Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is an American country-folk-rock band that has existed in various forms since its founding in Long Beach, California in 1966. The group's membership has had at least a dozen changes over the years, including a period from 1976 to 1981 when the band performed and recorded as The Dirt Band. Constant members since the early times are singer-guitarist Jeff Hanna and drummer Jimmie Fadden. Multi-instrumentalist John McEuen was with the band from 1966 to 1986 and returned during 2001. Keyboardist Bob Carpenter joined the band in 1977. The band is often cited as instrumental to the progression of contemporary country and roots music.
The band's successes include a cover version of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles". Albums include 1972's Will the Circle be Unbroken, featuring such traditional country artists Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, and Jimmy Martin. A follow-up album based on the same concept, Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Two was released in 1989, was certified gold, won two Grammy Awards and was named Album of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards.
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was founded around 1966 in Long Beach, California by singer-guitarist Jeff Hanna and singer-songwriter guitarist Bruce Kunkel who had performed as the New Coast Two and later the Illegitimate Jug Band. Trying, in the words of the band's website, to "figure out how not to have to work for a living," Hanna and Kunkel joined informal jam sessions at McCabe's Guitar Shop. There they met several multi-instrumentalists: guitarist/washtub bassist Ralph Barr, guitarist-clarinetist Les Thompson, harmonicist and jug player Jimmie Fadden and guitarist-vocalist Jackson Browne. As Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the six men started as a jug band and adopted the burgeoning southern California folk rock musical style, playing in local clubs while wearing pinstripe suits and cowboy boots. Their first paying performance was at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, California.
Browne was in the band for only a few months before he left to concentrate on a solo career as a singer-songwriter. He was replaced by John McEuen on banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and steel guitar. McEuen's older brother, William, was the group's manager, and he helped the band get signed with Liberty Records, which released the group's debut album, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band during 1967. The band's first single, "Buy for Me the Rain," was a Top 40 success, and the band gained exposure on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson", as well as concerts with such disparate artists as Jack Benny and The Doors.
A second album, Ricochet was released later during the year and was less successful than their first. Kunkel wanted the band to "go electric", and include more original material. Bruce left the group to form WordSalad and Of The People. He was replaced by guitarist-fiddler Chris Darrow.
By 1968, the band adopted electrical instruments anyway, and added drums. The first electric album, Rare Junk, was a commercial failure, as was their next, Alive!.
The band continued to gain publicity, mainly as a novelty act, making an appearance in the 1968 film, For Singles Only, and a cameo appearance in the 1969 musical western film, Paint Your Wagon, performing "Hand Me Down That Can o' Beans". The band also played Carnegie Hall as an opening act for Bill Cosby and played in a jam session with Dizzy Gillespie.
The group had an inactive period during 1969, reforming in Aspen, Colorado with Jimmy Ibbotson replacing Chris Darrow. With William McEuen as producer and a renegotiated contract that gave the band more artistic freedom, the band recorded and released Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, issued in 1970. Embracing a straight, traditional country and bluegrass sound, the album included the group's best-known single, a cover version of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles".
The next album, All The Good Times, released during early 1972, had a similar style.
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band next sought to solidify its reputation as a country band, traveling to Nashville, Tennessee and recording the triple album, Will the Circle be Unbroken with Nashville stalwarts Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, and Jimmy Martin, country pioneer Mother Maybelle Carter, folk-blues guitarist Doc Watson, and others. The title is from the song, "Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)", as adapted by A. P. Carter, and reflects the album's theme of trying to tie together two generations of musicians: long-haired boys from California and older veterans of the middle American establishment. The track "I Saw the Light" with Acuff singing, was a success, and the album received two nominations for Grammy Award. Veteran fiddler Vassar Clements was introduced to a wider audience by the album. The band also toured Japan during this period.
Les Thompson left the group, making the band a foursome. The next album, Stars & Stripes Forever, was a live album that mixed old successes such as "Buy for Me the Rain" and "Mr. Bojangles" with Circle collaborations (fiddler Vassar Clements was a guest performer) and long storytelling spoken-word monologues. A studio album, Dream, was also released.
During July 1974, the band was among the headline acts at the Ozark Music Festival at the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia, Missouri. Some estimates have estimated the crowd count at 350,000 people, which would make this one of the largest music events in history. At another concert, the band opened for the rock band Aerosmith.
1976-1981: "The Dirt Band"
Jimmy Ibbotson left the band at the end of 1975, leaving Fadden, Hanna, and McEuen. John Cable and Jackie Clark were brought in on guitar and bass. The band shortened its name around this time to The Dirt Band, and released its first greatest successes compilation, Dirt, Silver & Gold, in 1976.
In 1977 the Dirt Band was the first American group allowed by the Soviet Union to tour Russia, playing concerts and a televised appearance that is estimated to have been watched by 145 million people.
Keyboardist Bob Carpenter (who would occasionally sit in with the band from 1975 on) contributed to their 1978 album The Dirt Band and joined the band permanently in 1979. The group's sound became more pop and rock oriented. Saxophonist Al Garth, drummer Merel Bregante, and bassist Richard Hathaway were also added to the lineup in 1978 and Jeff Hanna became the group's producer.
Albums during this period included The Dirt Band and An American Dream. The single "American Dream" with Linda Ronstadt reached No. 13 on the popular music charts. The band also appeared on Saturday Night Live, and, billed as The Toot Uncommons, provided backing for Steve Martin on his million-selling novelty tune, "King Tut."
In 1980 Bregante left the group and drummer Mike Gardner came in to play with the group on tour, only to be succeeded by Vic Mastrianni in 1981. Al Garth (who moved on to Pure Prairie League) was succeeded by Bryan Savage the same year.
The albums Make a Little Magic and Jealousy were released in 1980 and 1981, with the single "Make a Little Magic" featuring Nicolette Larson reaching the Top 25 on the pop chart.
1982-1989: Return To "Nitty Gritty"
The band returned to its original name and its country roots in 1982 with the lineup paring down to Hanna, Fadden, McEuen and Jimmy Ibbotson rejoining for recording sessions in Nashville, Tennessee for the album Let's Go, which yielded the success "Dance Little Jean" which was a Top 10 country hit. Carpenter rejoined the band in 1983 and the next album, 1984's Plain Dirt Fashion had the band's first No. 1 success, "Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper's Dream)".
There were two more No. 1's: "Modern Day Romance" (1985) and "Fishin' in the Dark" (1987). Other successful songs were "Dance Little Jean" (1983); "I Love Only You" (1984); "High Horse" (1985); "Home Again in My Heart," "Partners, Brothers and Friends" and "Stand a Little Rain" (1986); "Fire in the Sky," "Baby's Got a Hold on Me" and "Oh What a Love" (1987); "Workin' Man (Nowhere to Go)" and "I've Been Lookin'" (1988); and "Down That Road Tonight" and "When it's Gone" (1989).
Performances included the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games and the inaugural Farm Aid concert in Champaign, Illinois. A 20-year anniversary concert at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado featured such guests as Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson, and John Prine.
John McEuen left the band at the end of 1986, replaced by Bernie Leadon, formerly of the Eagles. He was with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1987 and 1988. The band's 19th album, Hold On featured the No. 1 singles "Fishin' in the Dark" and "Baby's Got a Hold on Me." The band appeared on the Today Show and The Tonight Show in the same week, and toured Europe.
During 1989, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band again returned to Nashville, to record Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Two. Returnees from the first Circle included Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements, and Roy Acuff. Johnny Cash and the Carter Family, Emmylou Harris, and Ricky Skaggs joined the sessions, as did John Prine, Levon Helm, John Denver, John Hiatt, Bruce Hornsby, and former Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. This album won two Grammy Awards and was named Album of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards for Best Country Vocal Performance (duo or group) and the Country Music Association's Album of the Year Award in 1989.
As a foursome of Hanna, Fadden, Ibbotson and Carpenter, the band again toured the former Soviet Union, as well as Canada, Europe, and Japan. A 25th anniversary concert was recorded on Live Two Five in Red Deer, Alberta, produced by T-Bone Burnett.
During 1992, the band collaborated with Irish folk music's The Chieftains for the Grammy Award-winning Another Country. Other efforts included the album Acoustic, spotlighting their "wooden" sound, a duet with Karla Bonoff, "You Believed in Me" for the MCA Olympic compilation, One Voice, and a cover version of Buddy Holly's "Maybe Baby" for the Decca tribute album, Not Fade Away. The Christmas Album was released in 1997, followed by Bang! Bang! Bang! in 1999.
During April 1992, they were the unwitting subject of one of George H. W. Bush's malapropisms when he referred to the group as the "Nitty Ditty Nitty Gritty Great Bird" at a country music awards ceremony in Nashville:
"I said to them there's another one that the Nitty Ditty Nitty Gritty Great Bird and it says if you want to see a rainbow you've got to stand a little rain."
This unusual phrasing was repeatedly used as an example of Bush's garbled syntax (notably, in Dave Barry's book Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway and in Barry's only non-audiobook album, A Totally Random Evening with Dave Barry), which in turn helped publicize the band.
John McEuen rejoined the band in 2001. During 2002, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band celebrated the 30th anniversary of their landmark Will the Circle Be Unbroken with a remastered CD reissue of the 1972 album and a new compilation, Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume III. An album of all-new material, Welcome to Woody Creek, was released in 2004. Jimmy Ibbotson again left the band that same year.
Also during 2004, country group Rascal Flatts released a cover of "Bless the Broken Road," which the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had recorded on Acoustic, from 1994. Songwriters Jeff Hanna, Marcus Hummon, and Bobby Boyd won a Grammy for Best Country Song for this work in 2005.
During 2005 the band donated use of the song "Soldier's Joy" for the benefit album, Too Many Years to benefit Clear Path International's work with landmine survivors. Also in 2005, the band was recognized by the International Entertainment Buyers Association for 40 years of contributions to the music industry.
In 2009 the band released a new album, Speed of Life. Produced by George Massenburg and Jon Randall Stewart, Speed of Life is composed of a series of live, freewheeling studio recordings that purposefully avoid overproduction and demonstrate the band's collaborative spirit and spontaneity. Of the 13 tracks on Speed of Life, 11 are new songs penned by the band, and two are classic covers: Canned Heat's Woodstock hit "Going Up the Country" and Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle".
Jeff Hanna and John McEuen's sons, Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen, recorded for DreamWorks Records in 2005 as Hanna-McEuen.
Awards and nominations
1984 — CMA Nomination for Instrumental Group of the Year
1985 — CMA Nomination for Instrumental Group of the Year; ACM Nomination for Vocal Group of the Year
1986 — CMA Nomination for Vocal Group of the Year
1988 — CMA Nomination for Vocal Group of the Year
1989 — CMA award for Album Of The Year; Grammy award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals; Grammy award for Best Bluegrass Recording; Grammy award for Co-producing Best Country Instrumental
2002 — Grammy nominations for Best Country Vocal Performance - Duo or Group and Best Country Collaboration with Vocals
2003 — CMA nomination for Vocal Event of the Year (NGDB with Johnny Cash); IBMA award for Best Recorded Event
2005 — Grammy award for Best Country Instrumental (NGDB with Earl Scruggs, Randy Scruggs, Jerry Douglas and Vassar Clements)