In 1971 the Nitty Gritty Dirt
Band (NGDB) was riding high on the success of the album "Uncle Charlie
and His Dog Teddy" - which
included the smash hit version of the Jerry Jeff Walker song "Mr.
Bojangles." Still, the band was
seeking to add depth to the authenticity of its pioneering country-rock
sound. Then, just two months
after the conception of a side project that would pair them with their
bluegrass and country heroes,
NGDB found itself in Nashville recording what would become the next
year's landmark album, Will
the Circle Be Unbroken.
Three decades later the platinum
album - recently released in an expanded, remastered 30th-anniversary
edition by Capitol Records -
stands as a testament to the group's place in history, and its continuing
ability to successfully bridge
the gap between contemporary and traditional music.
2001 marked the return of
co-founder John McEuen to the fold after several years of solo pursuits,
rejoining Jeff Hanna, Jimmy
Ibbotson, Jimmie Fadden, and Bob Carpenter, all of whom are
contributing to the band's well-rounded sound. "With Johnny back, we feel as
if the band’s really come
full-circle," Ibbotson says. The re-established lineup is currently booking
summer and fall dates throughout
North America for its Reunion Tour 2002 and will be returning to the
studio in the near future.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band grew
from jams at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Long Beach, Calif., in the mid-
1960s, with the group's sound
shaped by its members' influences - from the '50s rock'n'roll of Eddie
Cochran, the Everly Brothers, and
Elvis, to the popular folk music of the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul &
Mary, and the Dillards.
"Working backwards from them, we
discovered the harder stuff," Fadden says, referring to the roots
music of Doc Watson, Flatt &
Scruggs, the Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, and Sonny Terry &
Brownie McGhee. "We were all sort
of hardcore folk fans. And when we got together to play, we were
drawing from ragtime, bluegrass,
country blues, and music from the '30s… That combination was a lot
of fun for us."
"We started as a roots American
band and evolved into what was a new form of popular music,
country-rock," McEuen says of the
movement that also produced such notable bands as Poco and the
Flying Burrito Brothers in
California, and the Band on the East Coast. "I think our contribution to
music was that we brought more of
a bluegrass and mountain feel to it," McEuen adds. "And that
musical thread has remained the
significant core of our music."
As with any institution, time and
circumstances have continually changed the face and sound of the
group. Continued expansion and
contraction of the band has created a storied list of NGDB alumni that
includes Jackson Browne (in an
early start-up incarnation of the band), noted folk multi-instrumentalist
Chris Darrow, and Eagles/Flying
Burrito Brothers member Bernie Leadon, among others.
Throughout its career, the Nitty
Gritty Dirt Band has placed 21 albums on Billboard's albums charts, and
some 30 songs on the magazine's
singles tallies, many of them penned by the band's members. A shift to a
more pop friendly sound scored
the band the 1980 mainstream hits "American Dream" (with Linda
Ronstadt) and "Make a Little
Magic" (with Nicolette Larson). In 1982, after a few years of being known as
simply "the Dirt Band," the
group's name was restored to its full length, and its focus to country
Throughout the '80s, NGDB put
song after song on country radio – starting with their breakthrough hit
“Dance Little Jean” and including
the No. 1 hits "Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper's Dream)"
(1984), "Modern Day Romance"
(1985), and "Fishin' in the Dark" (1987). During this successful time,
the band was among such still
revered artists of the contemporary country/Americana movement as
Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett,
Rodney Crowell, and Steve Earle on the airwaves.
The 2002 Capitol reissue of
Will the Circle Be Unbroken comes on the heels of renewed mainstream
interest in roots music thanks to
the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. While
Hanna acknowledges that it's
something that will serve the band well, he considers the resurgence as a
natural part of the popular
"I think Americans have a real
sense of history and looking at music in that context is great," he says.
"And if people can become
acquainted with the roots of all forms of American music, I think we, as a
whole, can only benefit from it."
For Will the Circle Be
Unbroken, then-manager/producer Bill McEuen (brother of group co-founder
John) had the idea to take the
band to record in Nashville with some of their musical idols. Armed with
an obvious respect for
traditional music, NGDB won over an elite cast of Music City's greatest.
the help of noted banjo/guitar
virtuoso Earl Scruggs (whose sons were Dirt Band fans), such veterans as
Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle
Carter, Merle Travis, Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin, and Vassar Clements,
were enlisted for the sessions.
"It was a terrific time that was
too brief," Hanna says of those six days spent recording in Nashville.
"But it was great... Every day
was like Christmas."
The group revisited the concept
on 1989's Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2. The heralded set once
again featured Acuff, Scruggs,
and Martin, along with a new cast that included Johnny Cash, the Carter
Family, John Denver, Bruce
Hornsby, John Hiatt, the Byrds' Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn, and
Chet Atkins. The 20-track release
earned the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band the Country Music Association's
album of the year award.
Additionally the set garnered a trio of Grammy Awards, including best
country performance by a duo or
group with vocal.
In 1991, the Nitty Gritty Dirt
Band celebrated its 25th anniversary as a group with the concert set Live
Two-Five, which not only
included 15 of the band's classics, but a set-closing cover of Bruce
Springsteen's "Cadillac Ranch."
Along with a substantial touring regimen, the years since have seen the
band appear on the Buddy Holly
tribute album "Not Fade Away" and the Grammy award-winning
Chieftains album "Another
Country," and have yielded several notable NGDB albums, including 1994's
"Acoustic" and 1999's "Bang Bang