The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Country-Rock Pioneers at the Filene Center
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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. Its members refused to be pigeonholed or hew to a narrow star-making path. In the early seventies, 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 album became a landmark, genre-smashing hit. Circle remains such a pivotal cultural moment that it was one of 50 recordings honored this year — and to be preserved — by the Library of Congress.
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. It’s not just a legacy from the past, but an influence that continues to grow — 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 Grammy-nominated album. NGDB’s own work is featured on the soundtrack to the 2006 Oscar-worthy film Transamerica. The band members, regularly nominated over the years as songwriters and artists, were awarded their 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.
Although the faces and names of 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 — fellow musicians young and old know exactly who they are. When John McEuen’s son cajoled his dad into going to a Phish concert, Trey Anastasio not only recognized McEuen outside the arena and immediately invited him (and his lucky son) to hang out on the tour bus, he insisted McEuen open the second half of the show with the band. Before a performance at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, Bruce Springsteen mentioned to Jeff Hanna that Circle was one of his favorite albums (a claim clearly supported by Springsteen’s own new Seeger Sessions). Bruce Hornsby has confessed that as a student in Virginia, he and his lyricist brother John snuck into an NGDB gig at William and Mary College by posing as roadies and carrying the band’s gear into the concert hall.
A string of hits on mainstream pop and country radio in the eighties did get the band’s name out to a large contemporary audience. Well before then, though, unsuspecting Top 40 radio listeners were singing along to the band. Hanna and McEuen had backed Michael Martin Murphy on his classic “Wildfire” and “Carolina in the Pines”; NGDB also arranged and played live in the studio on Steve Martin’s gold-selling left-field hit, “King Tut.” Clearly the band has a sense of humor to go along with its good taste.
“We’ve kept it alive, kept it a growing thing,” say McEuen of the band’s evolution. “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.”
“Maybe we’re the Kinks of country music,” suggests Jimmie Fadden, who, along with Hanna, has been part of NGDB since its inception. He’s referring to the revered British Invasion combo fronted by Ray Davies, whose fame was eclipsed by the Beatles and Stones. Its work, however, remains among the most musically and thematically adventurous of the era. “There was always some disjointed quality to what the Kinks did that was parallel to what we did. It was not always perfect, like the record company likes you to be perfect, like the radio station likes you to be perfect. We were always allowed to wear our little band-aids and leave bruises and scratches on our music.”
“We are told our songs have become a soundtrack to people’s lives over a period of time,” continues McEuen. " I sit at the autograph table and talk to younger people, in their teens and early 20s, obviously not whom you’d expect at a veteran band’s shows. They would be there by themselves and I’d ask why they came to our show and they’d say, ‘Ever since I was little, my folks used to play your music. They’d take it camping with us, we’d sing along in the car to “Ripplin’ Waters,” “Make A Little Magic.” The song about Bojangles always reached me.’ Currently, 20 percent of the Dirt Band’s audience is under 30. Now when I ask them why they come to the show, they’re starting to say it was their grandparents who used to play our music all the time."
“I didn’t think anyone in this band felt we’d be playing music into our fifties,” Carpenter admits. “At first I just looked at it like, we want to sell records and tour, and it happened from year to year to 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. 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.”
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 playing jug-band music and wearing cowboy boots with vintage pinstripe suits. Like the Lovin’ Spoonful on the east coast, the combo was inspired by the early 20th century jug-band sound, a danceable variation on country blues that originally depended on homemade instrumentation like washboards, jugs and kazoos. As Hanna recalls, “All of us were rebelling against popular music, although I think we were all closet Rolling Stones and Beatles fans. You could not be a child growing up in the sixties and not be exposed to that music and not have it influence you in some way. But there was something in the folk-blues tradition that jug-band music embodied. It was a throwback to a simpler time in music that was really appealing. Not to get too deep on a sociological level, but the idea that this music came from the Prohibition era spoke to us too, because people were all sneaking around rolling joints in the back of their parents’ houses.”
“It wasn’t a part of what my friends were listening to,” explains 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. I saw myself as not being a part of the mainstream so I gravitated to it quite easily. 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.”
Hanna says, “When we put our jug band together, before we were actually making any money, we were drawing overflow crowds at these little folk rooms — there might have been 200 to 250 people. They were young people; our fans were our peers. So there must have been something appealing about it, more than just our esoteric, snobby outlook on popular music. Of course, jug band music is fun too. The Lovin’ Spoonful developed into a great band, one of the coolest, underrated bands ever.”
NGDB’s self-titled debut was released in 1967 on the Liberty label and included “Buy For Me The Rain,” which cracked the Top 40. That was quickly followed by Richochet and, in 1968, Rare Junk. During this period, the group’s manager read in Variety that the producers of the movie musical Paint Your Wagon were scouting for a band to portray itinerant musicians from the 19th Century California gold rush. NGDB played for composer Alan Jay Lerner and director Josh Logan on a huge soundstage at the Paramount lot and got the job. The band spent four months in the Oregon woods alongside such unlikely musical comedy stars as Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg.
NGDB’s next studio album, 1970’s Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy, would be the band’s commercial and artistic 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.” NGDB had suffered a temporary break-up in early ’69, but soon reunited with a stronger focus, its priorities figured out. As Hanna admits, "When we started as jug band we had a clear vision of what we wanted to do, but then we had these growing pains because people were going on different tangents, so the ’69 version of the band — in terms of what we play now — is the heart of what we do, that country rock-bluegrass hybrid. "
Along with Walker’s classic story-song, Uncle Charlie featured tunes from Randy Newman, Buddy Holly, a then-unknown Kenny Loggins and former Monkee Michael Nesmith. 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 unify the material into more of an album-length statement and foreshadowed the work to come on the 1972 Will The Circle Be Unbroken. He would produce several important NGDB albums, though to simply call him the “producer” would be an understatement; Bill was to NGDB as George Martin was to the Beatles, crucial to the refinement of the band’s studio sound at a key point in its career. As John says of his brother, “Thanks to his production, editing, artwork and concepts, the group achieved success that went beyond what many thought it could be.”
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.
In today’s cultural climate, when the soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou? could reach platinum status, the concept of Circle hardly seems radical. Yet at the time this collaboration 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. Artists like the Byrds had gone to Nashville, but none 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. A torch wasn’t being passed; everyone was holding it up together. In an era of political and social divisiveness, Circle was an extraordinary gesture of unity and understanding that instantly captivated critics and record buyers, and would become a multi-platinum success.
In April 2006, the National Recording Preservation Board, established by the Library of Congress as" a comprehensive national program to ensure the survival, conservation and increased public availability of America’s sound recording heritage," added Will the Circle Be Unbroken to its National Recording Registry, one of 50 recordings selected each year. As the Board put it, the album “introduced acoustic country music to a new generation of audiences and revived the careers of several of the guest performers.”
This groundbreaking effort had a reciprocal effect on NGDB. As Hanna, who now lives in Nashville with his wife, singer-songwriter Matraca Berg, explains," I think we were lucky to find people down here to work with who were encouraging and nurturing on a creative level…and to be accepted by the country music community. The Circle album was a great kind of backstage pass to have. In the early eighties, when we had our run at country radio, there wasn’t any test we had to pass in terms of credibility."
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. By ‘77, NGDB participated in another groundbreaking cross-cultural event: It became the first American combo to be invited by the Soviet government to tour the U.S.S.R., performing a month’s worth of live dates and playing to literally 140 million curious television viewers.
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 that is among the band’s most perennially popular, the one, says McEuen, “that you always hear in grocery stores or on airplanes.” Similarly, Linda Ronstadt, with whom Hanna had backed in a post-Stone Poney’s lineup, guest starred on the lilting soft rock of Rodney Crowell’s “An American Dream,” which had made the Top 20 a year before. The mellow, gently heartfelt approach of those songs was indicative of the work that would put the Dirt Band at the top of the county charts for a decade, starting in the early eighties. 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.” Their chart-topping work had little in common with the slick, pop-oriented country hits of today; it was more akin to the warm-hearted country/rock balance of “Peaceful, Easy Feeling”-era Eagles. Throughout this productive period, there were more significant 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.
“It was a cool time in country music,,” says Hanna, “with people like Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Lyle Lovett — they all were on the radio then. I was very proud that our band was happening at the same time, through the eighties.”
By 1982, “Nitty Gritty” was restored to the Dirt Band name; in ’89, 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. Among the vocalists were Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm, Roseanne Cash, John Hiatt and Bruce Hornsby; John Denver contributed a particularly affecting performance of “And So It Goes.” 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 the final installment of what became a Circle trilogy, a bluegrass-oriented set that featured such friends as Willie Nelson, Earl Scruggs, Rodney Dillard, Alison Krauss, Taj Mahal, Dwight Yoakum and, once again, Johnny Cash, who delivers the powerful, elegiac “Tears In the Holston River.”
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. Though Woody Creek showcases material penned by the band members, the album also contain a particularly inspired treatment of the Beatles’ “Get Back,” re-imagined as a bluegrass stomp, and a graceful, evocative rendition of Gram Parsons’ “She.”
Looking back on the 40-year legacy of NGDB, Carpenter says, “The work of keeping the individuals and band together -the communication it takes, the work of dealing with people just as people - that part of the job has been as intense and as time consuming for us as the music. You have to empathize with each other. We’ve been very lucky to be able to work things out in whatever dysfunctional way we do -and, believe me, it can be totally dysfunctional - but I think it’s that way for every group.”
“I love playing in the band,” states Hanna. “One of the things that’s different now is that we’ve traveled so many miles together, spent so much time together, it’s become intuitive. We can read each other musically and that becomes a lot of what makes it fun to play music together. Plus we have this volume of work to draw from, which is great. 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.”
“Stuff goes in and out of the set,” Fadden confirms. “We’ll do something that we haven’t done in 10 years and it seems like, oh, that was last week. It’s simple and fun. I’m grateful being a part of that. I’ve been very blessed with many things. I like the guys I work with —there are some things in each and every one of us that rankles the other a little bit, but, you know, it’s no big deal. I still have a lot of fun playing, in fact, I have more fun playing now than I ever did.”
McEuen concludes, “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. It has expanded the vocabulary of popular music and taken its uniquely American perspective around the globe. Most of all, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band 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, creating music and making a difference for a lifetime.