Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Looking Back…and Looking Forward

“We’re going to keep playing music. That’s all we’ve ever done," said the band's John McEuen.

Written by Chuck Dauphin
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Looking Back…and Looking Forward
Photo courtesy Webster PR

2016 is shaping up to be a golden year for longtime favorites The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Actually, that’s not just a pun. The band – famous for a string of successful hits like “Dance Little Jean,” “Mr. Bojangles,” and “Home Again In My Heart” – are in the midst of celebrating their fiftieth anniversary together. The celebration actually began last fall, when the band kicked off their “Golden” year with a concert at the Ryman Auditorium that featured many of their contemporaries.

“That was a special night,” said the band’s Jeff Hanna. “A whole lot of our old friends came back and played music with us – folks who had a huge impact on us over the years like Jerry Jeff Walker and Vince Gill. Alison Krauss, John Prine, and Jackson Browne were also there. Jimmy Ibbotson was there, and of course, he was in the band for a long time.” Hanna added that they were both artist and fan that evening. “We all played sort of a dual role that night. We were onstage playing, but we were also levitating and going off to the audience and watching at times as well. It was a surreal and wonderful experience.”

That concert was filmed for an upcoming PBS special. But, that’s not the only place that fans can see the band this year. On April 29, the band will kick off their 50th Anniversary Tour in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The group’s Jimmie Fadden said look for a few surprises. When asked, he said “Well, that’s all a secret,” he jokes. “We can’t talk about the elephants that are going to come out and join us on stage. One of the things that we’re doing is digging further back into the old Dirt Band songbook. We’re going to be doing a lot of music – some of which we haven’t played in a long time. Some of the songs haven’t been in the set for fifteen or twenty years. It’s been really fun to go back for us.”

When you’ve been a recording act for five decades, it’s tough to please everyone with song selection. Hanna confirms that it’s tough to fit all the songs in – especially the ones they never did!

“Sometimes, the fans will bring up songs that are not ones that that we’ve forgotten about, but ones that have been forgotten. They will also come up and ask us about songs we never did. Sometimes, in the course of an album, we just never brought the tune to the stage. A lot of people will request “Amie” or “Afternoon Delight,” but we’re not those guys!”

Fadden agrees, saying it’s tough to please everyone – though they do try. “We can do a two hour show, and no matter how many songs we play – we can’t get to them all. There’s always someone who will say ‘I wish you would have played….’ But, we do the best we can. Sometimes, we sit at the autograph table and sing the songs live to them.”

Of course, the band’s most iconic moment was the 1972 release of their Will The Circle Be Unbroken disc, which John McEuen says they still get response from – after over forty years. “I think the impact of that album was seen at the Ryman show in all those people coming together. Alison Krauss said she cut her teeth on that. I know that Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas were heavily influenced by it, as well.” But, it doesn’t end there. The band followed that up with a sequel to Circle in 1989 (that won the CMA Award for Album of the Year). “Then, you have people on Circle 2, like Bruce Hornsby and John Prine, who wanted to be a part of it.”

Hanna added that he still hears from fans – and other artists – about the influence of Circle. “I told someone earlier that Raul Malo had told me that the reason that he moved to Nashville was so that he could play that kind of music. There was all this brilliant music on the album. You had Johnny and Rosanne Cash, the Carters, and John Hiatt, and even Levon Helm. There was an openness, such a feeling of community about it. It’s great when people tell us that it was the first music that my dad and I listened together. We were just making music with our heroes. The fact that it would have that kind of impact has been very endearing.”

Another important part of the band’s history was their introduction to the Country Music scene in the early 1980s via a composition from Rodney Crowell. “When ‘American Dream’ made its’ way to the country charts, it had already been a pop hit by then. It crossed over into country, and then ‘Make A Little Magic,’ which was the follow-up, did the same thing,” remarked Hanna. “At the same time, bands like Alabama were making big noise on the country charts, and it was pointed out to us by more than one person that the music they were making was a lot like we were doing in the 70s, and that Nashville might be a home for us. So, because of those records, and the credibility of the Circle album, the door opened to us. It’s hard to cross over from rock into country, and just a few have done it. The Byrds tried it with ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere,’ but weren’t able to do it,” he said, taking pride in the fact that the band hit the top ten with the song from 1989 as a cut from the Circle 2 album with former Byrds Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn. The band released a third Circle album in February 2002.

Then, of course, there’s “Fishin’ In The Dark” – the song that became a number one hit in 1987. The song still is one of the most-played Gold songs on Country stations, and has been re-cut by artists like Garth Brooks. Carrie Underwood is including a version of the track in her Storyteller tour, as well. “We heard that,” said Hanna. “I don’t think any of us had any idea the song would become what it has. We thought it was going to be a big hit and it was something special, but we would have never thought it would have lasted for 30 years. We cut so many songs, but for whatever reason, that one resonated with people. It’s a lifestyle song.”

So….what’s next? According to McEuen – more of the same. “We’re going to keep playing music. That’s all we’ve ever done. We’re not trained to do anything else. We’re just going to keep playing and singing. That’s all we know how to do.”