Ah – a father and his sons making music. Pretty darn cool. Specifically, John McEuen (yep: Nitty-Gritty-Grammy-winning-anything-with-strings-playing – that John McEuen) with sons Nathan and Jonathan, who are serious tunesters themselves. It might’ve gone either way: growing up with a dad who’s spent the best part of the last 45 years or so on the road as a working musician could have either soured the McEuen boys or drawn them in to find their own musical paths. The latter prevailed; The McEuen Sessions is the proof.
Though each of the trio had the opportunity to select three songs to record for the album (with an additional three chosen by the group), there is no spotlight on any single player for any one tune. The three McEuens make for a deep bench of talent, and most cuts find all of them contributing multi-layered tracks of McEuen music.
For instance, there’s “Grand Design”, written by Nathan and Crosby Loggins. Nathan nails the role of the down-on-his-luck showman with his vocal, along with some appropriate sleeve-gartered piano, acoustic guitar, and soft-shoed percussion. But just as crucial to setting the mood is father John’s Dixieland-style banjo, sprinkles of mando, and gentle-but-there bass. And while brother Jonathan’s background vocals throughout the song are subtle, it’s his guitar break at the 1:26 mark that will grab your attention. He pulls off a one-take, clean-toned, string-popping Strat solo that eases in on tiptoes before breaking into a swirl of jazziness, gone with a doff of the top hat less than half a minute later. No one player owns the song: again, these were truly McEuen sessions – and this is McEuen music, a product of nature and nurture.
It’ll come as no surprise to anyone who knows John’s history that there are some bluegrassy moments on The McEuen Sessions – and it’s a natural fit for Jonathan and Nathan, as well. “Hills of Sylmar” is the perfect mix of traditional stomp and modern-day lyrics that would feel right at home on a Yonder Mountain album, while Nathan’s self-penned “Banjormous” finds him weaving some excellent banjo with his dad. The traditional instrumentation is given a jammed-out twist on “Quicker at the Draw” (a way-cool finger-blisterer that tosses the lead around the circle at a feverish rate) and “Dinner!”, which is boiled down to one-minute-and-eighteen-seconds’-worth of acoustic sweetness.
Get out yer handkerchiefs: if the McEuens’ take on Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band” doesn’t get you, then “Old Shep” will. (35-year-old Jonathan duets with his 11-year-old self thanks to a recording from the 80s while Nathan seals the deal with some spot-on Jordanaire-style background vocals.)
The trio takes on Dave Mason’s “Only You Know and I Know” (with Mason himself listed as providing backing vox, drum programming, and “inspiration”), Jonathan’s vocal and lead guitar paying tribute while putting his own spin on a classic tune. And don’t leave the room until the disc actually stops – the bonus of the bonus cuts is “The Goodtime Suite”, over six minutes of simply John McEuen and his banjo. Both Nathan and Jonathan say that reminds them of when their father would play them to sleep at night as children. It’s a lovely way to end this family effort.