To whip up enthusiasm for its first album, Hanna-McEuen have been touring all over the nation, sometimes playing as many as four shows a week. In the process, they’ve opened for Clint Black, Willie Nelson, Wynonna, Brad Paisley, Gary Allan and Dierks Bentley, among others, as well as headlining several dates on their own.
“I was in St. Paul [Minn.] yesterday, in Santa Ynez [Calif.] last night, and I’m going to Bangor, Maine tonight,” Jonathan McEuen reports, when he calls CMT.com from his hometown of Ventura, Calif., near Los Angeles. At the moment, his partner and cousin, Jamie Hanna, is back home in Nashville for a few hours. It’s been a frantic summer for these singing sons of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founders Jeff Hanna and John McEuen.
When CMT.com first spoke to the pair in 2002, they still hadn’t teamed up officially. But they were already attracting attention with “The Lowlands,” their dark and haunting contribution to the Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. III on Capitol Records. At the time, they had just started shopping for a record deal and McEuen was describing their sound as an amalgam of the Mavericks and bluegrass with “an Everly Brothers vocal situation.”
Titled simply Hanna-McEuen, the duo’s DreamWorks Nashville debut album is by turns dreamy, deliberative and rocking but always features their dovetailed vocal harmonies at the forefront. Their first single, “Something Like a Broken Heart,” reached No. 38 before drifting off the Billboard charts. They’re following it with the ethereal “Ocean,” which will have an accompanying music video shot by Emmett and Brendan Malloy, a fraternal team that gained fame making movies about surfing. Hanna co-wrote 10 of the album’s 12 songs, and McEuen partnered in three. Their co-writers included such luminaries as Raul Malo and Robert Reynolds of the Mavericks and CMA Award-winner Don Schlitz.
“The surprise is that we’re actually doing what our folks did,” McEuen says with amazement. “Can you believe this? We’ve got the same names and everything. They’re calling us the ‘Itty Bitty Dirt Band.’ Are we going to be able to handle this?”
His question is obviously rhetorical. The smooth-spoken McEuen knows damn well they can handle it. “We’re hitting close to 30 years old,” he continues. “We feel good that we have a connection that runs almost three decades deep, and, beyond that, another lifetime with our [fathers] and their first wives, Jamie’s mom and my mom, Kae and Rae, the twins from Salt Lake. We have nothing but good feelings about what we’re doing. It’s good to be in touch with your family.”
When McEuen’s father quit the Dirt Band in 1988, he took his son on the road with him for the next 12 years. “During that 12 years,” the younger McEuen explains, “we bought motor homes, we sold motor homes, we traveled in rental cars and flights. We played all the mushroom festivals, all the bluegrass festivals in this country.”
McEuen even worked a festival with the famously irascible Bill Monroe, a towering and glowering proponent of pure acoustic music. “He saw my electric guitar backstage,” McEuen recalls, “and he wasn’t very happy about it. He didn’t really care whose guitar it was, he just didn’t want it around. He definitely didn’t want to hear it that night. He was like, ‘That ain’t no part of nothin’. That was me at 14, trying to bring the Stratocaster into the mix.”
It was the surprising popularity of “The Lowlands” that turned McEuen and Hanna’s minds toward a label deal. “Because of that video we made, we had an upper hand in notoriety,” McEuen asserts. “We had the Dirt Band’s support, too. But what we really had was Capitol Records supporting us with a video, a single, a Grand Ole Opry appearance and a Tonight Show appearance. Mike Dungan [the head of Capitol’s country division] made it so that we could walk into any label in the town, turn on the television and say, ‘That’s what we do.’ … We took it from there. We played them some live songs, and we had a deal on the table from every label in town, which is kind of unheard of.”
McEuen says he was offered a solo deal with Universal Records in Beverly Hills “the very week” they recorded “The Lowlands.” He turned it down when it became apparent that Universal wanted to replace the musical support team he had put together with its own team.
“What ended up happening was I went to Nashville because the team bond was stronger and the deal was actually better. … I got the best buddy in the world to work with, my cousin Jamie. … The next record we make might be out here in Los Angeles. It might be a little closer to where I was when I started out in this record business.”
Hanna-McEuen’s two-man backup band on the road is also a second-generation unit. The drummer is Jesse Siebenberg, son of Supertramp drummer, Bob Siebenberg. The bass player is Teddy Jack Russell, rock legend Leon Russell’s son.
Given the group’s versatility, McEuen says it can do pretty much what the crowd demands. “We do the entire record, front to back,” he reports. “But sometimes we have to play longer. So what we do is throw in [everything] from Albert King blues songs to [Jimi] Hendrix songs to these dance numbers by the Bee Gees. In La Crosse, Wis., the other night, we pulled out two hours of material we’d never played before. … The crowd was going insane because we were going insane. We were doing things we didn’t know we could do.”
When the two were just getting started, the Dirt Band occasionally backed them — as it did for their Tonight debut. But that was a short-lived courtesy. “[They] were kind of getting tired of being our backup band,” McEuen observes. “At the Leno show, the guys who aren’t the dads — the other three — were like, ‘Uh, guys, I think we’ve done the kids enough favors. It’s time to get back to the Nitty Gritty thing. OK? Is that cool?'”
An hour or so after McEuen hangs up, Hanna blows in a call from Nashville. He has a few observations about the difference between being close to a recording act and actually being such an act.
“You hear about all the things [new artists] have to go through throughout the years,” he muses, “but it’s weird when it starts happening to you. … There’ve been a lot of things that haven’t gone exactly the way we’ve planned, but that’s not to say they haven’t been positive [and] turned out for the better. You have to really pick your battles. I think every artist wants to make sure they have a say in what they wear, what their record looks like, what it sounds like and what their [publicity] pictures look like. For the most part, the label has been super supportive of everything that we’ve done and all of our choices.”
Hanna moved to Nashville 14 years ago to live with his dad and go to school. Initially through his stepmother, singer-songwriter Matraca Berg, he became fascinated with the city’s songwriting scene. “I was exposed to a whole new world,” he says. “I was not a songwriter. I loved listening to music, but lyrics, to me, were a secondary thing, to be honest. I didn’t listen to the lyrics as much as I listened to the music.” All that changed as he met more songwriters and saw how central they were to the music business.
One of the writers he met and became close to was Malo. Eventually, he began touring with the Mavericks as a sideman. When the group broke up, he continued to work with Malo, who began pursuing a solo career. He also gained skill and confidence as a songwriter. Hanna placed a few of his songs on the Mavericks last album for MCA and had five songs on Malo’s solo album, Today.
“Most of my bread and butter money came from writing,” Hanna says. “I’ve been with EMI [Music Publishing] now for about eight years.” When his cousin came to town, looking for songs to record on the independent albums he was making, Hanna was always ready with new tunes.
Hanna acknowledges that it would be convenient if McEuen lived in Nashville instead of Ventura, but he maintains the present arrangement is working out just fine. “It would be good to get with Jonathan and the band in our spare time and run over stuff and work up some new tunes. But on the other hand, we’re on the road together so much that we’re hardly ever home. … It actually works out better this way. If I go out there, I get to hang out on the beach. When he comes here, he gets to hang out with the label people and write songs.”