Nitty Gritty Dirt Band BiographyThe California-based Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has out-lasted virtually every other country-based rock group of their era by continually reinventing themselves, yet still retaining the same musical integrity that got them started back in the mid-1960s. Beginning life as an acoustic-styled jug band, they have covered a sort of all-American eclecticism with strands of a whole musical range: blues, hillbilly, bluegrass, Cajun, folk, boogie, traditional and modern country. It was the historic recordings they undertook at Nashville's Woodland Sound Studios in 1971, which really put the NGDB on the musical map. A three-record set entitled WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN, conceived by the band, but in no way dominated by them, it was an ambitious project. It was the first of its kind to bring together long-haired contemporary rock musicians and old traditional country artists, as the NGDB shared the studio with Doc Watson, Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin and the Scruggs Family. Even more astounding, the whole thing was mixed live on a two-track tape machine.
It is probably the highest-energy acoustic music ever recorded (not a single electric instrument on the whole thing), and a testimonial to both the musicians involved and the music they played. When finally released in 1973 in a lavish booklet sleeve, it became one of the most discussed albums of the time and gave old-time country music a big boost. Even so, for many years, the NGDB were totally ignored by the country mainstream. Following seventeen years of releasing critically-acclaimed, but commercially-neglected albums, they finally gained country acceptance in the early 1980s with country chart-toppers Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper's Dream), Modern Day Romance, Baby's Got A Hold On Me and Fishin' In the Dark.
For the first time the best of the NGDB's recordings for EMI labels: Liberty-United Artists-Capitol plus Universal, MCA and Rising Tide recordings from the late 1980s through to the 1990s have been gathered together on this special 50-track 2-CD set. An added bonus is the inclusion of 'live' recordings of several of their Warner Bros country hits from the mid-1980s to complete the most comprehensive coverage of the NGDB's 45-year recording career.
The NGDB roots can be traced back to the early 1960s in Long Beach, California when high school students Bruce Kunkel and Jeff Hanna formed a folk duo called The New Coast Two. By the time the pair were college students, they were having informal jams at a Santa Monica, guitar shop called McCabe's. That evolved into the Illegitimate Jug Band, a kind of loose musical aggregate that included other like-minded students: Jackson Browne, Jimmie Fadden, Leslie Thompson, Ralph Barr and John McEuen. Changing their name to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1966, John's elder brother, Bill, became their manager and producer. They signed with Liberty Records and released their debut album THE NITTY GRITTY DIRT BAND and made the American pop charts with Buy For Me The Rain in 1967. A second album, RICOCHET, though critically acclaimed, was a commercial failure. By this time band members were coming and going at an alarming rate. Their first electric album, 1968's RARE JUNK, was another sales disaster and after they released a fourth album, ALIVE, the band more or less split up. In 1970, a new line-up of McEuen, Hanna, Fadden, Thompson and newcomer Jimmie Ibbotson got together to make UNCLE CHARLIE AND HIS DOG TEDDY. Though still rooted in their jug band style, there was more of a country sound and the band broke through into the pop top ten with their folk-country cover of Jerry Jeff Walker's Mr. Bojangles.
"When we first started I certainly didn't think beyond next week," Jeff Hanna explained a couple of years ago. "I wasn't sure that I would be fortunate enough to be a professional musician, because we were all teenagers. John was the only guy who wasn't a teenager-he was twenty when we first started. In the jug band days, it was just kind of getting together to play music. I think that in your part of the world skiffle is more probably the appropriate term of what we were doing. If I am not mistaken, skiffle and jug band music are pretty closely related. I noticed in a lot of my favourite bands from the UK, that a lot of times they were into the skiffle form too. I think it is a great jumping off place, a great place to start. It's a lot of fun."
Slowly the band members began to think beyond next week and were looking seriously at a long-lasting music career. Their next album, ALL THE GOOD TIMES, had even more of a country feel, but by this time, the band had already started work on the epic WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN. Some of the veteran Nashville stars were sceptical and suspicious at first of the band members and their amplified instruments, but the ice was broken when they saw how respectful the band was toward them and their work, and their music, as well as how serious they were about their own music. The resulting triple album, became a million-seller and elicited positive reviews from both the rock and country music press.
Throughout their career, the NGDB has produced an eclectic body of work. Throughout the 1970s, almost as important as the music were the lavish gate-fold sleeves they produced for their albums. It was extreme extravagance, bearing in mind that they were never a big-selling act, but it did help to make each and every release an event. Luckily, the music contained within those classic vinyl LPs was always first-class, pushing the envelope in a way that no major label hierarchy of today would ever allow.
They reached something of a peak very early in their career with the CIRCLE triple-LP set that introduced a rock'n'roll generation to the unvarnished joys of time-honoured American folk, country, bluegrass and gospel tunes played and sung by down-home musicians who didn't know a rock star from a rock lobster. In retrospect, the original CIRCLE was both the spiritual godfather of the more recent multi-million-selling O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? soundtrack and the handsome step-child of legendary musicologist Harry Smith's incredibly influential 1952 set, ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC. These recordings were crucibles where talent and passion percolated into art.
The NGDB succeeded with CIRCLE because they were willing to meet country and bluegrass music on the terms of those two branches of traditional music, rather than as rock musicians. Simply put, it is quite wonderful with its absolutely authentic country songs and world class pickin'. It remains a timeless gift to country music's heritage thanks to a bunch of California musicians who spoke more like surfers than hillbillies and had to prove themselves to the Nashville establishment. A landmark recording, the album has grown in stature over the years and the NGDB have returned to the same premise in 1989 with WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN VOLUME 2 and again in 2002 with WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN, VOLUME 3.
Shortly after the original CIRCLE's release, Les Thompson departed, reducing the NGDB to a quartet. In 1974 they released STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER, a live set that again featured a lavish fold-out cover. Following 1975's SYMPHONION DREAM, the band released the retrospective triple-LP compilation DIRT, SILVER AND GOLD in late 1976. Jimmy Ibbotson left soon after and was replaced by Bob Carpenter as they shortened their name to the Dirt Band. They became more closely aligned to a pop-rock sound and far less eccentric as they chased some kind of commercial acceptance. It looked as though the ploy was working, as they made it back into the pop top twenty with An American Dream in 1980 with Linda Ronstadt guesting on harmony vocals, followed by Make A Little Magic.
By 1982 they had reverted again to being called the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Jimmy Ibbotson back in the line-up. They finally made a breakthrough to the country charts with 1983's Dance Little Jean. That led to a change of record labels to Warner Bros. and a concerted effort to make it as a country act. They immediately hit with 1984's PLAIN DIRT FASHION, establishing a fine modern country sound that resulted in several top ten country hits including Rodney Crowell's Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper's Dream) which gave the band their very first number one hit on any American chart. For the next five years they rarely put a foot wrong on the country charts and also released the superb albums PARTNERS, BROTHERS AND FRIENDS and WORKIN' BAND.
McEuen left the group at end of 1985 due to musical differences and embarked on a solo career as a movie music composer and multi-instrumentalist and has recorded several solo albums for Vanguard. Former Eagle Bernie Leadon was brought in, but he never became a fully-fledged member. In 1989 they moved over to Universal Records to record WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN VOLUME 2. The collective band members drew on the finest talent contemporary American country music had to offer-Johnny Cash, the Carter Family, Emmylou Harris, Roy Acuff, John Prine, Jimmy Martin, John Hiatt, Rosanne Cash and members of Highway 101 and New Grass Revival were among the artists who joined in the sessions. They scored country hits with And So It Goes (John Denver on lead vocals) and One Step Over the Line (featuring John Hiatt and Rosanne Cash) as the album became a big-seller and won the Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance (duo or group) and the Country Music Association's Album of the Year Award in 1989.
The band continued throughout the 1990s releasing several albums that reflected their usual country-bluegrass roots. They celebrated their 25th anniversary in 1992 with LIVE TWO FIVE on Capitol/Liberty, a live album recorded in Alberta, Canada. 1994's ACOUSTIC was a vastly underrated gem, and is now considered one of the NGDB's finest moments and is most notable as it featured the original version of Bless The Broken Road, a song which lay around for years before finally making a massive impression with the record-buying public when recorded by Rascal Flatts.
"That's a song that I co-wrote up with my friend Marcus Hummon and Bobby Boyd," Jeff Hanna explained. "We co-wrote that together in 1994. It was actually inspired by our personal lives .. of how we're all talking about things that happen in your life and you get heartbroken and how you think things are really lousy and then a relationship brings you something better and you never know what lies ahead. Often it turns out to be something that is much better and I think that we got the truth there. I'd just got back from my honeymoon-and she wasn't my first wife-and Marcus and I started talking about that. He started talking about his personal life, and Bobby added a rendition to that, and we wrote about it. It's a very personal statement for all of us and it wasn't really about how is this going to go in the charts."
"What we noticed was that it was less about the radio airplay but more about the people coming and stopping us and saying: 'I really loved that song, we can really relate, we're using that for our wedding.' It became a wedding song. People were really moved by the message, and we thought: 'Gosh, maybe this has a broader appeal then we thought.'"
The wife that Jeff mentioned whom he married in 1994 was acclaimed Music Row songwriter Matraca Berg. Over the years Matraca has penned hits for most major country stars-everyone from Reba McEntire to Suzy Bogguss. She is also a talented singer in her own right, and though she came close to a commercial breakthrough, has remained better-known as a tunesmith than singer.
The songwriting ability of the various members of the NGDB is often overshadowed by their vocal and musical skills, and the guest musicians they often attract to appear on their recordings. Over the years they have penned some quite amazing songs, both for the band's own albums and songs that have been covered by other acts. One of the best songs from the band's vast repertoire that I regard as an unknown classic by the Dirt Band is Face On The Cutting Room Floor which they co-wrote with the late and vastly underrated Steve Goodman.
"Thank you very much I appreciate that," Jeff acknowledged. "Jimmie and I wrote that song together with Steve and that was a really big moment for us. Jimmie and I were really proud of the fact that we had the opportunity to write with him. It is still one of our favourites. It was written just a few months before we lost him. He was great and the cliche of living everyday was totally true for Stephen and he was always upbeat and his energy was always there right till the very end. We was very fortunate to know him. He was a great friend of ours and one of the great songwriters I think of the twentieth century."
The late 1990s proved to be trying time for the NGDB when it came to recordings. Their hopes were raised when they were signed to the new Rising Tide Records in Nashville. Following the release of their first Christmas album in 1997, they completed a new studio album, BANG, BANG, BANG, but Rising Tide was shuttered before it was released. Initially is was going to be issued by Decca, then it finally got a 'soft' release on DreamWorks and more-or-less disappeared without trace.
That could well have been the end of the NGDB, but if nothing else the band has remained resilient. They returned to the EMI fold for WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN, VOLUME 3. Released on Capitol-Nashville in 2002, the 28-song project featured such Circle alumni as Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin and Doc Watson, alongside younger artists like Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam. Other special guests included such bluegrass stalwarts as the Del McCoury Band, bluesman Taj Mahal, Americana chanteuse Iris DeMent, and rocker Tom Petty. The 2-CD set captured many outstanding musical moments. Tom Petty joined Willie Nelson on Goodnight Irene, Alison Krauss revived the Johnny Russell hit Catfish John, and Dwight Yoakam served up the Gram Parsons/Chris Hillman country-rock classic Wheels. The album also became somewhat of a family affair, as NGDB members Hanna and McEuen's sons, Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen joined forces on Lowlands. Doc Watson's grandson Richard played guitar with him on Milk Cow Blues and I Am A Pilgrim. Del McCoury and sons Ronnie and Rob kicked off the album with the classic Take Me To Your Life Boat. The elder Hanna's wife, singer-songwriter Matraca Berg, duetted with Emmylou Harris on the Berg/Gary Harrison penned Oh Cumberland.
As with any institution, time and circumstances have continually changed the face and sound of the group. The current line-up of Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, John McEuen and Bob Carpenter remains as busy and enthusiastic about making music as they've ever been. The NGDB style is very much a no-frills approach. Their watchwords are catchy and memorable melodies, simple, but highly effective lyrics, great picking on mainly traditional instruments-acoustic and slide guitars, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, accordion, harmonica-and great rootsy harmonies with several different vocal leads, but maintaining what I've come to recognise over the years as the NGDB sound.
While the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band have never reached superstar status, Hanna says that band members were keenly aware of the pitfalls that accompanied fame. "We refused to break up over petty stuff," he noted. "And we're lucky. None of us had the livers to abuse cocaine and alcohol. We never really ran up big bills, never sold billions of records. We've always just been a working band that realised we needed each other. We love playing music and it is less about being superstars and more about being able to play music for a living and able to have a good time."
Alan Cackett (editor of Maverick)