Still dirty after all these years
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
The year was 1966, and the music scene was a firmly established thread of the American cultural and social fabric, with the Beatles and Rolling Stones making a collective statement through songs about war, freedom, love, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll itself. It was then—within southern California surfing subculture in the folk-music fortress McCabe’s Guitar Shop—that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band began.
The story of how the band got its name is as legendary as its staying power. Originally called The Dirt Band, dissent had already set in over the band’s name. Vocalist Jeff Hanna was serendipitously half-asleep in a political science class when the professor said, “To really understand this, you have to get down to the nitty-gritty.”
“That described our music,” says drummer and founding member Jimmie Fadden. “This is a meat-and-potatoes, salt-of-the-earth kind of thing. We played acoustic instruments and were a walking, talking collection of old-time songs.”
The rest was history. Blending the foundations of rock with the hallmarks of the established genres of country, western and bluegrass, the five-piece band’s direction was something fresh, with deep roots.
“The all-American music touched us individually before it touched us as a group,” Fadden adds. “The span is diverse, from blues to bluegrass. Then there are the more contemporary influences: the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Dick Dale, the Beatles.”
Today, approaching its fourth decade, NGDB anticipates its March 26-27 return to the Nugget’s Celebrity Showroom. Jeff Hanna will be on lead vocals, guitar and washboard; Jimmy Ibbotson handling bass, guitar and mandolin; Bob Carpenter on keyboard and accordion; John McEuen playing fiddle, guitar, banjo and mandolin; and Fadden on drums and tin sandwich.
“The most important part of it is we still enjoy what we do, and that’s due in part to our audience,” says Fadden. “We’re very much into the moment and use the past as a reference point, the source of our musical dialogue.”
Their first number-one record, Long Hard Road, didn’t come along until the ‘80s, while Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” remains their most recognizable hit.
“It’s a song that’s had life way beyond the Dirt Band,” Fadden says. “It has a life of its own.”
Ditto for Will the Circle Be Unbroken, vintage NGDB, released in 1972. Volumes II and III hit the shelves in 2002, and the former garnered gold: the Country Music Association’s Album of the Year and three Grammys. For the band, working with “musical mentors” Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs has been a dream come true.
“We really are just the custodians,” Fadden says. “Each and every one of the people that participated is a treasure, and entrusted their musical gifts with us. Their understanding of what it was, and who we were as individuals, was the cornerstone to this record being a success.”
Accepting a Grammy, Fadden figures, is more of a fleeting joy.
“When you’re used to being a journeyman band that doesn’t have pop glamour or excessive star appeal, it’s pretty heady stuff. To receive acknowledgement from your peer group is something we all strive for. But after that’s over, you gotta get back to work."