Letting their roots show

The 'O Brother' soundtrack may have sparked a folk revival. But the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 'revival' began 30 years ago.

October 26, 2002|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

When the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? hit theaters two years ago, few could predict the smash success of its folk-and-bluegrass soundtrack. The album's quadruple-platinum sales so stunned the music business that even producer T-Bone Burnett struggled to explain. "This was real people playing and singing around real microphones," he said at the 2001 Grammys, where O Brother landed five awards. "It happened all at once and has exploded."

If that's the case, don't think it even singed the eyebrows of John McEuen. The silver-haired banjo wizard and his mates, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, bet their careers on the same formula 30 years ago - and beat the house. With its album Will The Circle Be Unbroken?, the first ever to gather the premier artists in country music, the Dirt Band found its roots, galvanized bluegrass and discovered a driving, melodious style that would make it the most durable country-rock outfit on the planet.

Proof positive will be on display tonight at the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis, where the Dirt Band - real folks around real mikes - will make its final stop on an 18-month world tour. Fans should get what the band has served up in venues from Sturgis to Switzerland: 2 1/2 hours of pop and country hits, blues and bluegrass virtuosity and lots of spontaneity.

"We do plan how we'll open a show," says McEuen. "We kind of plan how we'll finish, but that's just so we'll know when it's over. In between, anything can happen."

Those could be watchwords for the Dirt Band's sprawling career. The group started as a jug quintet in Southern California in the mid-'60s, when McEuen, a lanky teen, and fellow founders Jeff Hanna and Jimmie Fadden hung around McCabe's Guitar Shop, a Santa Monica folk institution. There they jammed, scarfed up the latest from Doc Watson and bluesman Brownie McGhee and generally studied, in McEuen's words, "how to make a living without getting a job."

The quest started small but promised a great deal. Jackson Browne was an early bandmate. McEuen took in shows by the Dillards, an influential bluegrass band then big in L.A. nightspots. Steve Martin, Duane and Gregg Allman and Chris Hillman, later of the Byrds, were friends. Fadden studied harmonica styles, Hanna researched folk artists from the 1930s, and the band dreamed up a sound they would pioneer along with the Eagles, the New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Flying Burrito Brothers: Country rock.

They picked a name that echoed what they'd draw on. "`Nitty Gritty' is a black folk phrase," says McEuen. "We thought it was funny: `Let's get down to the nitty gritty.' Jeff and Jim said, `We're not a blues band; we're not a bluegrass band. We're a dirt band.' The names came together. They stuck."

Over the next five years, so did NGDB. It put out five LPs, all of which showed off McEuen's precocity on fiddle, mandolin and banjo, Fadden's playful mouth harp and a vocal blend in which Hanna and Jimmy Ibbotson - who still swap leads on "Mr. Bojangles," the band's first hit - "sing like brothers," in McEuen's words.

The appeal was both American and off-the-wall. The band shared stages with Johnny Carson, Jack Benny and Bill Cosby - and with Aerosmith, Dizzy Gillespie and The Doors. "You can't say we haven't been around," says McEuen, chuckling.

In the late '70s, the Dirt Band became the first U.S. act to play the Soviet Union; in the mid-'80s, it played the L.A. Olympics and the first Farm Aid benefit, and in the early '90s, it toured Canada, Europe and Japan. Seventeen Top 10 Nashville hits made NGDB one of the top-selling acts in Music City history.

It was 1972, though, when the group set itself apart for good. It was touring when Bill McEuen, John's brother and the band's producer, suggested a stop in Nashville to make a record with some of the country artists the band admired. Those included Watson, an epic flatpicker little known outside folk circles; banjo rebel Earl Scruggs, and Mother Maybelle Carter, whose classics "Wildwood Flower" and "Keep On The Sunny Side" still define "Americana" music.

"It could have been career suicide," says McEuen with a laugh. "Here we were, a young band with a few hits, and we went to our record company and said, `Hey, why don't we take some time and make music with a bunch of people you never heard of?' We wrapped the sessions in a week, but it didn't come out for a year. It was a risk."

The Dirt Band recorded its heroes live, as if they were playing around a campfire, and the resulting 38-song, three-LP set - complete with off-the-cuff storytelling - was so vividly human it unified "hippie" and "redneck" audiences. Wrote William Ruhlmann in The All-Music Guide: "The influence of [Will the Circle be Unbroken?] ... is incalculable. Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff and others sat down with a bunch of longhairs, found common ground on the best of old-time country, and changed the direction of popular music."

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