward to the present day, when McEuen spends months at a time on the road, mostly doing his own shows and occasionally playing with other bands. He’s applied lessons gleaned from his father and various legacy artists, and learned some from “falling flat on my face.” Between booking shows, driving from gig to gig, selling merchandise, maintaining social media, “keeping a stable mind” and, oh yeah, actually performing, “there’s an awful lot of dots to connect.” Until last year, he weathered periods where he would recycle bottles from venues he played for gas money the next morning. “It’s not like that right now,” he says with a laugh. “Not to say it won’t be again. … It’s all part of the adventure.”
“My biggest challenge is just do it for the love of it, as opposed to doing it for the money. If you do it for the love of it, everything seems to follow. …
“If you show up and let audiences know you care, I think you’re going to be all right. I love it. This past week at the Grove, I opened with my brother in front of 2,000 for Dwight Yoakam, and next week, I’ll be at a house concert in the mountains for about 25 people. No matter what, I love that people show up and care. An audience is an audience, so bring it on! [Laughs] I’ll do the best I can.”
Nathan McEuen and Natalie Gelman perform separately and together at Boulevard Music, 4316 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20. $15. Call (310) 398-2583 or visit nathanmceuen.com.