If you know anything about the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, you know to take jug bands seriously. Although this CMA and Grammy Award-winning country rock group has come a long way from its humble beginnings, they’ve never forgotten the roots music at their foundation.
Singer-guitarists Jeff Hanna and Bruce Kunkel had been in a couple of bands together before starting the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1966. The two residents of Long Beach, California often went to jam sessions focused on traditional country and blues. That’s where they assembled a collection of instrumentalists that included clarinet, washboard, and harmonica players. Among them was drummer Jimmie Fadden, who became one the band’s most permanent members. Jackson Browne was briefly involved too, but he had a solo career to attend to, so they replaced him with John McEuen, an outstanding banjo player who could also handle pretty much any other stringed instrument.
They signed with Liberty Records and released their first album, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, in 1967. A successful single called “Buy for Me the Rain” got them into the Top 40 and landed them some high-profile gigs. Jackson Browne left his stamp on the album despite not playing on it. Two of his songs are on the track list, including “Holding.” It’s interesting to hear this early NGDB recording, in which they’re going for a voice-centered, California rock sound, pushing their country and bluegrass identity – their greatest strength – far into the background.
After the first two albums, founding member Kunkel grew frustrated that his bandmates weren’t interested in either more original songwriting or a more standard electric rock set-up. He left, and Chris Darrow joined up (sadly, he died in 2020), only to find the band deciding to switch to electric instruments anyway. It did not go well at first. Rare Junk (1968) tanked.
They’d found their balance by the time Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy came out in 1970. The album produced three charting singles, with Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” reaching the No. 9 spot. One nice surprise on this album is their cover of “Propinquity” by the Monkees’ Michael Nesmith. The lonesome harmonica turns it into the country heartbreaker ballad that the Monkees seem to be reaching for but not quite attaining on their own recording.
Although urban California brought them together, in 1971 the members of NGDB agreed to relocate to woodsy rural Colorado (hence their 2015 induction into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame), which has remained their center of operations.
In an effort to gain some traction with country and country blues royalty, John McEuen started approaching marquis-toppers and asking them into the studio. The resulting project, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, stretched over three albums and several decades, and features guest appearances by Earl Scruggs, Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Doc Watson, and others. Here’s Watson’s lead vocal and guitar on the Jimmy Driftwood tune “Tennessee Stud.” The studio chatter before the take starts is priceless.
In 1975, guitarist/singer Jimmy Ibbotson, who had joined in 1969, left for a solo career. Starting then and lasting through 1981 (at which point, Ibbotson returned), NGDB went through a phase of calling themselves just the Dirt Band. They named their 1978 record after this new iteration. During this period, they also added keyboardist Bob Carpenter, who still tours with them. The addition of someone focused on keyboards added a distinctively pop element to their sound.
The Dirt Band includes many of the regulars plus a studio full of guests. One of the tracks, John McEuen’s “White Russia,” is a top-notch banjo romp, with wild and sudden instrumental changes for each chorus to bring in jazz and klezmer sounds:
Genre-jumping is probably a key to NGDB’s long-lasting success and wide appeal. The album Let’s Go (1983) finds the band in solid country mode, and it sold well to that market. But they also branch out into an island sound, with steel drums and everything, on their cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Never Together (But Close Sometimes).” Jeff Hanna even hints at a Jamaican accent in his vocals.
The band’s popularity continued to climb through 1987’s Hold On, garnering them the top-of-chart single “Fishin’ in the Dark.” That song is by Wendy Waldman and Jim Photoglo, and continues the band’s tradition of focusing on an interesting range of covers, with only a few original numbers on each album. For instance, this album’s track list includes Wayland Holyfield’s “Blue Ridge Mountain Girl” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Angelyne.”
But there are always a handful of new songs by band members. “Oleanna” is a heartfelt soft-rock/country hybrid by Jimmie Fadden, whose drumming captures that 1980s Phil Collins sound.
As you can guess from its title, the 1992 album Not Fade Away opens with a Buddy Holly cover. One thing that sets this record apart from previous NGDB efforts is the small number of musicians involved. Only Carpenter, Hanna, Fadden, and Ibbotson, plus guest singer Suzy Bogguss, are credited.
Although they were deeply entrenched in the electronic norms of modern country music, the band continued to show their appreciation for the acoustic traditions at country’s roots. Their toe-tapping version of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” finds an appealing balance between traditional bluegrass and the tropes of contemporary arrangement.
That same quartet recorded Bang, Bang, Bang in 1999. Getting this album released was an unexpected challenge because both its first and second labels, Rising Tide and the country subsidiary of Decca, went out of business before they could put out the album. It finally found a home at DreamWorks.
There’s plenty of sardonic humor on Bang, Bang, Bang, the kind that looks real life right in the face. A good example is the fun Southern rock-style performance of “Forget the Job (Get a Life)” by Steve Bogard and Rick Giles.
The last time NGDB was in the studio for a full album was 2009 for Speed of Life, which they self-released. Although they’re not putting out new material, NGDB is still going strong as a touring band. They’re calling the 2021 tour (assuming COVID-19 cooperates) their 50th anniversary celebration. You can find the details here: https://www.nittygritty.com/tour
In a way, the NGDB has come full circle, back to its origins. You can hear elements of high lonesome, bluegrass, and country blues in the song “Jimmy Martin.” The rhythm section keeps on chuggin’ along, just like this band.