The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Classic Cuts at the Speed of Life [PHOTOS]
One school of thought says that if you start out your musical career scrounging unpaid club gigs as the Illegitimate Jug Band, you’ve got no place to go but up. (This was in Long Beach, California, in the mid 1960s.)
Then, members Jeff Hanna and Bruce Kunkel, whose avowed goal was “figuring out a way not to have to work for a living,” started sitting in on informal jam sessions at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where they met a wide range of talented musicians playing everything from harmonica to clarinet to washtub bass–and even another jug.
The offshoot of those sessions was a new six-piece group called the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who soon scored their first paying gig–at a family restaurant called The Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. In honor of the occasion, they took the stage in a new wardrobe: pinstripe suits and cowboy boots. (The NGDB is the headliner of this year’s Beartrap Summer Festival, August 2 and 3.)
One of their members was a young singer-songwriter named Jackson Browne, who left soon afterward to pursue a solo career. Browne was replaced by John McEuen, a multi-instrumental threat on banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and steel guitar. What’s more, McEuen had a brother who was no slouch as a band manager, shortly getting them signed to Liberty Records for their 1967 debut “The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.”
Little did the six-tet know they had started down the long and winding road on which they’d become the first American band allowed to tour the Soviet Union–culminating in a televised concert viewed by 145 million people–and would record a landmark album titled “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” that some musical historians credit as the birth of today’s thriving Americana genre.
“We had just had a major pop hit with ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ so our band was all over the radio,” recalls founding member Hanna, “so we had the leverage to make ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?’ If we hadn’t had that hit, our record company wouldn’t have given us the freedom and budget to make a record. But we were so passionate in wanting to do ‘Circle’ that they said, ‘Well, go ahead. You’re not totally crazy. You just had this hit song.’”
The album also gave the band its first country crossover hit, with Roy Acuff’s “I Saw the Light.” And it also gained a slow-motion cult following in the years to come, with a number of musicians–Bruce Hornsby and Bruce Springsteen, for starters–choosing it as one of the albums they’d take to a desert island.
Besides widening the NGDB’s audience, “Circle” gave national exposure to a number of traditional Appalachian artists, including the Carter Family, Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin, and Vassar Clements–most of whom have since passed away.
“It was extremely fun and extremely scary,” Hanna says, “having that tape rolling with people who played with such jaw-dropping musicianship. And they were all so gracious! It was generation-spanning, and it also bridged a cultural gap. A high water mark for our band, for sure.”
“The music the album introduced to mainstream audiences,” says a reviewer for Country Music Television, “has indeed come full circle, living on today in such artists as Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, and the Civil Wars.”
Also remarkable is the fact that, almost 50 years since NGDB was formed, the members continue to tour and to create new music besides. Nancy Dunham, a reviewer for JamBands.com, comments, “If awards are ever presented for ‘legendary band that hasn’t become its own tribute act,’ the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band would surely be a top contender.”
The name the Band chose for its most recent album, then, is no accident: “Speed of Life.”