Over a 50-year career, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band made its mark with hits from “Mr. Bojangles” to “Voila (An American Dream).” Beyond that, the Southern California band helped others find audiences – first, by recording early songs by important songwriters. Later, they introduced a generation of rock fans to the music that inspired them via the seminal 1971 album, Will The Circle Be Unbroken. The three record set featured a who’s who of Americana music – before it was given the name. Two more volumes followed in the ensuing decades. In 2015, the group celebrated its 50th anniversary with a star-studded PBS special.
Founding member Jimmie Fadden shared some of his memories with the Hippo in a recent phone interview.
The mid-1960s were a momentous time in Southern California music
It felt like things were very creative, that there was a lot of music being played by a lot of people that was very interesting and it had a life that was different from other things go on … we had the Seeds and Steppenwolf and the Byrds, there were a lot of cool rock bands in LA, but there was a lot of variety and I think everybody was having a lot of fun with it. There was a lot of hanging out and camaraderie; not exactly what you would call a cafe scene, but it was like that.
The wealth of creativity upped everyone’s game
Absolutely! It’s like when you were skiing, you were following somebody down the hill – you had to do better or you’re out running and trying to tag along with somebody to keep up.
Band member John McEuen and his brother Bill’s love of bluegrass led to a landmark album
Bill was a huge fan of the Grand Ole Opry and John being a banjo player becomes that, and is ultimately fascinated with the life of Earl Scruggs and every great banjo player that ever was. He translates that enthusiasm into our group. Bill comes up with the idea that maybe we could make a record. There are steps along the way that need explaining. It’s kind of complex and everybody has their own remembrances of it, but as it was, we opened a show for Merle Travis at the Ash Grove … then Earl Scruggs was playing at Tulagi’s in Boulder, Colorado. John went to see him and asked him about the idea of maybe playing on one of our records, and then this thing grew and grew.
Earl Scruggs and his wife/manager Louise Scruggs helped recruit other legends to the project
Earl and Louise managed to generate enthusiasm [and] everybody was excited about the idea of us and them. Randy and Gary and Stevie Scruggs had a lot to do with the interface to us. Earl listened to his sons and embraced the interest in newer music that they had. He saw there may be some reason to do this … there are some obvious rootsy little bookmarks in our music that the Scruggs boys really got a hold of and showed Earl. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand it, but they more or less said “Dad, this is cool, we really like this,” and Earl said, “Yeah – okay!”
Steve Martin was briefly a member of the group.
Steve and John worked together early on; Steve is the really funny banjo player and John’s the great banjo player that is pretty funny … We used to goof on him. He had this Chinese Bogota Mystery Box of the Dead, this cheap magic trick thing, and he would keep stuff in there to juggle like oranges. Some nights we would put honey on the oranges just to mess with him. We put pizza dough in there one night. He pulled it out and said, “ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to do an impression of myself,” and smashed it on his face. He had a quick wit.
The NGDB 50th anniversary show had many ‘best moments’
It’s great to have the people that are a part of this family … we’re like a school of fish, sometimes swimming together, but sometimes apart; never together but close sometimes. So it’s really nice to have those musical moments; there’s something warm and fuzzy about them. It’s like “Wow, if this gets any better, I’m going to fall off the stage.”
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
When: Thursday, May 18, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Palace Theatre, 80 Hanover St., Manchester
Tickets: $35.50-$107.50 at palacetheatre.org
This story originally appeared in the 11 May 2017 issue of Hippo Press