Soon after retiring from the road (1990), I began getting calls from one of my heroes, John
McEuen. John is a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and has had a successful
career as a solo performer and a film composer. As a teenager, I drove countless miles in my
jeep to Nitty Gritty Dirt Band concerts, and spent hours absorbing their records, and learning to
play John's guitar and banjo parts.
John was calling to say that he was being considered as the composer for a National Geographic
Society TV Special titled "Braving Alaska". National Geographic only produces four major TV
Specials a year, and in the world of documentaries, they are considered the best. "Braving
Alaska" chronicles the lives of four families who live in the most remote parts of Alaska. The
producers liked John's music, but didn't feel that his acoustic string instruments (guitar, mandolin,
fiddle, and banjo) could completely cover the musical needs of the film. They wanted a
co-composer who could broaden the score with keyboards and orchestration. John called me,
we both submitted demos to the producers, and they hired us as a team.
We made several trips to Los Angeles, the first one for the purpose of "spotting" the film. This
involves meeting with the director and producers, watching the rough cut of the film, and deciding
where music is needed and what emotional purpose it is to serve. We then headed back to our
respective homes (Nashville and Salt Lake City) to write for several weeks. John then came to
Nashville, where I had booked a studio, musicians, and engineers to record the bulk of the
music. Guest musicians included percussionist Kenny Malone, bassist Craig Nelson, and dobro
legend Josh Graves, who was an original member of the "Flatt and Scruggs" band. John played
banjo, guitar, and mandolin, and I played keyboards, guitar, and hammered dulcimer. Actor
Martin Sheen was our narrator for the show.
As each group of cues was recorded, rough mixes were Fed Ex'd to the producers, followed by
conference calls about what they liked and (mostly) what they didn't like. After weeks of revisions,
we packed up the tapes and our instruments and headed to California for the final mix, which was
to take place at Aspen Studios, near Santa Barbara. Aspen was owned by John's brother Bill
McEuen, who had been the long-time manager/producer of both Steve Martin and the Nitty Gritty
The film's director, editor, and music supervisor came for the mix session, which began at
10:00 am, and ended the next morning at 6:00 am. Obviously, they still wanted quite a few
revisions, and we obliged to the point of total exhaustion. The director had warned us that the
National Geographic folks are extremely picky, but that their attention to detail is what makes
their programs shine.
The finished film was wonderful and received two Emmy Award Nominations. The editor was nominated for "Best Editing of a
Documentary or News Show", and John and I were nominated for "Outstanding Musical Achievement". So we flew to NY,
donned tuxes, and partied with Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer, and a host of other celebrities.
"Braving Alaska" was an incredible musical experience and the beginning of many collaborations with John McEuen. Since
then, we've played on each other's albums and performed together on TV at least a dozen times.
In retrospect, nothing is more fun than watching one of your "pipe dreams" come true. One day I was driving to the TV studio
to perform on a national TV show with John. As I glanced back to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything, I realized that I was
driving the same jeep that used to take me to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band concerts years before. The only difference was that
instead of the jeep being full of friends and beer, it was now full of keyboards, and I was going to play instead of watch.
John and I have enjoyed a good musical partnership, a great friendship, and a common sense of humor. As he said during a
late night phone call, "Hey, if we lived in the same town, we could be friends or something."
________________________________________ _Web Links:
____ _____ _John McEuen's Website ____ ____"Braving Alaska" at Amazon.com
____ _______ _________ __ _Photos from TV Shows
w/John McEuen, recording
the score for "Braving