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The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

The rise of country-rock in the late 1960s introduced a down-home sound to a younger and hipper audience, and few if any groups hewed closer to country traditions -- and enjoyed a longer career -- than the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. They first emerged as part of the jug band revival that spawned acts like the Lovin' Spoonful and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, adding a dash of vaudeville humor (as evidence by their 1967 album Ricochet), but they matured into a sound informed by classic string bands and bluegrass when they scored their breakthrough hit with 1970's "Mr. Bojangles" (from the album Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy). They celebrated the pioneers of country music with 1972's Will the Circle Be Unbroken, an ambitious triple album with guest appearances from Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Earl Scruggs, and many more that won them praise as one of the most authentic country-rock acts. By the early 1980s, the group had polished their sound and added a soft rock accent, and with 1982's "Dance Little Jean," they scored the first of 15 Top Ten country singles they'd issue through the end of the decade. (This era is summarized on a pair of compilations, 1986's Twenty Years of Dirt and 1989's More Great Dirt.) As their mainstream profile faded and they re-introduced themselves to the folk community in the 1990s and 2000s, they returned to a more traditional style and slowed their release schedule, but they continued to tour often and went into the studio periodically to create rootsy efforts like 2009's Speed of Life and 2022's Dirt Does Dylan. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's story dates back to Southern California in the early 1960s, when Jeff Hanna (guitar, mandolin, and vocals) and Bruce Kunkel (guitar, kazoo, and vocals) were high school friends who started performing together as the New Coast Two. By 1966, Hanna and Kunkel were interested in forming a larger group rather than having to get straight jobs, and from hanging out at McCabe's Guitar Shop, a popular music store in Long Beach, they met several like-minded young musicians who shared their interest in folk, folk-rock, and acoustic music. After jamming together, the first lineup of the NGDB was formed, with Hanna and Kunkel joined by Jimmie Fadden (guitar, harmonica, washtub bass, and vocals), Ralph Barr (guitar, clarinet, and vocals), Les Thompson (guitar, mandolin, and vocals), and Jackson Browne (guitar and vocals). Clad in retro-style pinstripe suits and cowboy boots, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band quickly developed a following on California's folk and rock scene, but within a few months, Browne dropped out to focus on songwriting, and John McEuen took his place, handling banjo, guitar, mandolin, and washtub bass. John's brother William E. McEuen came aboard as the group's manager, and he helped the band land a contract with Liberty Records, which issued their self-titled debut album in March 1967. A song from the LP, "Buy Me for the Rain," became a modest hit, peaking at Number 45 on the singles chart, and a second album, Ricochet, was issued in September 1967. While it was a fine piece of work, Ricochet's sales were unimpressive, and Bruce Kunkel was eager for the NGDB to adopt a more rock-oriented, electric sound. His bandmates had different ideas, and Kunkel quit, with Chris Darrow (guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and vocals) taking his place in the lineup. With Darrow in the act, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did add drums and some electric instruments on their next two albums, the studio set Rare Junk (1968) and the concert souvenir Alive! (1969). The band also landed small parts in the 1970 western musical Paint Your Wagon and accompanied leading man Lee Marvin on the song "Hand Me Down That Can o' Beans," which appeared on the film's soundtrack album. After finishing work on Paint Your Wagon, the group left California to settle in Aspen, Colorado, and they focused on a more organic sound informed by bluegrass and classic string band music. Their approach was introduced on the 1970 LP Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, which included a cover of the Jerry Jeff Walker tune "Mr. Bojangles." The song became a surprise hit, peaking at number nine on the singles chart, and the LP went to number 66 on the U.S. albums survey, their highest placement yet. By 1971, Ralph Barr and Chris Darrow had left the group, and they moved forward as a quintet, with the addition of Jimmy Ibbotson on guitars, keyboards, drums, accordion, and vocals. Liberty Records folded and was absorbed by United Artists Records in time for the release of 1971's All The Good Times. In 1972, the NGDB traveled to Nashville, where they started work on an unusual project, recording an album almost entirely devoted to classic country and bluegrass tunes with guest appearances from legendary artists such as Mother Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and Merle Travis. Will The Circle Be Unbroken received uniformly excellent reviews and earned the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band a new credibility among fans of classic country and roots music; it went to number four on the Top Country Albums chart, despite its massive three-LP length, and would in time earn a platinum sales designation. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band continued to explore their country influences on 1974's Stars & Stripes Forever, a mix of live and studio material that introduced a four-piece edition of the group after Les Thompson left the lineup. Their popularity with both rock and country audiences was reflected in their live work of the period, with the group headlining a bluegrass festival and opening for Aerosmith within the space of a week in 1974. In 1975, they delivered the album Symphonion Dream, which would be Jimmy Ibbotson's last with the NGDB. Following his departure, John Cable and Jackie Clark signed on with the group, both trading off on guitar and bass. In 1976, they were chosen by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to be the first American group to tour the Soviet Union; their tour made headlines in the U.S.S.R. and at home, and along with playing four weeks of concerts, they performed a televised show seen by an estimated 145 million viewers. A three-LP "Best Of" album, Dirt, Silver & Gold, was released that same year. In 1978, the group added some soft rock gloss to their approach and streamlined their name to the Dirt Band, issuing the album The Dirt Band that year, with another revamped lineup. Hanna, Fadden, and McEuen were joined by multi-instrumentalist Al Garth (saxophone, fiddle, keyboards, percussion, and vocals), bassist Richard Hathaway, and drummer Merel Bregante. The group also had a secret hit single, appearing on Steve Martin's novelty smash "King Tut" under the alias the Toot Uncommons. (The band's longtime manager and producer, William E. McEuen, also produced Martin's comedy albums and guided the stand-up performer to stardom.) The second album as the Dirt Band, 1979's An American Dream, earned them a pop hit of their own, with the title track (featuring a guest vocal from Linda Ronstadt) going to number 13 on the Hot 100. Another pop hit, "Make a Little Magic," which included vocals from Nicolette Larson, boosted the 1980 LP Make a Little Magic. At this point, Bob Carpenter made his bow with the group on keyboards and accordion. When EMI purchased United Artists Records, they discontinued the UA brand and revived the Liberty Records banner, and the Dirt Band found themselves back on their old label for 1981's Jealousy. They went back to calling themselves the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and welcomed back Jimmy Ibbotson in time to record 1982's Let's Go. The first single from the set, "Shot Full of Love," became a hit country single, going to number 19, and the follow up, "Dance Little Jean," did even better, topping out at number nine country. Let's Go was the NGDB's last album under their deal with Liberty, and with a pair of country hits under their belt, they soon landed a recording deal with Warner Bros. Records. 1984's Plain Dirt Fashion, their first full-length for the label, blended their rootsy inclinations with mainstream country production, and the formula produced a two more country hits, "Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper's Dream)" (number one) and "I Love Only You" (number three), while the album made it to the country Top Ten. It was the beginning of an impressive run of country hits for the band. Their next three albums -- 1985's Partners, Brothers and Friends, 1987's Hold On, and 1988's Workin' Band -- would spawn a total of nine 45s that rose to the country Top Ten, even though John McEuen would leave the group in 1988, with Bernie Leadon, formerly of the Eagles, taking his place for the Workin' Band sessions. Leadon's tenure in the band was short, and they were reduced to a quartet when they moved to Universal Records to record 1990's Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2, a sequel to their enduring classic that featured veteran artists such as the Carter Family and Johnny Cash as well as contemporary traditionalists like Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Levon Helm, and John Prine. They jumped to MCA for 1991's The Rest of the Dream, then bounced back to Liberty, which that same year brought out a concert recording, Live Two Five, produced by T-Bone Burnett. The NGDB took part in a special project in 1992: they were one of a number of American folk and country artists who collaborated with the iconic Irish traditional group the Chieftains for their album Another Country, which also included Willie Nelson, Ricky Skaggs, and Chet Atkins. The band also issued an LP of their own that year, Not Fade Away, with Suzy Bogguss lending duet vocals to the song "Don't Underestimate Love." Having championed acoustic music through much of their career, it made sense that they would cut an "unplugged" set, 1994's Acoustic, which was steeped in what they called their "wooden sound." The group cut a cover of Buddy Holly's classic "Maybe Baby" for the 1996 Holly tribute LP Not Fade Away (Remembering Buddy Holly), and they helped celebrate the holiday season with 1997's The Christmas Album, released by the MCA-distributed Rising Tide label. Their final salvo of the 20th century was 1998's Bang Bang Bang, released during a short-lived stint with Dreamworks Nashville. In 2001, John McEuen returned to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in time to take part in the sessions for 2002's Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 3, another star-studded homage to vintage country, with this edition's guests including Alison Krauss, Dwight Yoakam, Iris DeMent, and Tom Petty. The group returned to a rootsy, good-time folk-country sound for 2004's Welcome to Woody Creek, which was primarily recorded in Colorado and dominated by new material written by the group. Later in 2004, the group won a Grammy for their performance of "Earl's Breakdown." Near the end of the year, Jimmy Ibbotson left the band, and they continued on as a quartet to record their next studio effort, 2009's Speed of Life; like Welcome to Woody Creek, it was a product of NGDB Records, a label they founded for their own projects. On September 15, 2015, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band acknowledged their upcoming 50th anniversary as a group with a special concert at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. The show featured appearances from former members Jimmy Ibbotson and Jackson Browne, bluegrass legends Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, and friends and admirers John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Rodney Crowell, and more. The event was recorded for posterity and was released by NGDB Records in 2016 as Circlin' Back: Celebrating 50 Years. The group set out on an anniversary tour that lasted the better part of two years, and when the touring cycle ended in 2017, John McEuen, weary of life on the road, once again dropped out of the group. Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, and Bob Carpenter soldiered on, adding three new musicians to the band: Jaime Hanna (Jeff's son) on guitar, Ross Holmes on fiddle and mandolin, and Jim Photoglo on bass. This edition of the NGDB traveled to Nashville to record with producer Ray Kennedy, making an album in tribute to one of Jeff Hanna's first musical influences, Bob Dylan (whom Hanna saw perform at a high school in Long Beach in 1964, not long before he went electric). Dirt Does Dylan arrived in March 2022, featuring ten songs from the Dylan songbook.
© Mark Deming /TiVo


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