THE NITTY GRITTY DIRT BAND
A lot media time has been spent lately documenting some famous rock group that is re-forming many years after they imploded or exploded. That can be important news, but it does tend to overshadow those bands that don’t have to re-form because they never broke up. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is one of those. They’ve re-invented themselves a few times, and only two of the original members remain in the band, but they have a long and happily continuing legacy of providing excellent roots music.
In the early 1960s, Los Angeles was a hotbed of new music. And old music. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band formed in Long Beach in 1966 as a sort of good time jug band. Their music often favored old timey string band music, and they performed a few choice originals. They also dressed in “old timey” period costumes. Handlebar moustaches and mutton chop sideburns were de rigueur. Spats were encouraged. Jeff Hanna played guitar and sang and Jimmie Fadden did the same. Along with the other band members, they wrestled with a few other color instruments as well. Part of the show was the on-going parade of instruments being passed around the stage as each member decided what to play on what song. Jackson Browne was an early transition member. Instrumentation included guitar, banjo, mandolin, washboard, jug, harmonica, washtub, clarinet, kazoo, and washtub bass. They were not Cream.
The second incarnation of the band added John McEuen on banjo, and landed the band a hit with Steve Noonan’s still elegant Buy for Me the Rain. Although it featured a timeless lyric and a beautiful melody, Buy for Me the Rain was much more a pop song than an old time ballad. But top hats and frock coats still abounded.
The next version of the band included multi-instrumentalist Chris Darrow. The NGDB landed a movie role in Paint Your Wagon, working with famous singers such as Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. Really.
Darrow exited and Jimmie Ibbotson joined. They did the critically acclaimed record Uncle Charlie and their version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s Mr. Bojangles made the top 10 pop charts. They then recorded their iconic Will the Circle Be Unbroken triple LP, exposing many of their pop fans to the talents of Nashville’s best for the first time. Artists who participated included Merle Travis, Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Jimmie Martin and Mother Maybelle Carter. The band’s wide lapelled suits and top hats were replaced by jeans and boots. Fadden took up the drums.
In the time following, they dropped to the quartet of Hanna, Fadden, McEuen and Ibbotson. Then Ibbotson left. They toured extensively, adding two new bass/guitar/vocal members.
Then those two departed and others entered to add keyboards, sax and bass, including a gent named Bob Carpenter. He would become a constant. They hit the pop charts again with Linda Ronstadt and American Dream, and were the backup band to Steve Martin’s hit of King Tut. Really.
Ibbotson rejoined, and they scored a couple of Nashville Top 10 country hits, having somehow become a country band overnight. They celebrated 20 years as a band. McEuen left for a solo career.
Next up country rock legend Bernie Leadon joined the fold, and more country hits followed, including Fishin’ in the Dark and Baby’s Got A Hold On Me. The NGDB started raking up County Music Association award nominations. Then they grabbed one in 1989, along with 3 Grammys.
Following this, they held a stable line up for over ten years. The quartet of Hanna, Fadden, Ibbotson and Carpenter released Will The Circle Be Unbroken II. They celebrated 30 years as a band, still touring and pleasing fans worldwide. They did a Christmas album.
McEuen returned and they were a quintet. They released Will the Circle Be Unbroken III. In 2004, Ibbotson left the band. In 2006, they marked 40 years as a band.
A quartet again, they toured, and won a Grammy for best country instrumental. In 2009, they released their first studio album in five years; Speed of Life. It’s a tremendous project, providing an organic, acoustic sound that may be their best effort since Uncle Charlie. Really.
Their first for Sugar Hill Records, it’s produced by John Randall Stewart and George Massenburg. This project both harkens back to the most fruitful creative period in the NGDB‘s long history, and also captures bits and pieces of strengths they picked up along the long road they’ve travelled.
Speed of Life starts off with Jeff singing Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble To Me, a catchy should-be-but-won’t be country hit. Hanna and Donny Lowery wrote Brand New Heartache, a bluegrassy tune with those melted butter harmonies that the Dirt Band are famous for. The title tune is a Gary Scruggs number, lovingly done. Amazing Love was penned by Carpenter, Hanna and Tom Kell, and it’s one of those love songs that are more than just pretty. If upon first listen Tryin’ to Try sounds a lot like a Guy Clark song, you’d be half right. The co-writer is Jimmie Fadden and he sings it well. They rip into two fairly well known covers, and pull both off well. Going Up the Country is a pastiche of blues tunes that Alan Wilson seamlessly pulled together while in Canned Heat, and the NGDB version is full of banjo and country blues fun. There’s a big fun factor in Stuck in the Middle with You. The NGDB make this into a back porch lament, and leave you wanting more.
So after forty years, too many recordings to count, a bazillion live shows and a lot of miles, the NGDB can still make new, vibrant music that also sounds like the NGDB. Good deal.
Make sure you catch the NGDB if they play your town, and until then, go out and enjoy live music, tip your waitress and bartender, and remember: you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.
Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.