Memories of Johnny Cash...
Priceless time with Cash - 1985
It was the best NGDB tour.
In a 10-act European tour country road show, the Dirt Band ended up going on just before the Johnny Cash show. We started the tour at London's Wembley Arena where we were scheduled to go on early, around third slot, in the first half of the five-hour show. But, when the promoter saw our sound check we were moved up to close the first half. After that night, we were moved up to go on just before Johnny Cash, the headliner.
It was a little hard to follow us. This was a proud time for the guys and me.
We were hot!
Knocking them out in Hitler's halls (one was where he gave his last speech) was an unknown part of my teenage Orange County dream to get on the road.
The overall show was great, putting us on the bill with George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Bill Monroe, Cash (with June Carter) Johnny Russell, and a host of Grand Ol' Opry greats.
Everywhere we played was a hot crowd, until we got to Zurich.
Seems like the audience there was just a bit quiet, sedate, reserved ....i.e., dead. I fortunately found this out just before our set, when I asked Russell why the whole cast was walking out to the side of the stage area just before we were to go on. Russell informed me, "Well, no one is going over tonight. Dead audience, and very little response. So we figure if you guys don't get them, then it isn't us. But, we hope you do get 'em."
What a responsibility! We had to come through for all! I ran back to the dressing room for some insurance, and headed up to the stage where I joined the band as we faced the gladiators. Fifteen minutes into the set was going slow, but not horrible. We had seen horrible by then, and knew what it was. This wasn't it. But it wasn't hot yet.
The bluegrass picked it up a bit, and then we got to "Bojangles." Then came some respectful response, but not killer. Various other of the show's performers stood by the stage side, nodding to each other as we continued trying to wake up the Swiss. Either they had come for Cash only, or we were simply losing the battle.
Time came to rock and roll Dirt Band Cajun style, and jump into "Battle of New Orleans". Kicked off on the fiddle, following a little lecture about how we kicked British ass a long time ago and still sing about it, I disappeared before the first fiddle solo. When I jumped off the drum riser now wearing a British flag shirt and got chased around by Ibby, the audience started waking up.
By the second solo, fiddle blaring, I had disappeared again to show up with an American flag shirt, and heard another rise in the audience level as I chased Ibby back across the stage. Finally, getting to the last solo, I ripped off the American flag shirt to reveal a Swiss flag shirt and ran up on top of the p.a. speaker stacks, where I took off my silver shoes and threw them into the audience. Some of the crowd went nuts. Ibby chased me out into the middle of the front row and they all went more nuts.
Starting it from the audience barefoot, "Diggy Diggy Lo" got them to their feet. We had proudly done the job, and, for the whole cast and crew, had won them over. If we were ever great, that was the night. After that show I invited Bill Monroe to stop by a night club where I had set up a jam in.
3 hours later, downtown Zurich
Sure enough, I am on stage jammin' at midnight, about an hour in to it, in walks the Father of Bluegrass with a dutiful Swiss sweet young thang carrying his little black mandolin case, right by his side. I invited him up on the mic, not expecting him to actually come up with the players I had up there at the time.
That white hat came trotting through the crowd with Bill under it, and he hops up on stage with his! Monroe turns to me and says, "You know 'Uncle Pen' on that fiddle? Pick it up, an' we'll get some music played." Jeff sang harmony and Carlene Carter joined in. And here I was playing behind the God of Bluegrass, digging every bar, in one of those bars my father had warned me about.
We did about six tunes that night with him, creating one of those moments that stay with me my whole life. I felt like I had lived up to Johnny Cash's introduction in Wales earlier in the week.
a day off for the Dirt Band in London
He did not have to say "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," and didn't when he came up behind me in the hotel lobby.
I knew it was him when he asked: "Hey, McEuen you wanna go with June and me and the band to Wales and sit in? We could use you on the Carter Family songs - hop on the bus with us."
This invitation from the Man in Black could not be turned down, and promised to be a much better situation than Marty Stuart could have anticipated.
This one I could write home about.
One night, two shows in Wales. Cash introduced me, I had a great time playing the first set. Pretty heady stuff for a kid from Orange County.
But Cash wasn't happy.
Back in the dressing room he said, "You did great. But I need to give you a better build up for the next show. These folks need to appreciate you more. Don't rush out, give me a minute more on the intro this time."
So I waited in the wings as the second show got under way, not knowing what to expect. The "Carter section" comes up, and Johnny Cash goes in to this rambling yet focused diatribe about acoustic music, those who love it, and those who play it.
He talked about the Circle album.
How that was his mother-in-law's (Maybelle Carter) first gold record ...how I put it together with my brother Bill and my band, "the GREAT NITTY GRITTY DIRT BAND", his voice rising a bit.
He then starts describing a performer I had never met... one who, well one who sounded like a combination of Earl Scruggs, Chet Atkins, Roy Clark, Vassar Clements, Roy Acuff, and Johnny Russell combined.
I started looking around, figuring we were also going to be joined by someone who'd just arrived from either Nashville or Hillbilly Heaven, as he continued.....
"And tonight, coming to play not only with us as we love him to do whenever June and I get a chance to have him along, but because he did not want to leave the United Kingdom without playing for, in his words, 'the great people of Wales,' it's his first time here."
"Please make our good friend feel welcome."
I heard my name, and was jolted on stage, arriving at the mic to a standing ovation from the whole room of people who had never heard of me.
After the show, Cash walked up, softly punched my arm, and simply said, in that signature voice: "I told you I could do better."