The Nitty Gritty on the Dirt Band

Founded in California in 1965, the importance of folk-country-rock group Nitty Gritty Dirt Band cannot be underrated.

Of the more than 20 studio albums that the group has to its credit, it is the group’s 1972 record Will The Circle Be Unbroken that the group is perhaps best known for. The record is considered to be a musical masterpiece, a defining moment that bridged the gap between rock and country music where other bands before them had failed.

This past Saturday night, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band made their first appearance in Metro Moncton since they opened for country music legend Willie Nelson at the Coliseum a number of years ago.

The beginnings of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were modest to say the least. While critics tended to love the band, the group received limited airplay and arguably even less in the way of commercial success by the time they released their 1969 effort, Alive. Whether the lack of a runaway hit was a contributing factor or not, the band ended up going their separate ways for a brief six-month span in the late ’60s.

Nonetheless, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band remained undeterred. When the group reconvened and released 1970’s Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy, the group scored a hit with a cover of the Jerry Jeff Walker song Mr. Bojangles.

At the suggestion of their manager, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band embarked on a trip to Nashville in 1972 with the plan to record a host of traditional country songs. With a bevy of guests including bluegrass greats Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, Will The Circle Be Unbroken would go on to become a million-selling record and give the group the success that had eluded them up to that point in their career.

“Will The Circle Be Unbroken was a bucket list project of sorts,” Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jimmie Fadden told the Times & Transcript earlier this month. “The idea was to make a record with musicians that we admired, idolized and revered.”

The notion of the country music receiving musicians from outside their community was not one that was easily digested by many. The Byrds had paid tribute to country music with their 1968 record Sweetheart Of The Rodeo however what helped set the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s efforts apart was the fact that musicians from within the community took part in birthing the record as opposed to the group merely interpreting country songs.

“Earl (Scruggs) was open to listening to younger music,” Fadden says. “I believe that the music that his kids were listening to inadvertently influenced him but perhaps more than that, I think he wanted to see why his kids were interested in the music that they were listening to. Earl was very intelligent in that respect and while he influenced many, he was also open to being influenced.

“The reality of the situation was that Earl and his sons Gary and Randy were the catalysts for the project taking flight the way it did. They started suggesting we work with others and it just took root and blossomed from there.”

Fadden says that the band went into making Will The Circle Be Unbroken with little in the way of expectations. He says that making a record that was commercially successful was not their intention. The group was more interested in making a record that would elicit some type of reaction rather than concerning themselves with the popularity of the project.

“Commercialism was not always our target. Having been brought up in the era of the ‘folk music scare’, it was always more about the music and the message that the music carried instead of anything else.

“The way that Earl, Randy and Gary looked at working with us though was that they realized that by playing with us, it might allow them to use our market to create a bigger insight into what they did. All of a sudden, they had a bunch of young people listening to them, something that might not have been the case otherwise. Back then, music simply didn’t have the cross-cultural musical wandering that is common today,” Fadden says.

Of course, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has a much bigger story than just that one record. They have continued releasing new material, their most recent effort being 2009’s Speed of Life. While many “classic” acts forego writing and releasing new material, choosing to stick with their tried and true hits, Fadden says the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band still gets a big charge from writing and releasing new material.

“We always enjoy going into the studio and making a record that reflects as live of a sound as we can get. I think that was captured when we were recording Speed of Life. Playing live has always been one of our group’s strong points and while some groups invest time into formulating textures into their songs, our forte has always been to go in there and get it done.”

With a schedule of approximately 90 shows per year, Fadden says that once travel days are factored into a tour the group finds their current pace to be an ideal one. Without prompting, Fadden says that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is very much looking forward to their return to Metro Moncton this coming weekend.

“It’s nice that people are curious about and get excited about the band still,” he says. “Some of the best places we have been received have been in places like the Maritimes that are off of the beaten path. Our fans are always so warm in receiving us, it is always nice to have the opportunity to connect with people.”

Article published in May 26, 2012 edition of the Times & Transcript