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On the night of March 1, John McEuen stood up on stage with Bob Weir at a sold-out Jannus Live, trying to figure out how to play the Grateful Dead’s Dark Star on banjo.
“I was Googling Dark Star in the dressing room, finding a YouTube version,” the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founder laughed by phone recently. “I didn’t listen to a lot of that. But I went, Oh, I get it. It’s basically an A, and you play whatever comes up.”
The last thing he imagined was that it would be one of his last performances for a while.
Like a lot of musicians, the 74-year-old Tampa resident saw his entire tour calendar dry up once the music industry shut down due to the coronavirus. McEuen plays nearly 100 concerts a year, and just like that, everything in the near future, including an April 11 gig in Tampa, was wiped clean.
So McEuen took the shows online.
Over the past two weeks, McEuen has live-streamed a handful of concerts from his home office and studio via Facebook Live. Like a lot of musicians, he has pivoted to live-streaming, a homebound artist playing to homebound fans in an intimate, personal setting — mainly because, well, he can’t imagine not doing it.
“This is for me. I have to do this," McEuen said. “You are a performer. You’ve done that your whole life. You can’t say, ‘Honey, you want to hear Bojangles again? You want to hear the song about the dead dog?’"
Unlike scores of touring musicians suddenly out of a livelihood, McEuen isn’t doing it for money or donations.
“I’m not living paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “I’m trying to pay back the people I work for — I basically think I work for the audience.”
Age aside, McEuen is in good health, although he’s got friends it’s hit a little harder. He’s old friends with Jackson Browne, who tested positive for COVID-19, and has recorded with John Prine, who was placed on a ventilator after developing coronaviruslike symptoms.
His musical connections have given him a unique perspective on the music industry’s current crisis. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken featured country performers who lived through the Great Depression, including Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter and Earl Scruggs.
“I remember Earl saying those were pretty tough days back then,” he said. “They made something fun out of it. And Maybelle, Keep on the Sunny Side — my god, what better message could you have?”
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Over the last few months, McEuen has noticed an uptick in interest in his music. Ever since Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary shone a spotlight on the genre’s early heroes — not to mention the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — he’s watched Will the Circle Be Unbroken rise up several digital charts. In several of his Facebook Live performances, there’s a Country Music box set propped up behind him.
During his time off the road, McEuen is going through his archives, writing new music and finishing some children’s book projects. But he aims to keep doing a couple of Facebook Live performances a week through April, at least.
For each one, he spends hours prepping, digging up old songs, photos, videos and writings. The preparation gives each show an interactive flavor, as fans pop in and out with specific questions. It’s given him a new perspective on connecting with the audience.
“I feel like I’m relating to one person,” he said. "It’s like having somebody over to my house. Only instead of ‘somebody,’ it’s a bunch of people out there. Twenty thousand people out there. I’m playing stadiums!”
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