in performance: the mceuens/the snyder family band

the mceuens: nathan, john and jonathan.

It was family night at this week’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio at the Kentucky Theatre. One ensemble on the bill was an essentially new (but altogether unassuming) enterprise led by one of country/Americana music’s most formidable instrumentalists. The other was a little known unit (as least in Central Kentucky) rooted in bluegrass tradition that, despite the youthfulness of its key players, exhibited a remarkably mature stylistic range and technical prowess.

The McEuens (sometimes billed as the John McEuen Trio) featured Nitty Gritty Dirt Band banjo ace/multi-instrumentalist John McEuen and his guitarist sons Jonathan and Nathan. There was a touch of the Dirt’s eclecticism in the repertoire, which shifted from a poignant telling of Dan Fogelberg’s father/son requiem Leader of the Band to the West Coast bluegrass reflection Hills of Sylmar to an acoustic retelling of the 1984 Rodney Crowell-penned Dirt Band hit Long Hard Road (Sharecropper’s Dream). (All three tunes will be featured on the trio’s debut album, which is due for release next week.)

But the McEuens kept the solos to a minimum, save for a brief banjo blast by Daddy McEuen during Hills of Sylmar. In fact, the elder McEuen stayed purposely in the background. He added discreetly to the group’s loose, animated ensemble sound (on guitar and mandolin as well as banjo) but appeared quite content to let his sons’ capable vocal leads and harmonies handle the heavy lifting within this very homegrown music.

Also on last night’s bill was North Carolina’s Snyder Family Band, a group that placed another patriarch, bassist Bud Snyder, behind the leads of 13 year old daughter Samantha (on fiddle) and 16 year son Zeb (on guitar).

Zeb Snyder proved to be a quiet little terror as a soloist. His warp speed solos were as dazzling as anything offered by even high profile bluegrass contemporaries. But his playing didn’t seem consumed solely with technique. The instrumental harmonies he created with sister Samantha’s spry leads were appealing in numerous settings – be it in the traditionally flavored exchanges from the fiddle tune staple Sally Goodin’ or the borderline jazz runs that emerged during a swing-savvy arrangement of the J.J. Cale fave Call Me the Breeze.

The band also has something of a show stealer in 6 year old Owen Snyder, who confidently delivered a verse of The Glendy Burke as a cameo. Obviously, the youngest Snyder needs a few years just to allow his voice to develop. But the kid was obviously at home onstage. To possess the ability to appear so natural and relaxed in performance mode at such a young age is almost intimidating.

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