Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
From folk-rock to alternative country, contemporary bluegrass to neo-hippie jam band, NGDB is it!
In 1969, the members of the three year-old Nitty Gritty Dirt Band almost packed it in for good, unsure of where the young group was heading next in its career or with its hybrid sound. Thirty-seven years later the remaining foursome – weathered, well-traveled, arguably wiser—is enjoying its 40th Anniversary. The individual band-mates would probably admit they still don’t know where they’re heading next, only that wherever it is, they’ll be going there together.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s pioneering spirit, its eagerness to experiment and desire to explore the by-ways and gravel roads of America’s musical past, has exerted a profound effect on our present-day pop culture. They defied the conventional hit-driven approach to record-making by undertaking the ambitious three-LP set Will The Circle Be Unbroken, cut live to two-track in Nashville over six days, for the sum of just $22,000.
Thanks to the band’s unfettered creative energy and the palpable excitement of playing with their country and bluegrass music idols, the 1972 album became a landmark, genresmashing hit. Circle remains such a significant effort that it was one of 50 recordings honored this year – and to be preserved—by the Library of Congress.
The faces and names of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band may not always be immediately recognizable to the general public – vocalist/guitarist Jeff Hanna, drummer/harmonica player Jimmie Fadden, banjo/fiddle/mandolin/guitar player John McEuen, vocalist/keyboardist Bob Carpenter – but fellow musicians young and old know exactly who they are. It would be no exaggeration to say that much of what falls under the umbrella term of roots music these days bears the mark in some way of NGDB’s influence, from folk-rock to alternative country, contemporary bluegrass to neo-hippie jam bands. Young heartthrobs Rascal Flatts scored a Best Country Song Grammy this year for “Bless the Broken Road,” co-written by NGDB guitarist Jeff Hanna and originally featured on NGDB’s 1994 Acoustic album. (The tune had also been nominated for the Song of the Year Award.) Fadden’s “Workin’ Man (Nowhere To Go)” was covered by up-and-coming bluegrass stars Cherryholmes on their self-titled, 2006 Grammynominated album. NGDB’s own work is featured on the soundtrack to the 2006 Oscarworthy film Transamerica. The band, regularly nominated over the years as songwriters and artists, were awarded its most recent Grammy in 2004, Best Country Instrumental, for “Earl’s Breakdown,” a track that featured the titular Earl Scruggs, Randy Scruggs, Vassar Clements and Jerry Douglas. Most importantly, NGDB, in classic road-warrior tradition, still tours several months a year.
“We’re been fortunate that no matter what happened with our recordings, we always had people who wanted to come and see us play,” says Carpenter. “And that’s the thing that really kept us together. I know it may sound trite, but we really have our fans to thank for that. We’ve got a loyal fan base that comes out to see us make music.” “We’ve kept it alive, kept it a growing thing,” McEuen explains. “With the Dirt Band, you think of a certain integrity in the songs, not a single focus. What has connected our various work is the ‘Americana’ instrumentation and playing songs that are accessible to people. Our songs aren’t just about one thing and neither are people’s lives.”
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band formed in Southern California during the spring of ’66. The young Hanna, Fadden and McEuen hung out at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Long Beach; this maverick group distinguished itself from its peers by wearing cowboy boots with vintage pinstripe suits and playing jug-band music, a danceable variation on country blues that originally depended on homemade instrumentation like washboards, kazoos and, of course, jugs. “It wasn’t a part of what my friends were listening to,” recalls Fadden. “It wasn’t so easy to get. You couldn’t just turn on the radio and have it. I liked that sort of ‘outsider’ thing. What really captured me was the honesty of the music, that it was uncompromising and relatively unadorned. There weren’t a lot of smoke and mirrors. I think that’s what really got me. It was raw.”
NGDB’s self-titled debut was released in 1967 on Liberty and included “Buy For Me The Rain,” which cracked the Top 40. That was quickly followed by Richochet and, in 1968, Rare Junk. NGDB’s next studio album, 1970’s Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy, would be the band’s breakthrough, yielding a Top Ten hit with its now-classic version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” By then, Jimmy Ibbotson had joined the band and would be part of NGDB off and on for the next three and a half decades, penning such band staples as “Ripplin’ Waters” and “Dance Little Jean.” For Uncle Charlie, NGDB’s manager, John’s brother Bill McEuen, had demanded complete artistic control from the record label and took over production. He incorporated rustic audio-verite segments into Uncle Charlie that helped to coalesce the material into more of an album-length statement,foreshadowing the work to come on Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Among the many outstanding tracks on Uncle Charlie was a version of Earl Scruggs’ “Randy Lynn Rag.” When NGDB performed at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Scruggs and his family came to the show. Hanna and John McEuen later caught up with him on the road. McEuen asked Scruggs if he’d consider recording with band, Scruggs answered, “I’d be proud to” – and that set into motion what would become the Circle album.
The collaboration on Circle among Nashville legends like Scruggs, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff and even Mother Maybelle Carter and these long-haired admirers from the West Coast was unprecedented. No one had attempted a dialogue of quite this nature, reaching across generations, geography, attitudes and separate histories to find sounds and songs that everyone appreciated. Will the Circle Be Unbroken was a veritable summit meeting of talent, but it came off like a back porch conversation—relaxed, congenial, with lots of laughs and plenty of poignant moments. Circle was an extraordinary gesture of unity that would become a multi-platinum success.
NGDB’s 1974 double-album mix of live and studio cuts, Stars and Stripes Forever, received an even more enthusiastic commercial reception than Circle; the group followed it with the all-studio Dream. After having sat in and recorded with the group since the mid-‘70s, Bob Carpenter officially joined the Dirt Band, which had briefly dropped the
“Nitty Gritty” from its name, in 1980; McEuen likes to refer to him as “the new original member.” Carpenter co-wrote “Make A Little Magic” with Hanna, a 1980 pop hit featuring vocalist Nicolette Larson. Similarly, Linda Ronstadt guest starred with the band on the lilting soft rock of Rodney Crowell’s “An American Dream.” The mellow, gently heartfelt approach of those songs, akin to the country/rock balance of “Peaceful Easy Feeling”-era Eagles, was indicative of the work that would put the Dirt Band at the top of the county charts for a decade. Its remarkable run of 17 consecutive Top Ten hits included “Dance Little Jean,” “Baby’s Got A Hold On Me” and “Fishin’ in the Dark.” Throughout this productive period, there were more comings and goings: Ibbotson, who left in the late seventies, returned in ’81 and stayed until 2004; McEuen departed in ’88 for a solo career and came back in 2001.
In 1989, the group—consisting of Fadden, Hanna, Carpenter and Ibbotson—revisited the Circle concept, gathering another impressive, wide-ranging roster of performers and selecting both vintage and contemporary material for sessions that had a pronounced country-gospel feel. Randy Scruggs, namesake of the “Randy Lynn Rag,” co-produced the set with the band. Circle II would go on to win three Grammy Awards and the Country Music Association Album of the Year. Randy would return in 2002 for a bluegrass-oriented set that would be the final installment of what became a Circle trilogy.
NGDB’s most recent studio album, Welcome to Woody Creek, brought the group back to its roots. The band-mates approached their material as if it were a Circle session, with the emphasis on interaction, informality, spontaneity and maximum feeling, and it shows on every one of the self-produced album’s spirited tracks. “I love playing in the band,” states Hanna. “We’ve traveled so many miles together, spent so much time together, it’s become intuitive. We can pull out a song that feels new to us even if it’s something we recorded 20 or 30 years ago. We’re constantly learning. We surprise each other, with a new tune or a lick or some kind of groove that’s fresh for us.” McEuen adds, “It’s the various strengths of the individual members, called upon at different times and brought to the forefront, that have kept the band creative and productive and brought the most success to the band.”
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has enabled us to view our shared musical heritage in a new light and taken its uniquely American perspective around the globe. The group has proven that collaboration, cooperation, tolerance and good humor – along with a healthy disagreement every now and then—can keep a group of people working together, having fun, and creating vital music for a lifetime.
Fishin' In The Dark
Will the Circle Be Unbroken
Party on the Mountain