The Real Nitty Gritty On 30 Years of Country Rock (1996)

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 2003
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 2003
(From left) Jeff Hanna, John McEuen, Jimmy Ibbotson, Bob Carpenter and Jimmie Fadden
photo by Senor McGuire/Capitol

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has been around long enough to have played in some strange places.

The pioneering country rock band, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in May, has opened for everyone from comedian Jack Benny to the rock group Aerosmith.

It was among the first Western bands to play the USSR before democracy split the Soviet Union. Its landmark 1972 album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, built a bridge between traditional country performers and a new, longer-haired generation of fans. 

But among the thousands of performances, one concert sticks out in drummer Jimmie Fadden’s mind.

“We played a show on Steel Pier in Atlantic City [New Jersey] next to the Flying Berazini Brothers,” recalled Fadden, who shares lifelong charter membership in The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with singer and guitarist Jeff Hanna.

“We were onstage in between a high-wire act and a dog act,” Fadden said, laughing. “Over 30 years, we’ve managed to have a real varied observation of the world.”

The band’s exploration of the world—both its geography and its music—began in 1966 in Long Beach, Calif. It was just a group of friends who got together, calling themselves The Illegitimate Jug Band, to play little-known folk tunes and blues. The band rechristened itself as The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band when it started getting paid in money instead of pizza.

“I think it’s been great that we’ve been allowed to have a career that has spanned this much time,” said Hanna, 48. “It’s a combination of hard work and blind luck. And we like each other, too.”

Band alumni include such impressive musical luminaries as star songwriter Jackson Browne, Bluegrass banjo player John McEuen and former Eagle Bernie Leadon.

Over the course of its 27 albums, The Dirt Band has dabbled in Bluegrass, traditional country and country rock. They even managed to squeeze in a few pop hits like “Mr. Bojangles” and “An American Dream” along the way.

“We experimented a lot musically,” Hanna said. “Part of what’s kept us together was not going through the same tire tracks over and over. Country fans also tend to be much more loyal than pop music fans, which is great for us. We appreciate that a lot.”

The band’s crowning achievement as purveyors of country rock was its groundbreaking all-acoustic album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

“I wish I could relive those days,” Hanna said with a sigh. 

Recorded in a week and a half in 1972, Will the Circle Be Unbroken featured such country and Bluegrass pioneers as Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Roy Acuff teaming up with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in Nashville.

“There was so much hero worship going on on our part that the proceedings were a blur,” Hanna said. “We had just started having fun, and by the time we realized how cool it was, it was time to pack up and leave Nashville.”

Jimmie Fadden also has many treasured memories of the experience—including the first-time meeting between two legends, Doc Watson and Merle Travis.

“Doc had named his son Merle for Merle Travis, who was a real icon in the world of guitar playing,” said Fadden, 47. “I was surprised they hadn’t met before.

“Getting a chance to tune Maybelle Carter’s Autoharp for her and getting a chance to play it on a song was also great. The sessions went by so quickly, that it was just a dream.”

“Roy Acuff was one person who was kind of resistant at first when we met with him,” Hanna said. “He wasn’t quite convinced we were the real deal, I think, because of the way we looked, being scraggly, long-haired guys from Southern California, and here was Nashville in the early ’70s.

“At the end of Merle Travis’ sessions, Roy came down to the studio, snuck in through the back door and listened to it. Roy said, ‘Well, that ain’t nothing but country.’ He showed up the next day for his sessions.”

The album won critical acclaim, but the band’s mainstream country success didn’t begin until more than a decade later. The band had its first No. 1 country hit in 1984 with “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream) the first of 14 consecutive Top 10 hits in the next five years. Its other No. 1 country songs were “Modern Day Romance” and “Fishin’ in the Dark.”

Aging more gracefully than a bottle of wine, the current core of Hanna, Fadden, Jimmy Ibbotson and Bob Carpenter has been intact since 1987. As they enter a fourth decade, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band shows no signs of slowing down.

Although they’re in negotiations with a new label, Hanna promised his fans that they’ll be back in the studio by the end of the year. “It’s been two years since we’ve made an album. We’ve got plenty of material.”

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