The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - Biography
By J Poet
In their long history the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band went from a band struggling to find success and their own sound, to one of the most important country rock outfits extent. In 1972, they went to Nashville to enlist the help of folk and country legends like Bill Monroe, Merle Travis and Doc Watson on a project they hoped would trace the links between folk, rock, old time and country music. The resulting triple record album Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972 United Artists, 2002 Capital), which was a big gamble for both the band and their label, went gold and became the cornerstone of the country rock movement. In 1989 Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2 (1998 MCA, 1990 Universal) repeated their success and won a Best Country Performance by a Group Grammy. As they approach they 41st year on the road, the band’s ever-changing lineup has settled down, still making the singular blend of folk, pop, country and bluegrass that made them country rock heroes.
High school chums Jeff Hanna and Bruce Kunkel started The New Coast two, the band that would morph into the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, in the early 60s while still teenagers. They hung out at McCabe’s, the legendary LA guitar shop and found the other founding members - Ralph Barr, Les Thompson, Jimmie Fadden, and soon to be famous singer/songwriter Jackson Browne – through the message board and impromptu jam sessions. They originally played jug band music, but were attracted by the folk rock movement that was just gathering steam. Brown left to go solo and John McEuen stepped in to become the group’s de facto leader. They had enough of a local buzz, and a unique look that combined suites from the 20s with cowboy hats, to get signed to Liberty records. In 1967 they cut two funky, jug bandish acoustic albums Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (Liberty) and Richochet (Liberty). Nitty Gritty included a Top 40 pop hit “Buy For Me the Rain” a folky, Donovanesque love song that got them an opening slot at a Doors gig. They all lived together in The Dirt House with roommates Duane and Greg Allman.
By 1968 they’d “gone electric” with Jeff Hanna playing a real drum kit. Rare Junk (1968 Liberty) and Live (1969 Liberty) continued to showcase their blend of hot picking, jug band tunes, folk, and archaic pop, but despite critical raves and a role in the film Paint Your Wagon (1969), they broke up in a squabble over musical direction. Reformed with a slightly revamped lineup in 1970, the concentrated on country, bluegrass and rock. Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy (1970 Liberty), produced by their manager Bill McEuen (John’s Brother) included their first Top 10 hit, a cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles”. The album peaked at #66 on the pop charts and they scored a second minor hit with Kenny Loggins’ “House At Pooh Corner”. All The Good Times (1972 Liberty) was more country and less rock, but didn’t chart.
Anxious to establish a bit of country cred, the band set off for Nashville to enlist the help of folk and country legends like Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Vassar Clements and Doc Watson on a project they hoped would trace the links between folk, rock, old time and country music. The label balked over the lengthy sessions, but the triple LP set Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972 United Artists, 2002 Capital) quickly went gold and became the cornerstone of the country rock movement. The album was the biggest music story of 1972 and proved that hippies and rednecks, folkies and honky tonkers, rockers and cowboys could find common ground in the music they all loved. The album helped introduce legendary country musicians to a new generation of rock kids and even got favorable reviews in the country music press.
Hard pressed to follow up their masterpiece, the band shuffled personnel again before Stars and Stripes Forever (1974 United Artists) a pure country album and Symphonion Dream (1975 United Artists, 2003 Capital) a slightly psychedelic bluegrass outing. Another shift in personnel induced a name change to The Dirt Band. In 1976, their first retrospective, the three LP set Dirt, Grit and Gold (United Artists, 2003 BGO) came out and that year they were the first American band invited to tour Russia. Their first Russian TV appearance had an estimated 145 million viewers. They also backed Steve Martin on his 1978 hit “King Tut” then dropped a series of soft rock country albums including The Dirt Band (1978 United Artists, 2003 Capital), An American Dream (1979 United Artists) which included a vocal by Linda Rondstadt on the title track which went to #13, Make a Little Magic (1980 United Artists) with another title track hit single, this time with guest vocals by Nicolette Larson and Jealousy (1981 Liberty).
In 1982 there was another personnel shift, a move to Warner Brothers and a return to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band name. More trips to Nashville followed and they made Let’s Go (1982 Warner) with the Top 10 country the hit “Dance Little Jean”, Plain Dirt Fashion (1984 Warner), which got a boost from the band’s performance at the opening of the 1984 LA Olympics, Long Hard Road (1984 United Artists) with their first #1 country single “Long Hard Road”, Partners, Brothers and Friends (1985 Warner) with another #1 country song “Modern Day Romance”, and More Great Dirt (1989 Warner) which went gold behind the #1 Country hit “Fishin’ in the Dark”. Twenty Years of Dirt (1987 Warner) a Greatest Hits compilation, earned the band another gold record.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Two (1989 MCA) featured country superstars like Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Earl Scruggs. It went gold and won the Album of the Year award from the Country Music Association as well as two Grammys – Best Bluegrass Performance for “The valley Road” and Best Country Performance for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. In the 90s the band dropped The Rest of the Dream (1991 MCA), Not Fade Away (1992 Liberty) a Buddy Holly Tribute, Acoustic (1994 Liberty, 2005 Capital) a return to their folk sound with an album of tunes all written by group members, The Christmas Album (1997 MCA), and Bang Bang Bang (1999 Dreamworks). They also joined The Chieftains on their Grammy winning superstar jam session, Another Country (1992 RCA).
The band kicked off the new century with Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Three (2002 Capital) and Capital released all three Unbroken albums in a deluxe box set called Trilogy (2003) shortly before the original Unbroken album went Platinum. Welcome to Woody Creek (2004 Dualtone) was released on the eve of the band’s 40-year anniversary, another combination of folk, country, bluegrass and rock. “Earl’s Breakdown”, a collaboration with Earl Scruggs, won the Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammy in 2004, a perfect way to celebrate the start of their 40th year in the biz.