The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
  The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - Biography  


In the early sixties Bruce Kunkel [born Long Beach, circa 1948] and Jeff Hanna [born Detroit, Michigan, July 11th 1947] were Long Beach high school contemporaries, who played guitar together and sang folk songs. Recruiting three other musicians, the quintet took the name Illegitimate Jug Band, because they actually had no jug player. After Kunkel and Hanna graduated from high school, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band gradually evolved consisting of the foregoing pair [Hanna’s parents had relocated to California in 1962] plus Jimmie Fadden [born Long Beach, California, March 9th 1948], John McEuen [born Long Beach, California, December 19th 1945], Leslie Steven Thompson [born Long Beach, California] and Ralph Taylor Barr [born Boston, Massachusetts]. Jackson Browne was a band member for a few months, and McEuen was his replacement. The band used to hang out at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, where Hanna was a guitar teacher.

Managed by William E. McEuen, a dj and sometime record producer, and John’s older brother, in 1966 he gained a recording contract for the group with Liberty Records. Their debut single “Buy For Me The Rain,” penned by Browne’s buddies Steve Noonan and Greg Copeland, was a Top 40 hit and that year the band released two albums “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band” and “Ricochet.” The first collection charted while the second sold poorly. Essentially an acoustic jug band at the outset, by 1968 Bruce Kunkel counselled the others to begin using electric instruments, but they resisted, so he departed after their second album. He was replaced by multi-instrumentalist Chris Darrow, ex Kaleidoscope [born Sioux Falls, South Dakota, July 30th 1944], who stayed for two albums, and appeared with the group in the Lee Marvin/Clint Eastwood movie “Paint Your Wagon” [1969], following which the Dirt Band split up for a short time. Darrow and Hanna formed The Corvettes, who became Linda Ronstadt’s band. Darrow went on to issue a number of solo recordings during the seventies, but by the beginning of that decade Hanna had reformed the band without Barr, and with Darrow being replaced by Jimmy Ibbotson [born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, January 21st 1947].

In 1970 the Nitty Gritty’s moved their base to Colorado, and that year Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” taken from the “Uncle Charlie” album gave them a # 9 Pop Single, and the album also charted. The following year Kenny Loggins “House At Pooh Corner” gave them another chart single. Cut for $22,000 The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seventh album was the triple [vinyl] disc, country music tribute “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” issued in 1972 by United Artists Records. It featured contributions from Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Roy Acuff and Mother Marybelle Carter. Following the release of “Circle” Les Thompson left the band and wasn’t replaced.

In late 1971 the Roy Acuff/Dirt Band duet on Hank Sr.’s "I Saw the Light" scored a # 56 on the Country Chart, and the following year the triple album scored two Grammy nominations. The 30th anniversary reissue of “Will The Circle be Unbroken,” a 2CD set was enhanced by four new tracks – two instrumentals and two spoken tracks – and was released on March 26th 2002 by Capitol Records. Following the release of the retrospective “Dirt, Silver & Gold,” the group changed its name to The Dirt Band, cut a quartet of albums, and readopted the original name late in the early eighties with “Let’s Go.”

Although he had been working with the band since the late seventies, Bob Carpenter was first acknowledged as a group member on “Plain Dirt Fashion.” The Nitty Gritty’s became a quartet once more following McEuen’s departure in 1987. Through the eighties The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band scored over twenty Country chart hit singles, with fifteen of them making the Top 10, including the # 1 hits, “Long Hard Road [The Sharecropper’s Dream],” “Modern Day Romance” and “Fishin’ In The Dark.” “Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol. II” gained the 1989 Country Music Association Award for “Album of the Year” and the band was nominated for five Grammies and scored successes in the categories of Best Country Vocal Group/Duo of the Year, Best Bluegrass Recording - "Valley Road" with Bruce Hornsby, and Best Country Instrumental - "Amazing Grace" with Randy Scruggs. Where the first collection had been a William E. McEuen production, Randy Scruggs and the Dirt Band produced “Circle Vol. 2” at Scruggs Sound Studio in Nashville.

Working as a quartet throughout the nineties, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band scored a handful of Top 100 Country singles, cut half a dozen titles, including a Christmas album and a live disc. The twenty-nine song, one hour forty five minute long, 2CD set “Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol. III,” produced by the same team and recorded at the same studio as “Circle Vol. II,” was released by Capitol Records on October 1st 2002, and saw John McEuen return to the fold as a full time band member. The recording was nominated for two Grammies - Best Country Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal for "Roll The Stone Away" and Best Country Collaboration With Vocals [featuring Taj Mahal, Alison Krauss and Doc Watson] for "Will The Circle Be Unbroken [Glory, Glory]."

In the late summer of 2004, Dualtone Records issued the studio recording “Welcome To Woody Creek.” The same year, the S&P label issued an instrumental album titled “Dirt On The Strings,” featuring twelve instrumentals from the band's almost forty-year long recording career.

Discography :
“Nitty Gritty Dirt Band” [1967] ; “Ricochet” [1967] ; “Rare Junk” [1968] ; “Alive” [1969] ; “Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy” extended CD version issued 2003 [1970] ; “All The Good Times” [1971] ; “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” 30th anniversary extended CD version issued 2002 [1972] ; “Stars & Stripes Forever” [1974] ; “Symphonion Dream” [1975] ; “Dirt, Silver & Gold” retrospective compilation incl. unreleased material [1976] ; “The Dirt Band” [1978] ; “An American Dream” [1979] ; “Make A Little Magic” [1980] ; “Jealousy” [1981] ; “Let’s Go” [1983] ; “Plain Dirt Fashion” [1984] ; “Partners, Brother & Friends” [1985] ; “Twenty Years Of Dirt” compilation [1986] ; “Hold On” [1987] ; “Workin’ Band” [1988] ; “More Great Dirt” compilation [1989] ; “Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. II” [1989] ; “The Rest of The Dream” [1991] ; “Live Two-Five” [1991] ; “Not Fade Away” [1992] ; “Acoustic” [1994] ; “The Christmas Album” [1997] ; “Bang! Bang! Bang!” [1999] ; “Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. III” [2002] ; “Will The Circle Be Unbroken : The Trilogy Box Set” included the “Live Circle” DVD and all three “Circle” albums [2003] ; “Unbroken! - Live” UK only 2CD release [2003] ; “Welcome To Woody Creek” [2004] ; “Dirt On The Strings : The Instrumental Collection” [2004] ; "Speed Of Life" [2009] :

Arthur Wood
Copyright Kerrville Kronikles 08/04 & 11/06

  The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - Album Reviews  
  “Make A Little Magic”/“Jealousy ’81” BGO Records  

For the duration of four album releases “The Dirt Band” [1978] through “Jealousy” [1981], the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band [founded 1966] performed as The Dirt Band, before reverting to their original name. BGO Records released “The Dirt Band”/“An American Dream” as a 2 for 1 CD package back in 1999, and have now issued “Make A Little Magic” and “Jealousy” in the same format. The group line-up on the latter albums included founding members Jeff Hanna and Jimmie Fadden, plus Bob Carpenter who joined in 1977 and remains in the line-up to this day. During 1966 John McEuen joined the second incarnation of the Nitty Gritty’s, left two decades later to pursue a career as a solo artist and returned to the fold during Y2K. Lester “Al” Garth [violin, keyboards, sax] worked with Loggins & Messina then Poco, and along with Richard Hathaway [bass] joined the Nitty Gritty’s during 1977. The latter pair departed following the release of “Jealousy.” So what of the music on this 2 for 1 release…….

Both albums featured ten cuts, and while those songs are predominantly band compositions, each disc featured a couple of cover songs. On “Make A Little Magic” [1980] those covers were the David James Holster penned “Leigh Anne” - a wistful haunting number, and the Cindy Bullens/Trevor Veitch co-write “Anxious Heart.” Circa 1979, for CBS Records, Holster cut “Chinese Honeymoon” an eight song Kenny Edwards/Greg Ladanyi produced album, while “Anxious Heart” appeared on Bullens’ 1978 United Artists released solo debut “Desire Wire.” Switching for a moment to “Jealousy,” “Too Close For Comfort” is credited to Jerry Bock/Larry Holofcener/George David Weiss and has been covered by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz and more recently by Jamie Cullum. The song is taken the score to the 1956 musical “Mr. Wonderful,” in which Sammy Davis Jr. made his Broadway debut [performing alongside his father]. The other cover on this set is the up-tempo Jeff Silbar/Sam Lorber/Van Stephenson collaboration “Catch The Next Dream,” a ‘let’s get out of here’ themed number. Co-written by Larry Henley and Silbar their “Wind Beneath My Wings” won the 1989 Grammy Song of the Year.

Across both albums Messrs Hanna/Hathaway/Carpenter pick up eights credits and that trio are joined by Jimmie Fadden for the anticipatory “Do It! [Party Lights].” Across both collections Hanna and Carpenter also team up for a further quartet of creations, and on “Jealousy” are joined by Holster for the album title cut, and by Fadden for “Circular Man.” Towards the close of the 1981 release, you’ll find the languid Bob Carpenter/David James Holster co-write “So You Run.” “Make A Little Magic” closes with the McEuen/Garth traditional sounding acoustic guitar/fiddle instrumental “Mullen’s Farewell To America,” and at just under two-minutes duration it’s the shortest cut here. The only single to register, briefly, on the American Country Chart [in four weeks it peaked at # 77] was the title cut from “Make A Little Magic,” which featured a backing vocal by the late Nicolette Larson. On that album Larson also contributed vocals to “Do It” and “Harmony,” the latter featuring a Bob Carpenter lead vocal. Harmony is a good word, since their tight, multi-layered vocal sound is one of the Nitty Gritty’s great strengths. A melange of high-energy numbers [“High School Yearbook” and “Crossfire”] and ballads [“Riding Alone” and the aforementioned “Harmony”], the subjective focus of “Make A Little Magic” and “Jealousy” is principally that four-letter formula – love.

The John Tobler penned liner notes that grace this new release amount to an update of those that appeared in the “The Dirt Band”/“An American Dream” liner booklet. At one juncture, the new notes mention that drummer Merel Bregante once occupied the Poco drum stool. Merel, a N. Austin recording studio owner these days, began his musical career with The Sunshine Company. He was a member of Loggins & Messina [alongside Garth], and performed with the Nitty Gritty’s circa 1977 – 1979, but he was never a bona fide member of Poco.

Score 7 out of 10

Arthur Wood.
Copyright Kerrville Kronikles 11/06.

  SPEED OF LIFE  NGDB Records/Sugar Hill Records  

With Jimmie Fadden doubling on drums and harmonica, Bob Carpenter pounding his keyboard, John McEuen plucking a banjo and guitarist Jeff Hanna taking the lead vocal, the current four-piece version of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band come careering out of the starting gate with a dynamic reading of the Shawn Camp/Mark D. Sanders co-write Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble To Me. Hanna’s wife, Matraca Berg, has her name appended to a couple of SPEED OF LIFE cuts, the first The Resurrection co-written with African-American Alice Randall. Berg closed her 1997 album Sunday Morning To Saturday Night with the song and supplies a guest vocal on the Nitty Gritty’s edition. Subjectively it’s the tale of a small town that’s doing the best it can to survive.         

Relative to Canned Heat’s frantic rendition that was featured on the Woodstock Festival soundtrack, Fadden takes the lead vocal on a sedate reading of the late Alan Wilson’s Going Up The Country. Back in the early nineteen-seventies Stealers Wheel, a band that featured songwriters Joe Egan and Jerry Rafferty, took their Stuck In The Middle to # 6 in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and # 8 in the U.K. Pop Chart. The NGDB redux proves to be rather funky. McEuen delivers a banjo solo on the latter cut and, alone, takes centre stage on his instrumental Lost In The Pines. The album title song penned by Garry Sruggs, finds the narrator reflecting upon the ‘cradle to grave’ cycle of life.       

Written by Phil Madeira and Jimmie Lee Sloas, Jimmy Martin pays tribute to the legendary bluegrass musician. With other writers, Bob Carpenter contributes three songs including the almost spiritual Amazing Love and the subjectively light-hearted Earthquake. The melodies that accompany Guy Clark compositions tend to rhythmically amble, and co-written with Fadden, who takes the lead vocal here, Tryin’ To Try isa hard knocks tale of unrequited love. Four decades young the Nitty Grittys began life as a jug band, and have gone on to embrace pretty much every roots music genre on their two dozen plus studio recordings. The SPEED OF LIFE closes with the Cajun beat of the optimistic Berg and Troy Verges co-write It’s Good To Be Alive.          

Recorded at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio C and produced by George Massenburg and Grammy award winning singer/songwriter Jon Randall, The SPEED OF LIFE finds the quartet in energetic fettle.

Score 7 out of 10 and

Arthur Wood.
Copyright Kerrville Kronikles 09/09.