N is for Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded 26 Studio albums, 3 Live album, 4 Compilation albums and they issued around 60 singles where 4 of them went to #1 and all of these were released over a fifty-year period.  The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band changed the way rock fans listened to country music with their 1972 triple Collaboration album Will the Circle Be Unbroken.  They released two more Collaboration albums which are Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume 2 in 1989 and Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. III in 2002.  These 3 Collaboration albums are counted as studio albums and they are albums that include artists who do not normally work together.  A Compilation album gathers previously-existing or newly-created material from disparate sources.

Their single ‘Mr. Bojangles’, and their album Will the Circle Be Unbroken were both inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.  The Will The Circle Be Unbroken album was also inducted into the U.S. Library of Congress.  In 2006, ‘Earl’s Breakdown’ won a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance.  The group was inducted to the Music City Walk of Fame on April 20, 2008.  The band secured 16 Top 10 country hits between 1983 and 1990, including three No. 1 singles, ‘Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)’, ‘Modern Day Romance’, and ‘Fishin’ in the Dark’.

They have lasted longer than virtually any other country-based rock group of their era and played an important role in the transformation from folk-rock into country-rock.  Like many bands that have been together for over a 50-year time period, they went through many personnel changes.  The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was first formed in 1966 by Bruce Kunkel and Jeff Hanna.  The only two constant members in the band have been Jeff Hanna and Jimmy Fadden and other longtime members are Bob Carpenter and John McEuen.  During the late 1970s and early 1980s the group shortened their name to The Dirt Band, but that only lasted for a few years before they went back to being the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.  I did not read anything about how the group came up with their name and I think that it may something to do with the Shirley Ellis 1963 song ‘The Nitty Gritty’.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band started with the New Coast Two, a folk duo consisting of Jeff Hanna (guitar, vocals) and Bruce Kunkel (guitar, washtub bass), formed while both were in high school in the early ‘60s.  By the time they were college students, they started jamming at a local guitar shop, where they met Ralph Barr (guitar, washtub bass), Les Thompson (vocals, mandolin, bass, guitar, banjo, percussion), Jimmie Fadden (harmonica, vocals, drums, percussion), and Jackson Browne (guitar, vocals).  This lineup of folkies-turned-rockers became the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in late 1965, and began playing jug band music at local clubs.  Browne left after a few months to pursue a solo career, and he was replaced by John McEuen (banjo, fiddle, mandolin, steel guitar, vocals), the younger brother of the group’s new manager, Bill McEuen.  With Bill McEuen’s guidance, the group landed a recording contract with Liberty Records.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was their first album released in 1967 and it peaked at #161 on the U.S. Billboard Top Pop Albums.  Their first single, ‘Buy for Me the Rain’, which was written by Steve Noonan and Greg Copeland, peaked at #45 on the Billboard Hot 100.  The song carries a message of hope and appreciation of being alive every day, and this appealed to the 1960’s Vietnam War protesting audience.  The first two verses propose buying things of natural beauty for each other, that cannot truly be bought, like the rain.  The third verse says that happiness cannot be bought, and the final verse says that what we buy for each other is for “the living, it’s no use to the dead”.

Ricochet was their second album, also released in 1967, only a few months after their first album, but it failed to make the charts.  The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band rocks pretty hard on their classic blues tune ‘Ooh PO Pe Do Girl’ which showcases their earlier sound and this was written by Jeff Hanna.

The group now found itself at an impasse over the issue of whether to go electric.  During the dispute, Kunkel, who wanted to add an electric guitar to their sound, exited the lineup.  He was replaced by Chris Darrow (guitar, fiddle).  Christopher Lloyd Darrow was an American multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter who was considered to be a pioneer of country rock music. Chris was a member of The Dry City Scat Band and The Floggs and Kaleidoscope before joining the band.  Chris stayed for two albums and he was also part of the unaccredited band that appeared in the Clint Eastwood musical Paint Your Wagon.  By mid-1968 the group went electric, and they added drums to their sound.

Rare Junk was their third album, released in 1968, which again was a commercial failure.  The band got some help on this album with Johnny Sandlin playing drums, Paul Hornsby on piano, Rodney Dillard playing dobro and Bernie Leadon playing guitar on ‘Reason to Believe’, which was written by Tim Hardin.

The band persevered, however, and released Alive! in May of 1969 which was another commercial disaster, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band closed up shop soon after.  The members scattered for several months, but six months later the group was back for another try.  The new lineup included McEuen, Hanna, Fadden, Thompson, and Jim Ibbotson (guitars, accordion, drums, percussion, piano, vocals).  Ibbotson was in a folk trio known as The Wharf Rats, and a member of The Collegiates as well as the Evergreen Blueshoes before joining the band.  They returned to their record company with a demand for control over their recordings and the record company agreed.  Bill McEuen became the group’s producer as well as its manager.

Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy was their fourth studio album released in 1970 and it reached #66 on US charts.  It contains the hit song ‘Mr. Bojangles’ which reached #9 and two other singles charted, the Kenny Loggins song ‘House at Pooh Corner’ reached #53, and ‘Some Of Shelly’s Blues’ reached #64.  This resulted in a new era for the group, which was rooted tightly in their jug band sound, but with a country feel and no trace of the vaudeville and novelty numbers that had appeared on their earlier records.  With their cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s ‘Mr. Bojangles’, the band suddenly had a following bigger than anything they’d known during their brief bout of success in 1967 and this folksy Top 10 pop hit remained a staple of their live show.  Some members of The Wrecking Crew helped out on this album, although they were not credited on LP.  Jim Gordon played horns and keyboards while Russ Kunkel played drums.  Another outstanding tracks on this album was their version of Earl Scruggs’s ‘Randy Lynn Rag’.  When the NGDB performed this at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Scruggs and his family were at the show.  Jeff Hanna and John McEuen later caught up with him on the road and Earl told them that he would be proud to perform with them.

All the Good Times was their sixth album, released in January 1972, which had a real countrified feel.

In 1972, their manager Bill McEuen suggested that the group go to Nashville and there they recorded a selection of traditional country numbers with the likes of Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Mother Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, Merle Travis, and Doc Watson and other members of country and bluegrass music’s veteran elite.  Some of the veteran Nashville stars were skeptical and suspicious at first of the bandmembers and their amplified instruments, but the ice was broken when they saw how respectful the band was toward them and their work, and their music, as well as how serious they were about their own music.  The resulting triple album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken was released in January of 1973, which became a million-seller and elicited positive reviews from both the rock and country music press.  The band was now able to reach country and bluegrass audiences.  The acclaimed project is considered a landmark recording in American music.  The title song was written by A.P. Carter the founding member of The Carter Family.  Some other great songs to come out of this album were ‘I Saw the Light’ and ‘Keep on the Sunnyside’.

During the year and a half that followed the success of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Les Thompson left the group, which reduced the Dirt Band to a quartet.  Their next album, Stars & Stripes Forever, issued in the summer of 1974, was a peculiar live album, mixing concert performances and dialogue.

Symphonion Dream was their ninth album, released in 1975.  They were joined by guest musicians Leon Russell and Linda Ronstadt, along with actor Gary Busey, who was credited as “Teddy Jack Eddy”, and played various percussion instruments.  Actor Gary Busey performs a killer duet with Linda Ronstadt on the song ‘Hey Good Lookin’’ which was one of the all-time great Nitty Gritty Dirt Band songs.  They do a great job on the song ‘Battle of New Orleans’ which was written by the high school principal and history teacher Jimmy Driftwood.

By mid-1976, Ibbotson had also left and two new members John Cable (guitar, bass, vocals) and Jackie Clark (bass, guitar, keyboards) joined up.  Ibbotson was replaced initially by session player Bob Carpenter.  Bob started his first garage band, The Soular System, while he was in college.  Later he was in the band Fat Rabbit and in 1970, he joined the band SIX.  He started the band Starwood in 1975-76 which was also managed by Bill McEuen and was eventually asked to join the NGDB.  Bob Carpenter received co-writing credits on the hits ‘Make A Little Magic’, ‘Fire In The Sky’, ‘Baby’s Got A Hold On Me’ and he sang on ‘Stand A Little Rain’.  John Cable was the lead guitarist and vocalist for Texas country rock pioneers, Colours before he joined the NGDB.  Jackie Clark worked extensively with Ike & Tina Turner in the early ’70s.  The remaining trio of Jeff Hanna, John McEuen, and Jimmie Fadden shortened the band’s official name to the Dirt Band.

In late 1976, they issued a triple-LP compilation entitled Dirt, Silver & Gold.  It contains some of the band’s greatest material to that point and it also included 12 songs that were not previously available.  In this incarnation, the group became a much more mainstream pop/rock outfit with a smoother sound, while Jeff Hanna was guiding them as their producer.  Their records were far less eccentric, although they continued to be popular.  The band’s next albums were decidedly more laid-back than previous records, and didn’t attract nearly as much attention.  In the early ‘80s, the band returned to Nashville and began what would become a highly successful career in mainstream country music.  Hits including ‘Dance Little Jean’, ‘Workin’ Man’, ‘Long Hard Road’, ‘Baby’s Got A Hold On Me’, and ‘Fishin’ in the Dark’ put them at the top of the country charts for over a decade.  Saxophonist Al Garth, drummer Merel Bregante and bassist Richard Hathaway were also added to the lineup in 1978.  The band appeared on a 1978 Saturday Night Live in their own slot, while performing the instrumental ‘White Russia’ and ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ where they were billed as “The Toot Uncommons” providing backing for Steve Martin on his million-selling novelty tune, ‘King Tut’.

An American Dream was their eleventh album, released in 1979, which did relatively well, as it included the singles ‘An American Dream’ and ‘Make a Little Magic’ which found traction on the country chart, setting the stage for a major run at country radio.  The single ‘American Dream’ with Linda Ronstadt reached # 13 on the popular music charts.

Make a Little Magic was their twelfth album released in 1981 and it reached number 62 on the US Billboard 200 chart.  The title cut reached number 77 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart but peaked at number 25 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 with Nicolette Larson singing backup.  Nicolette also does background and harmony vocals on ‘Do It’ and ‘Harmony’.  The album also includes their cover version of the Cindy Bullens tune, ‘Anxious Heart’ where Haden Gregg sings background vocals.

Jealousy was their thirteenth album also released in released in 1981 and it reached 102 on the US album charts.  The single ‘Fire In The Sky’ reached 76 on the US singles chart.

By 1982, however, they were back to their country roots, renamed the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Jim Ibbotson was playing with them again.

Let’s Go was their fourteenth album released in the middle of 1983 and it reached 26 on the US Country charts.  Two singles from this album charted, ‘Shot Full of Love’ reached 19 on the US Country charts, while ‘Dance Little Jean’ reached 9 on the US Country charts.  This album heralded their return to country music, as a largely acoustic band.

Plain Dirt Fashion was their fifteenth album, released in 1984 and it went to #8 on the US Country charts.  The three singles from this album all charted in the top 3.  ‘Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)’ went to 1, ‘I Love Only You’ went to 3, and ‘High Horse’ went to 2.  ‘Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)’ was written by Rodney Crowell and it was the band’s first number one single on the US Billboard top 100 country music charts.

In 1984, after 17 years with Liberty/UA/Capitol, they switched labels to Warner Bros., and that same year they made headlines becoming the first American rock band to tour the Soviet Union.  Their Warner albums sold well, but by the end of the 1980s the group was moving between labels.

Partners, Brothers and Friends was their sixteenth album, released in 1985 and it reached #9 on the US Country charts.  Three singles from this album were top 10 on the US Country charts. ‘Modern Day Romance’ went to #1, ‘Home Again in My Heart’ went to 3, and ‘Partners, Brothers and Friends’ went to 6.

Bernie Leadon, a founding member of The Eagles, played in the band from 1986 to 1988 filling a vacancy by longtime member John McEuen.  McEuen stayed with the band for 20 years from 1966 – 1986 and he rejoined them again in 2001.

Hold On was their seventeenth album, released in 1987 and it peaked at #14 on the U.S. Billboard Top Country Albums chart.  This album includes their third and final number one hit single ‘Fishin’ in the Dark’.

Workin’ Band was their eighteenth album, released in 1988 which went to 33 on the US Country charts.  Three singles reached the Top 10, ‘Workin’ Man (Nowhere to Go)’ went to 4, ‘I’ve Been Lookin’’ went to 2, and ‘Down That Road Tonight’ went to 6.

In 1989, as a reflection of the changing times and in a seeming attempt to make sure everyone got the point that the band was once again mining its country roots, they made Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2 for MCA/Universal Records, reuniting with surviving country and bluegrass veterans from the original album and adding a whole roster of new players.  The album won the Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance (duo or group) and the Country Music Association’s Album of the Year Award in 1989.  By this time, the Dirt Band was working alongside any number of country/bluegrass crossover artists whose career paths were made easier by that first record, including John Hiatt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Rosanne Cash.

At the peak of their country career, the band toured Europe with Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, who hinted that they’d love to appear on a sequel to Will the Circle Be Unbroken, if the band ever decided to make one.  That gesture convinced the band to get back in the studio to record another all-star album.  Circle Volume II featured Johnny and June, as well as Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm, John Hiatt, Bruce Hornsby, John Denver, Ricky Skaggs, Chris Hillman, New Grass Revival, and many other marquee names, not to mention encore performances by Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, and Earl Scruggs.

‘And So It Goes’ is a beautiful duet with country rock pop music legend John Denver and music doesn’t really get any more beautiful than this.  The haunting wonderful song showcases John Denver’s voice and spirit.  The pairing of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with John Denver was a match made in heaven while John Denver was still here with us on earth.

Their next several albums saw them never veering very far from their country/bluegrass roots.

The Rest of the Dream was their twentieth album, released in 1990, it peaked at #53 on the US Country charts.  Two singles from the album hit the Billboard Country Top 100, a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)’ peaked at #65 and ‘You Made Life Good Again’ rose to #60.

The group continued to record a new album every year or so, including a concert album, Live Two Five released in 1991, which celebrated their 25th anniversary as a band.

Not Fade Away was their twenty-first album, released in 1992.  Two singles from this album charted. ‘I Fought the Law’ reached 66 on the US Country charts.  ‘One Good Love’ reached 74 on the US Country charts. Karla Bonoff and the Dirt Band contributed to the Buddy Holly tribute song ‘Maybe Baby’ for the 1996 album Not Fade Away (Remembering Buddy Holly) by various artists.

As the country music landscape shifted toward a youth market, the Dirt Band kept on touring and recording.  They played on two projects by The Chieftains, Another Country which was their 1992 album that featured a collaboration between the Irish band and many top country music musicians including Ricky Skaggs, Don Williams, Colin James, Emmylou Harris, members from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Willie Nelson, Chet Atkins and Sam Bush.  They also contributed to on song ‘The Squid Jiggin’ Ground/Larry O’Gaff’ on The Essential Chieftains which was released in 2006.

They also worked with Karla Bonoff for project dedicated to the 1996 Olympics, an album titled One Voice which contributed the Royalties to fund preparations for the U.S. Olympic teams.  Artists committed to the album are John Berry, Karla Bonoff and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, Béla Fleck and Chet Atkins, Amy Grant, and Patty Loveless, Marty Stuart and Willie Nelson, Nanci Griffith, Raul Malo and Donna Summer, Lorrie Morgan, Mark McAnally, and Mark O’Connor.  The first single from this album was a collaboration between the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Karla Bonoff on the song ‘You Believed In Me’.

Acoustic with Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Jimmy Ibbotson and Bob Carpenter was released in 1994 and it blended acoustic guitars, mandolin, dobro, harmonica, accordion, washboard, and beautiful vocal harmonies to deliver a bevy of country/folk delights.

The Christmas Album was released in 1997 and it reached 93 on the US Country charts.  It featured the quartet of Hanna, Fadden, Ibbotson and Carpenter along with Chris Engleman and Gary Lunn both playing electric bass.  Special guests were Alison Krauss with vocals on ‘Colorado Christmas’, and playing fiddle on ‘We Three Kings’, John McEuen played 5-string banjo on ‘Colorado Christmas’ & ‘We Three Kings’, and mandolin ‘Colorado Christmas’, Richie Furay sang vocals on ‘One Christmas’ & ‘This Christmas Morning’, and Vassar Clements played fiddle on ‘Christmas Dinner’.

Bang Bang Bang was released in 1999.  The title track was written by Al Anderson and Craig Wiseman and it reached number 52 on the US Country chart.

Another collaborative album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III, arrived in 2003 and this double album reached 18 on the US Country chart.  The band was back to being a quintet as John McEuen rejoined.  The featured lead vocalists on thos album, all of whom also played instruments included, Del McCoury, Doc Watson, Randy Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Iris DeMent, June Carter Cash, Sam Bush, Dwight Yoakam, Jaime Hanna, Jonathan McEuen, Willie Nelson, Matraca Berg, Tom Petty, Pat Enright, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Taj Mahal, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Rodney Dillard and Ricky Skaggs.  The special guest musicians some of whom also sang background vocals included Robbie McCoury, Ronnie McCoury, Glen Duncan, Byron House, Richard Watson, Josh Graves, Ray Martin, David Nance, Kevin Grantt, Earl Scruggs, Dan Dugmore, Glenn Worf, Mickey Raphael, David Jackson, Alan O’Brant, Stuart Duncan, Mike Compton, Dennis Crouch, Vassar Clements, Jerry Douglas, Barry Bales and Tony Rice.  Soon after, the band earned an additional Grammy for ‘Earl’s Breakdown’, which they recorded with Earl Scruggs, Randy Scruggs, Vassar Clements and Jerry Douglas.

Welcome to Woody Creek was released in 2004 and it contained all-new material and brought the group back to their roots.  The band-mates approached their material as if it were a Circle session, with the emphasis on interaction, informality, spontaneity and maximum feeling, and it shows on every one of the self-produced album’s spirited tracks. Ibbotson left after the record and tour, having had enough of the road.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band celebrated their 43rd anniversary in 2009 with the stellar Speed of Life album which was issued by Sugar Hill.  The album was recorded live in the studio with a few of Nashville’s finest providing instrumental and vocal help, and the production assistance of George Massenburg and Jon Randall Stewart.

In 2015, the group performed a gala 50th anniversary concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and this show was released a year later as their third live album which was actually a CD/DVD, Circlin’ Back: Celebrating 50 Years.  The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took a moment to acknowledge their incredible history by filming a 50th anniversary concert event at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.  Guests for that Circlin’ Back special included early Dirt Band member Jackson Browne, Sam Bush, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, John Prine, Jerry Douglas, Byron House, Jerry Jeff Walker, and longtime Dirt Band member Jimmy Ibbotson.  The concert aired as a nation-wide PBS Pledge special in 2016 and won a regional Emmy for Special Event Coverage.

Co-Founder John McEuen departed again on Oct. 27, 2015, citing “business disagreements and ongoing difference of opinions” as the reason for his exit.  Following an extended 50th anniversary tour, the ensemble grew to a six-piece in 2018 for the first time since their early jug band days.  The group now includes Jeff Hanna (acoustic guitar, electric guitar), Jimmie Fadden (drums, harmonica), Bob Carpenter (keyboards), Jim Photoglo (bass, acoustic guitar), Ross Holmes (fiddle, mandolin), and Jaime Hanna (electric and acoustic guitar).  All six members also sing, and when their voices merge, the harmonies add a powerful new component for the legendary band.  And with the father-son pairing of Jeff and Jaime Hanna, the band carries on a country music tradition of blood harmony.

Today, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band consists of Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter, for years known as “the new guy”, and Jim Photoglo, a friend of the band whose credits include co-writing ‘Fishin’ in the Dark’, as well as touring and recording with Carole King, Dan Fogelberg, and Vince Gill.  Newest members Jaime Hanna and Ross Holmes both bring years of experience to the band.  Hanna toured and recorded with The Mavericks and Gary Allan, while Holmes toured and recorded with Mumford & Sons and Bruce Hornsby.

16 thoughts on “N is for Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

  1. Wow that was quite a story Jim. I have the feeling you really enjoyed writing this ☺️ I knee about Jackson Brown being involved with NGDB but not about all the other musicians. Great read today, thanks Jim

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  2. Thanks Jim… Didn’t realized they had that many albums. I remember them in the 80s in Country and didn’t put it together they were the Mr. Bojangles band. That song will always remain a favorite.

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  3. You covered a lot of ground and a lot of new information for me. I can imagine it took a long time to gather this data together and the way you wove it together is impressive. I’d like to get a copy of that 50 year disc as the Ryman. Every one of those “Circle” recordings need to be preserved for the future. A+++ on this post, Jim.

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