Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen are first cousins and sons of identical twin sisters, Rae and Kae. Spending so much time together growing up and always living near each other lent itself to strengthening the bond between the two. In addition, their fathers are Jeff Hanna and John McEuen who have been playing music together for nearly 40 years as founding members of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Natural talent is a given here.
The real treat starts the first time you hear Hanna-McEuen. While their vocals are equally effective no matter who is singing lead, their voices transcend melody lines and harmonies with a blend that is unmistakably linked to acts like the Everly Brothers, whose overall sound can only be explained by shared bloodlines.
The unique nature of this duo is further proven by their musicianship. Both are accomplished guitarists whose work is featured throughout their debut album. Each brings to the table his own set of musical experiences and influences.
Jonathan McEuen first got his family's attention when they heard him singing along to a song on the radio at the age of two. By the time he was seven, he was performing onstage at his Dad's annual Rocky Mountain Opry show at the famous Colorado venue, Red Rocks. He was soon acting in plays which led to him landing the lead role in a high school production of The King and I, although he was still attending elementary school. By the age of twelve he was under contract with Disney to appear in The Mickey Mouse Club during the Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera era. "That fell through because I couldn't tap dance," McEuen says.
But he sure could play guitar, as evidenced by countless shows with his dad, which included bluegrass festivals and playing with the likes of Sam Bush and Vassar Clements. At the same time, McEuen was front man for a series of bands.
"I was always allowed to be the 'electrical guy' in bluegrass, and I always had an electric guitar with me, even when we opened for Bill Monroe. Bill would always ask, 'Whose guitar is that back there?' But that never discouraged me," recalls McEuen. "It just made me want to learn more about playing acoustic, finger picking and flat picking."
For Hanna, the path to guitar playing was a bit less direct. His earliest experiences were playing drums, but that all changed for him when he saw Steve Vai playing guitar in the movie Crossroads. "I was hooked. By the time I was fourteen I was obsessed with the guitar," Hanna says.
After high school Hanna relocated to Nashville. "I was with my dad listening to Dwight Yoakam records when I heard Pete Anderson's distinctive guitar sound. I was intrigued with his playing and before I knew it, Dwight's songs started sticking in my head."
This led to a real interest in songwriting. It was around this time that Hanna met Raul Malo, lead singer of The Mavericks, who were just about to break through in country music. "He played me the video for 'What A Crying Shame,' and I was completely blown away. Eventually I played Raul one of my songs and we wound up writing together." Among other things, this led to Hanna's first publishing deal. "One night Raul asked me to sit in with him for a couple of songs at the Bluebird Café, and a week later The Mavericks hired me as their harmony, rhythm guitar and percussion guy."
While Hanna and McEuen were both out pursuing their individual musical paths, they would get together as often as they could make those paths cross. "Every chance we had, we would play together," Hanna says. "We played Deadwood, did little summer tours, and recorded in Nashville. Even if we hadn't seen each other for a year, we'd pick right up like no time had passed."
Over the years McEuen started playing his cousin's songs and putting his own unique imprint on them. "I'd always ask Jaime if he had any songs I could cut," McEuen says. "He writes great stuff. He's my favorite writer."
Late in 2001, the cousins each received a call from their dads. The 30th anniversary of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's release of Will The Circle Be Unbroken was to be marked by a third album in the series, Circle III. Their idea was to bring Jaime and Jonathan in to record "Lowlands" for the album.
"I don't think anyone in the band thought it would be anything more than a special moment," says Hanna. "Kind of an 'aww' moment for the dads," McEuen agrees, adding, "I guess they thought it would be cool to get the boys in and see what happened."
Well, a lot happened. A video was shot for "Lowlands," which led to appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the Grand Ole Opry. Hanna-McEuen's version of "Lowlands" had its own magic and wheels began to turn, both within Hanna-McEuen and from outside.
As record label interest grew, Hanna and McEuen realized they already had the core of an album. "The songs have been written over the past several years, so they've evolved," Hanna says. "Jonathan will phrase a line differently than I did, then we'll find a happy medium. It's the same with our guitar playing, we take the parts we each hear and find a way to lock them together."
By combining songs Hanna had written, and both had performed, with songs McEuen had written and played, they were well on their way. Their material covers a wide range of styles, but one common thread runs throughout them.
There's an undeniable, identifiable chemistry that the two cousins bring with them, somewhere between brothers and best friends. "I've been more in tune with Jaime over the last ten years than anybody, but until now we've never really gotten to work together professionally, so it's all new and fresh," McEuen reflects. "It's like a brand new experience, only you know exactly what it is right away."