Interview: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Reflect on 50 Years in Music
On May 13, 1966, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band played their very first show at the Paradox in Orange, Calif. In 2016, NGDB -- today, Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, John McEuen and Bob Carpenter -- have 50 (fifty!) incredible years of history behind them, and more than a few amazing memories.
Back in the mid-'60s, founding members Hanna and Fadden -- who, along with Jackson Browne and others, comprised the band's original lineup -- quickly made a name for themselves in and around their native California. When Browne left the band after only a few months to pursue a solo career, multi-instrumentalist McEuen joined the group; Carpenter, the band's current keyboardist, came on board in the late '70s. Several members have come and gone, but the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band have consistently made music and toured, without a major hiatus, since their founding five decades ago -- no small feat, to be sure.
As the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band embark on a 50th anniversary tour, they look back with The Boot on their music, their longevity and what the future looks like.
How does it feel to be celebrating 50 years in music?
Bob Carpenter: It’s a sense of pride, to be able to go out and still do a show for two hours and feel that you’re still playing at the same level that you can ask people to pay money to get out of their homes and come and see you now.
Jimmie Fadden: I think having been bestowed the gift of doing something we really love for a living helps keep us feeling younger, for sure. And it’s fun being out there playing.
Did you ever imagine that you'd still be together as a band 50 years later?
Jeff Hanna: I think we could have imagined that we’re still playing music, but whether or not we’d be doing it together as a band ... These days, I might add that I think bands last longer than they used to, but 10 years would be quite an accomplishment. But 20 -- when we did that Twenty Years of Dirt concert in Denver back in ’86, it was like, "Wow! We’ve been doing this for 20 years."
What's the dynamic like between the four of you?
Hanna: We disagree about the stupidest stuff, like anybody. We’re brothers. Every cliché applies. None of us have spent as much time with our wives as we have with each other -- anybody, really; we’ve been out here doing this for so long. We’re out on the road somewhere between 100 and 150, pushing to maybe 175, days a year, which is a lot. But when we were kids, that was like 250. We’d get home, and you never really close your suitcase. We’re lucky that we have sort of more normal lives now.
Fadden: I have some guilt about it -- I’m sure we all do -- time we haven’t been able to spend with our family. I kind of wonder if they could have put up with me for any length of time.
We’re always looking forward rather than looking back, and that’s a consistent remedy to feeling old: Look forward.
You performed a show at the Ryman Auditorium last year, as part of a PBS special, with artists like Browne, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, John Prine, Rodney Crowell and others joining you on stage. What was that show like?
Hanna: These were all folks that we had either recorded with or we had a musical history with. Jackson Browne, for example, played in our band the first few months that we were together, when we were still a jug band, when we were all teenagers. We were the first band who actually recorded his songs; that was our connection with him. We got to rehearse for a couple of days prior to the Ryman show, and we had so much -- the fun we had in those rehearsals ... It was like a family reunion for us.
Everyone onstage became a legendary performer, in some way, over the past few decades.
Fadden: None of that stuff matters when you get onstage and start playing and singing. That transcends any title that you would use. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who the person is; it’s what’s coming out of their mouth and out of their fingers, which makes it all worthwhile.
One of the pinnacles of your career has to be recording the Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums with artists like Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Levon Helm, Ricky Skaggs and Doc Watson, among others.
Carpenter: You think about what it’s like to make a Will the Circle Be Unbroken project, when you’re in the studio for 10, 14 straight days, with two unbelievable artists. You’ve got your headphones on, and you go, "God, that sounds like Johnny Cash," and you look up, and it is. I describe it as coming down the stairs to Christmas every day.
How has touring changed for you over the years?
Hanna: We take better care of ourselves now than we did.
John McEuen: Being on the road is a little bit easier now, as far as connectivity to your home, to your family and all that stuff. You’ve got satellite dishes.
Fadden: Travel is easier than it’s ever been. There’s great hotels everywhere, the car is there, there’s flights that take you places. It’s a good thing, because it’s not easy. Sometimes it’s a 20-hour day to get to where you can go work for two hours; actually, it’s 20 hours of work to get to where you can play. We have better buses ... Sometimes we tell people they pay us to travel, we play for fun.
Your tour is already planned into 2017. That's a huge undertaking.
McEuen: The problem is, even though we are travel experts, we can’t get all the places we want to go in one year. It’s physically impossible for us to get every place where they would like to see us play. That’s why it’s going to take a while.
Hanna: Our band never had the luxury of ever breaking up, so we can’t do a reunion tour. This is the giant lengthy victory lap.
Our band never had the luxury of ever breaking up, so we can’t do a reunion tour. This is the giant lengthy victory lap.
You've consistently been able to draw huge crowds since the beginning of your career.
Carpenter: Even when we’re up there, sometimes you see people up there in the front row that are 20 years old, and our question to them is, "What are your grandparents doing tonight?"
Hanna: As fortunate as our band has been through the years to have hits and do lots of TV and tour all over the world and have a great fan base, we’ve never been huge like the Rolling Stones or like Garth Brooks. So it’s been a nice, level, even -- our peaks and valleys have been gentler. We’ve come to accept the fact that we’re really lucky to be able to do this. Getting on the bus every spring and staying out there through the fall, it’s really great. It’s great to do something you love.
What do you look forward to next as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band?
McEuen: If anything, it’s a bigger responsibility than ever, because one of the things about doing this job is, your purpose is an escape for people that pay to come and see you, and if you can’t take them away and make them forget about their problems -- fortunately, the band, the music, whatever it is, people go there, and they get transported somewhere. Every year, every show that goes by, you better do that the next show.
Hanna: We’re always looking forward rather than looking back, and that’s a consistent remedy to feeling old: Look forward. Tomorrow’s a new day. Today, you’ve got stuff to do. Keep moving.
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