Nitty Gritty delivers with the Speed of Life
By Ben Corbett
July 8, 2010
The members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band make up one of those
musical ensembles that has always defied category. For hyphen-happy
reviewers, there never seemed to be enough dashes to capture the
band's ever-evolving essence.
Together since 1966, one year they'd be "folk-rock," the next,
"country-folk-bluegrass." These days, most have found it easiest to
simply wrap the definitive Dirt Band style with the catch-all "roots
music," which seems appropriate for a band that has dipped into as
many genres as it has generations of fans. Whether you know them from
their heavily rotated 1970s smash hit, "Mr. Bojangles," or the 1980s
country chart-busters, "Modern Day Romance" and "Fishin' in the
Dark," the Dirt Band has easily earned its esteemed position as a
major shareholder of American music history. After many personnel
changes over the years, today the core Dirt Band a quartet now
features original founders Jeff Hanna (guitar) and Jimmie Fadden
(drums), along with longtime alums John McEuen (banjo/mandolin, etc.)
and Bob Carpenter (piano/keyboard).
"Doing Bonnaroo earlier this month was an amazing experience," Hanna
says. "Our set was between Hot Rize and Steve Martin. The festival
mack daddies are Bonnaroo and Coachella. Nowadays you get people who
are rabid music fans it doesn't matter if you're bluegrass or folk
or metal or hip-hop. I mean, Jay-Z and Stevie Wonder, Jeff Beck and
John Fogerty, Kings of Leon and us. We all played the same festival.
It had been a while since we played for that young of a crowd, and
they seemed to know our music, which was encouraging."
Steve Martin at Bonnaroo? "He's a serious cat on the banjo," says
Hanna. "He's deadly, deadly serious about it." In fact, Bonnaroo was
a homecoming of sorts for both the comedian and members of the Dirt
Band. Back in the late '70s under the name The Toot Uncommons the
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was Martin's studio backup band for the
recording of "King Tut." More recently, multi-instrumentalist McEuen
masterminded the production of Martin's 2009 Grammy-winning bluegrass
album The Crow.
"We were really tight back in the '70s," says Hanna of Martin. "He
was our opening act for a couple of years on the road, and he had to
quit opening for rock bands because it was a hostile audience. But it
allowed him to really develop his thing, and at that point he became
this massive comedy star."
The Dirt Band was indie before indie was in, and these days, both
next-generation fans and younger musicians are grabbing hold of the
music after discovering the Dirt Band's more understated innovations
and pioneering achievements, which are now earning them their
long-coming icon status. Among other things, the Nitty Gritty Dirt
Band was one of the first to explore the concept of guest star
compilations with its ground-breaking 1972 triple-album, Will the
Circle Be Unbroken, which featured an all-star cast of mostly
bluegrass stalwarts including Doc Watson, Vassar Clements, Mother
Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Jimmy Martin, among others.
"There's so much more of that now than there was in 1970 when we
recorded that album," says Hanna about the guest musician phenomenon.
"You didn't see a lot of people sitting in back then. Now, it's kind
of an everyday occurrence."
But it still wasn't an everyday occurrence in the late '80s. So
successful was the first effort that in 1989 the band released Will
the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Two, this time leaning harder toward
country with Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Levon Helm,
John Hiatt, John Prine and many others. Like its predecessor, Volume
Two spun heads in the industry as the Dirt Band garnered some
well-earned critical acclaim.
Twenty years later, the Dirt Band's biggest change has been the
collective experience of its members, and it really shows in the new
album, Speed of Life their first studio effort in five years. Guest
musicians include Glenn Worf and Richard Bennett from Mark Knopfler's
band. And of the disc's 13 songs, 11 of them are originals written by
musicians performing on the record, while two are covers:
jug-band-style renditions of Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle"
and Canned Heat's "Going Up The Country." Produced by George
Massenberg (who produced Little Feat, Emmylou Harris and others) and
Jon Randall Stewart (of Nash Ramblers), the album was cut in
Massenberg's Blackbird Studio C, which was designed to capture the
live performance sound. From the tight professional polish of what
would be an otherwise loose jug-band sound, you can tell immediately
that Massenberg demanded blood from these veteran musicians. The
result? Classic Dirt, with four seasoned musicians running their
country-folk-bluegrassrock roots through a filter of modern technology.
Which is exactly what you can expect at the show.