Full Circle – Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Turns Fifty

NGDB-front-stageFull Circle – Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Turns Fifty
By Larry Nager

Even for a venue as iconic as Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, it was a very big night. On a September evening, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band celebrated fifty years together and paid tribute to the overwhelming success and cultural impact of their Will The Circle Be Unbroken projects. They did it right, gathering old friends, former bandmates, and the NGDB’s extended musical family.

Performers included the current band—original members Jeff Hanna, John McEuen, and Jimmie Fadden—along with Bob Carpenter who’s only been there a little more than 35 years. Two alumni were on hand, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jimmy “Ibby” Ibbotson and a surprise to all but the hardest-core NGDB fans, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, who played with the earliest version of the band in high school and has never done a formal reunion. Guests from the Circle II and III projects included Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, and John Prine. Rodney Crowell, writer of several of their biggest country hits, was there, as was Jerry Jeff Walker who wrote “Mr. Bojangles,” the band’s breakthrough 1971 Top 10 pop hit. The band was augmented by three instrumental masters, all veterans of NGDB recording sessions—Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and bassist Byron House.

No surprise, the concert was sold out for weeks. Luckily for those not in attendance, it all was taped for a PBS special, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band And Friends 50 Years…Circlin’ Back!, airing in March. The crowd reflected the various incarnations the Dirt Band has gone through in a half-century of music, from young fans of country radio hits like “Fishin’ In The Dark” to families of three generations, all of whom grew up with different phases of the resilient group.

Birth of a Band

   For John McEuen, the Dirt Band’s multi-instrumentalist and strongest bluegrass advocate, the concert got him thinking about his first trip to The Ryman fifty years earlier. Just another fan, the 19-year-old banjo picker from southern California was trying to decipher what Earl Scruggs was doing and came to the Grand Ole Opry to watch him do it.

“When I looked at that stage for the first time in 1965 and saw Flatt & Scruggs introduce Maybelle Carter, I wasn’t even in the building,” says McEuen. “I was looking in the north window, because it was sold out. And I just thought, ‘Maybe someday, I’ll be getting their autograph or be on that stage.’”

Meanwhile, Jeff Hanna (a couple years younger) was still in high school, learning guitar in a jug band. Jug bands were gateway drugs to a lot of music in the ’60s. In England, they called it “skiffle” and The Beatles started as a skiffle band called The Quarrymen (see BU, March 2015, “A Beatles Banjo”). An early version of the Grateful Dead was a jug band, and bluegrass greats Bill Keith, Richard Greene, and David Grisman all played and recorded with nationally known jug bands. It was good-time music with kazoos, jugs, washtub basses and washboards driving the rhythm. “We got together as a jug band because we wanted to play the music because we loved it, and we wanted to be different,” says Hanna. “A lot of our friends were buying electric guitars and playing folk rock. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll play the washboard.’” He laughs, but today, one of Hanna’s old washboards is enshrined in the Country Music Hall Of Fame.

They called themselves the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a bunch of like-minded high-school friends that included future NGDB mandolinist Les Thompson. They stayed together after graduation. “We would all hang out at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Long Beach,” Hanna recalls. “We all shared this common love for that kind of music—folk, American roots music, Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, and bluegrass, of course. We didn’t have any expectations of getting popular and getting on the radio. It was just playing folk clubs.”

Jackson Browne, then 16, saw one of those first shows. “The Dirt Band came in and they kind of blew everybody away,” he remembers. “They were a jug band, but it wasn’t just jug and washboard. It wasn’t just ‘plunka plunka plunk.’ They had some really great fingerpicking and virtuoso playing. They had Jimmie Fadden, an incredible harp player, and he also played really great washtub bass. You could really make out the notes. It wasn’t just gutbucket.”

This was pre-McEuen and they needed another member, so after hearing Browne at an open mic, they asked the teenager to join. Browne learned a lot in the spring and summer of 1966 with the Dirt Band. Hanna sold him his first good acoustic guitar, a Guild. And he learned being onstage is more than just playing music. “They knew how to do a show, and they still do. They’re really great entertainers. Girls would come and scream. For me, it was a great education ’cause they were so into traditional music.”

Eventually, Browne wanted to write songs and left when the band found virtuoso instrumentalist John McEuen. The parting was amicable. Browne went solo and sometimes opened for his old band. McEuen’s older brother Bill became their manager and things got serious fast. After the British Invasion, record companies were looking for the “next big thing,” and Bill McEuen convinced Liberty Records that the Dirt Band could be it. “Right away, they got a record contract and they needed songs, because the record company didn’t want a traditional music band. They wanted this band of young guys that could sing and play really well,” says Browne. “It looked to the record company like these guys could be teen stars, and they didn’t have any interest in doing that at all. They wanted to make traditional music.”

Dirt on the Charts

   They recorded some of Browne’s early songs, but one by Steve Noonan and Greg Copeland became their first single. “Buy For Me The Rain,” revived at The Ryman for the first time in years, became a hit in 1967. In their thriftshop pinstripe suits, the NGDB fit right in with bands of the day. Many of the new California rock acts—Jefferson Airplane, The Dead, The Byrds, Janis Joplin, Poco, The Eagles—started in folk music coffeehouses. But the Dirt Band never strayed far from those roots.

In 1969, Jimmy Ibbotson was about to join Poco as a bassist (replacing Randy Meisner, who went to play with Ricky Nelson and later The Eagles), until Hanna and McEuen hijacked him, Ibbotson says. “I had this apartment in Hollywood that cost me fifty dollars a month and on this Monday night, here was a knock on my door. It was Jeff Hanna and Johnny McEuen. And they said, ‘We’re the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, can we come in?’ Jeff and I passed my guitar back and forth, and we sang a lot of Buddy Holly B-sides. And they basically said, ‘We’d like you to be in our band.’ And I knew they were a successful band and had been for years. They had four albums out already. They were legendary. They’d just come off this movie Paint Your Wagon. And Jeff reached in his pocket, and he says, “I understand you’ve got this audition with Pogo (as it was then called). If you play with us, you can have this fifty-dollar bill.’ And I hadn’t seen fifty dollars in one place for a long time.”

All the pieces were in place. In McEuen, they had a master picker and showman who could tear up a five-string banjo or fiddle and add texture to slower tunes on mandolin, guitar, or lap steel. Ibbotson’s distinctive voice blended with Hanna in what became the group’s signature vocal sound.

The teen idol days were over, and their next album reflected it. “It was because of the persistence of the band and the songs that Jeff picked to sing with Jimmy Ibbotson and my brother producing the album Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy (the fifth album by the Dirt Band), we had an album that gave us a platform that exhibited Americana music before it was called Americana,” says McEuen.

Released in 1970, it’s a glorious mess, mixing genres, instruments and moods at a frantic pace, all of it really good and really fun. The record opens with Ibbotson singing over McEuen’s clawhammer banjo on “Some Of Shelly’s Blues” by The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith. Hanna’s voice joins in harmony as Fadden’s harmonica soars over it all. It’s folk, rock, pop, and bluegrass all at once. And it was a hit. The album was also the debut of Kenny Loggins’ songwriting, including “House At Pooh Corner.” But there was also Les Thompson’s mandolin version of “Billy In The Low Ground” and McEuen’s banjo showcase “Randy Lynn Rag,” as well as a full-tilt electric version of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On,” featuring the Ibbotson/Hanna duo. And then the weirdness of home recordings by Uncle Charlie and his singing dog Teddy. Proving Hanna’s fifty bucks was well spent, Ibbotson brought in the song that changed their lives—Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.”

Walker, who rarely leaves Texas nowadays, made it to The Ryman for the Dirt Band’s fiftieth. Backstage, he said it took a while for that song to catch on. “I had it out in 1968 as a single, and it probably got into the top 40.” He remembers vaudeville comedian George Burns performing it on Ed Sullivan’s TV show. “But there hadn’t been a definitive pop version yet. Harry Belafonte, Tom Jones, Judy Collins all talked about recording it. I remember John McEuen came to my dressing room outside of Philadelphia telling me they cut it and it was going to be their single. And I said, ‘Everybody says that.’ And I kind of forgot about it for a while. And a few months later, it went roaring across the sky.”

Drawing the Circle

   In early 1972 , they released the equally eclectic All The Good Times. But what happened next is why everyone reading this magazine should be a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fan, no matter how much a bluegrass purist you might be.

“During that year, we had three records on the pop charts,” says McEuen. “So what’s the next logical thing to do? Make another album kinda like you’ve been doing, because it’s successful. But instead, ‘No, no, we’re gonna record like it’s 1935 and make an acoustic, traditional, folk, bluegrass, Appalachian album.’”

The careers of more than just the bandmembers were staked on that album. Mike Stewart, president of their label, United Artists, greenlighted the project, says McEuen. “Including the budget, $22,000, which isn’t very much, considering it was going to pay for tape recording, transportation, hotels, and musicians. He told me in 2004 that he has three records that he’s most proud of in his career which included making hundreds of albums. One was Tina Turner’s first album. Number two was the Imagine album (John Lennon), and number three was the Circle album.”

The NGDB was enlisting artists for months before the August 1971 Circle sessions. While the commercial success of Uncle Charlie gave the Dirt Band the clout it needed with United Artists, it also eased their way into Nashville.

“Because of the success of that record and the fact that it got airplay, it was heard by the sons of Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, relatives of Maybelle Carter,” says McEuen. “So Earl was interested in coming to see the Dirt Band at our first show in Nashville in October of 1970. And when he came, I asked him, ‘Why did you come to see this group?’ And he said, ‘I wanted to meet the boy that played “Randy Lynn Rag” the way I intended to.’ And of course, I’ve never forgotten that. And six months later, Earl was playing in Colorado (where the Dirt Band was based), and I’d always wanted to record ‘Soldier’s Joy’ with Earl Scruggs. But I knew I couldn’t do it by myself, so I asked him if he would record with the Dirt Band and he said, ‘I’d be proud to.’”

A week later, Doc Watson played the same club. McEuen told Doc’s son Merle that Earl Scruggs was recording with the Dirt Band and they invited his dad to do the same. “And he said, ‘Yeah that would be great. The folk music thing is going away, the crowds are getting smaller, this’ll be perfect.’” Like Scruggs’ kids, Merle had played the Uncle Charlie album for his dad.

Scruggs and his wife and manager Louise helped recruit Jimmy Martin, Roy Acuff, and Maybelle Carter. McEuen’s brother Bill got Merle Travis on board. The Dirt Band was augmented by Vassar Clements on fiddle, Norman Blake on guitar, and Junior Huskey on bass. The album was cut on a two-track machine, and the sound had a warmth and intimacy you can still hear almost 45 years later. So good, in fact, that McEuen remembers the earliest reviews came from audiophile journals. The gatefold packaging for the three-LP set was just as outstanding. And Bill McEuen’s decision to include conversations among these iconic musicians raised the album to audio documentary status.

“His production ideas, his editing, made that record come to life,” McEuen says of his older brother. “Starting off with a mistake was a genius idea. I played ‘The Grand Ole Opry Song,’ ‘Da-da-da-Clunk!’ And Jimmy Martin goes, ‘Earl never did do that!’ That’s not how you start a three-record set, but that’s how this one started.”

Those little touches gave even casual listeners a sense of knowing the people, of being in the room with them. This would have been a milestone production for any artist at any time, but as revered as these legends are today, in 1971, contemporary country music had largely forgotten them. Their records were on bargain labels in the 99-cent bins, cheaply recorded and packaged. If you saw them on national TV, they were cracking bad jokes out in the Hee Haw! cornfield. Will the Circle Be Unbroken changed everything for everyone involved.

Circle I opened an awful lot of doors for us in Nashville,” says Ibbotson. “People thought that we were sort of a bridge between the West Coast hippies—anti-war, long hair, not taking care of our minds the way we should—and Nashville’s aristocracy: Doc and Mother Maybelle and Roy Acuff and Merle Travis.”

Those long-haired California boys even learned some Southern manners. “We were boisterous in those days,” says Ibbotson. “But I often think about holding the door between the studio and the control room for Mother Maybelle and saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ and being quiet when she spoke and following her lead. I remember we were cutting one of the songs on the first Circle record that Maybelle sang, and the drummer Fadden said, ‘I think she’s changing the tempo. She’s speeding up and slowing down.’ And Junior Huskey playing upright bass, said, ‘Yeah, but I think we can follow her.’ That’ll stick with me forever.” Huskey passed away not long after the album was completed.

“It was amazing and humbling as well,” Hanna says of the sessions, which some have called a modern-day version of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. “We were kids. I think the average age in the band when we cut that record was 24. I look at a kid who’s 24 now and it seems so young. And everything was recorded in the span of a week and everything live.”

Today, Hanna and Ibbotson are 68, Fadden is 67, Carpenter is 69, and McEuen is 70. They are all older than elder statesman Roy Acuff was when he recorded Circle. When they stepped into the studio for Circle, Maybelle Carter was 62, Merle Travis was 53, Doc Watson was 48, and Jimmy Martin was 43. When Circle was cut, no one in the Dirt Band could have imagined that longevity. “It changed my perspective on how long an artist has if you take care of your voice and your mind and keep friendly with the boys who are on stage with you,” says Ibbotson.

Bluegrass Youth Movement

   Bluegrass made mainstream inroads in the ’60s and ’70s on TV in The Beverly Hillbillies or Andy Griffith and movies like Bonnie & Clyde and Deliverance. But Circle I, released in a roots-rock movement that included The Band, The Eagles, and Eric Clapton, brought bluegrass and classic country to the forefront and launched a youth movement.

Vince Gill was one of the guests at The Ryman show whose life was changed by the Dirt Band. “I think I was a freshman in high school and the best rock band in town was going to do ‘Bojangles’ at the big mixer at school, and they needed a banjo player. And I had one. I couldn’t really play very good, but I played a little bit. And they found out I played, and they asked me to come and play with them. That was a huge deal for me. I wasn’t the dweeb freshman.”

For Gill, hearing Circle wasn’t the revelation it was for the band’s rock audience. “Because I was a young bluegrass musician, it had a different impact on me,” he explains. “I was already trying to learn to play like Doc Watson, trying to play like Earl Scruggs, trying to sing like Jimmy Martin. And Mother Maybelle, her contributions to country music are legendary. Most of the guitar playing really came from her, being the first featured lead guitar player in country music. It wasn’t a man, it was Maybelle.”

Yet, it was the care the Dirt Band took with the project that continues to impress him. “I think throughout their history, what maybe their greatest contribution  was their respect for what came before them. And they’ve done that tirelessly over and over and over. And what was so cool in the big-time hippie movement in the early ’70s was for them to reach back to Mother Maybelle and Doc and Roy Acuff and Earl Scruggs. How neat for them to perpetuate and teach young people who these greats were. I have really always admired them for that.”

Jerry Douglas, part of the expanded Ryman show band that Sam Bush christened the Nitty Gritty E Street Band, remembers the effect the album had on the bluegrass scene he was just getting into as a kid in Warren, Ohio.

“I had the record as soon as it came out,” says Douglas. “It was a big deal for everybody. It had so much bluegrass content. These ‘Mr. Bojangles’ guys were big. And so we thought, ‘Man, if they’re paying attention to bluegrass and they’re into it, that makes us them, in our imaginations, at least. And all those people on there, I knew who everybody was. I felt related to that record in a way. It definitely upped our market share. We (bluegrass musicians) were sort of a secret society back then. I was playing in bars on weekends with my dad’s band and hoping that nobody in my high school would find out. How embarrassing.” Circle changed that, and Douglas later played on the sequels.

Bush first heard of the Dirt Band in high school from a friend who’d been to California. “And I finally saw them play on the Smothers Brothers (TV show), I think, or Glen Campbell, and they had like a banjo and a mandolin player. I knew it wasn’t bluegrass, but it was something that I was interested in, and I wanted to hear more. They were bringing in good songs and they were showing the rest of us how you could get on the radio with these acoustic instruments.”

Years later, with New Grass Revival (NGR), Bush got to know the Dirt Band in Colorado. (McEuen recalls they all traveled with their own pillows, and never fails to tease Bush about it.) They shared a booking agent, Keith Case, and NGR opened for the NGDB in 1977-78. Bush says the headliners treated them like little brothers and taught them a lot. “One of the times, they had us come back out for a jam at the end and we were playing ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ and Jeff and I had our electric guitars on. Jeff got right in my ear before we were to play the two electric guitars in harmony and Jeff said, ‘Walk to the front of the stage with me to play this solo.’ And so I walked up with Jeff and, all of a sudden, it occurred to me, ‘Oh, show business! This is what you do when you’re not standing behind a mic.’”

The first Circle album inspired a lot of folks in unexpected ways. “I moved to Nashville in the middle of 1972, right around the time Circle came out,” recalls Rodney Crowell. “I remember having it, and I had a little record player on the floor. A bunch of us songwriters lived in Hillsboro Village and we played ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ over and over again, ’cause it was Doc Watson on there and Earl Scruggs. It was a perfect combination of all the things you loved just rolled into one.”

Life After Circle

   Had Circle I been made today, it would have certainly gotten the O Brother/Down From The Mountain treatment, spawning an arena tour and documentary film. But in 1972, there was no music industry infrastructure to support that. Even arena tours were new. The Dirt Band just hit the road like always.

“After Will The Circle Be Unbroken was a hit, we got out playing colleges in the South, and it would be ‘Sing Tennessee Stud!’ We never played it,” says Ibbotson. “We missed a real opportunity there. We should have played a revue of Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” That revue is one of the great “might-have-beens,” but though the original artists never toured with the Dirt Band, all got huge career boosts from the set, including higher performance fees and increased recording company interest.

“Vassar always said to me, ‘That gave me a career.’ Merle Watson told me, ‘Yeah, Daddy’s got to play “Tennessee Stud” because they request it from that album,’” says McEuen. And Maybelle Carter, who’d been recording since 1927, received long-overdue recognition from the record industry. “Mother Maybelle got her very first gold record,” says Ibbotson.

The album had an even deeper affect on some of their fans, as the band learned years later. “It was during Vietnam and everyone was dropping acid and free love and drinking every night and smoking dope and taking whatever they could put their hands on,” Ibbotson says about the social climate in which Circle was released. “And yet, if you put that record on, you heard Mother Maybelle talking about the song she was gonna sing and Jesus would come up. I don’t know that it saved a lot of souls, but there was a warmth that we brought to the hearts of a generation that needed it. I heard so many times about the boys in Vietnam. They’d come up to us after a show, big rough bikers, beards, scraggly long hair, smelling of this, that, and the other, and they’d say, ‘I wanna tell you a story. Every time we’d lose a buddy, we’d bring out a cassette of your album and we’d play ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken,’” Ibbotson sobs, choking on his words. “I’m glad that we were the soundtrack when they needed that kind of music.”

When you change music that much or affect people that deeply, it’s a hard act to follow. The Dirt Band never matched the impact of that first Circle album. They were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. Ibbotson, who calls himself “emotionally dyslexic,” left the band in 1976. They didn’t slow down, touring constantly, including a 1977 trip through the Soviet Union, the first American band to do so and the first time Scruggs-style banjo was played behind the Iron Curtain. Musicians came and went, but in 1979, Bob Carpenter joined, providing keyboards, keyboard bass, vocal harmonies, and a steadying influence. In 1980, as the Tut Uncommons, they backed McEuen’s high school pal Steve Martin on his novelty hit “King Tut” and played Saturday Night Live with him. The jug band sound was long gone, but the band was even moving away from its bluegrass roots.

In 1983, McEuen and Hanna were willing to try again with Ibbotson, who had gone back to Colorado and was playing ski resorts. Ibbotson passed the test, a two-week tour on a bus with McEuen’s “Great American Road Show” with Doc & Merle Watson. The tour was McEuen’s reaction to his band’s pop direction, but it wound up leading to one of the Dirt Band’s most enduring hits. On the road, Ibbotson played McEuen a new song he’d written, and they recorded it as soon as they got back to Nashville. “Dance Little Jean” was a Top 10 country hit in 1983 and remains a mainstay of the band’s show.

By 1986, the band’s pop-country direction left McEuen dissatisfied and he quit to pursue a solo career, which included his superb String Wizards project. The band replaced him with banjo picker and ex-Eagle Bernie Leadon. Hits kept coming, but for many, without McEuen, it wasn’t the Dirt Band.

In 1989, they revisited the Circle concept with Circle II. Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Roy Acuff, and Vassar Clements were back. In another unbroken circle, the late Junior Huskey’s son Roy was on bass. Maybelle had passed away in 1978, but Randy Scruggs played her trademark Gibson L-5 on a few tracks, and her daughters June, Anita, and Helen were there, along with her son-in-law, Johnny Cash. Most of it featured the generation influenced by Circle I—Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, John Hiatt, Levon Helm, John Denver, Michael Martin Murphey. John Prine sang “Grandpa Was A Carpenter,” which he reprised at The Ryman. McEuen returned, playing banjo on “Lost River.” The title-track was sung by a massive, all-star chorus. The first Circle flew under the radar. Circle II produced a making-of documentary and won two Grammys and CMA Album Of The Year.

Hanna, Ibbotson, Fadden, and Carpenter were the Dirt Band through the 1990s, touring post-Soviet Russia and recording a 25th anniversary concert produced by T-Bone Burnett. In 2001, longtime fans were thrilled when McEuen returned, completing a band that could play the entire NGDB songbook, from hard-core bluegrass to country pop. In 2002, they released Circle III, a double-CD with Jimmy Martin and Doc Watson that showcased Nashville’s vibrant contemporary bluegrass scene with Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Del McCoury and sons Ronnie and Rob, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band. In 2005, Hanna became a Grammy-winning songwriter after Rascal Flatts covered “Bless The Broken Road,” which he’d co-written and the Dirt Band had recorded a decade earlier.

The Dirt Band was back, but by 2005, Ibbotson’s old demons made it impossible for him to continue and he left for good. In early 2015, when NGDB was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, they invited Ibbotson to be part of the event, a reunion that led to his being invited to the fiftieth anniversary concert. For everyone in The Ryman that night—audience, guest artists, musicians, crew, and the band itself—the reunion of the five-man Nitty Gritty Dirt Band may have been the biggest part of the magic.

“They’ve been together so long, they have their own dynamic,” says Alison Krauss, who reprised her “Catfish John” from Circle III on the show. “The guys that I play with, we’ve been together a long time. But then to see them, what a long time really looks like, that was hilarious. They were so funny, so comfortable with each other. And the way their voices sound together and how beautiful that is. And I always love the differences in people, and how that works so well together. The differences are what makes something so magical. I loved it.”

That magic comes to your TV next month, and a CD and DVD of the concert are also being released. But now the NGDB is trying to figure out how to take some of that on the road in 2016 as they continue celebrating fifty years as a band. “That thing that happened at The Ryman, that was a once-in-a-lifetime show,” says Hanna, who along with Fadden, has been in the band the entire fifty years. “I don’t think we could recreate that. But there’s some things, some regional aspects, some more of our pals out there. We’re already talking about trying to put some event shows together.”

It’s been a busy fifty, but the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is heading into the next half-century with energy and enthusiasm, coming up with new ideas, but always keeping their musical circle unbroken.