Nitty Gritty Dirt Band continue to rock bluegrass tunes
You could look at the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 50-year endurance run as a sort of tutorial illustrating the last half century in roots and country music.
The group started in the late ’60s as hippies playing jug band music in the California sun (playing washboards and other primitive instruments), stumbled into a Top 10 pop hit with “Mr. Bojangles” in 1970, and a few years later, recorded “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” one of the foundational documents of what we now call Americana music.
On Sunday, the band ends its 2016 tour, celebrating the anniversary, with a concert at the MotorCity Casino’s Sound Board in Detroit. They are also touting their latest album, recorded at Nashville’s fabled Ryman Auditorium, “The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Friends — Circlin’ Back: Celebrating 50 Years,” and a recent PBS telecast.
Back in 1966, when the group formed around native Detroiter Jeff Hanna, bandmates Jimmie Fadden, Jackson Browne and others were long-haired hippies who took a faintly humorous approach to the old-timey music they played.
But despite the washboards and long hair, Hanna insists they were always serious about the music, as were their idols, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.
The washboards have been retired from the road — Hanna has carpal tunnel syndrome and must save his wrists for his guitar playing — but he did pull the old board out to perform the traditional “Truthful Parson Brown,” with Browne singing lead, on the “Circlin’ Back” concert and album.
What set the NGDB apart was their big 1970 pop hit, “Mr. Bojangles,” but they also embraced the oldest traditional country they could, with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” in 1972. They had been turned on to old, traditional music and instruments by folk artists such as the Kingston Trio, Hanna said.
For 1972’s “Circle,” the timing was right to bring some of the pioneers of country music into the studio to play with them, including “Mother” Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson.
The early ’70s was an interesting time in country music; what Nashville was turning out was pretty slick, uptown music, while but these scruffy hippies from California felt they had common cause with the older, traditional music pioneers. It could have been awkward.
“We were young hippies from the West Coast, coming down South at a time when there was clearly, at least from the outside, this sort of a wall between the hippies and the rednecks,” Hanna explained. “But one thing we all knew, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson and Roy Acuff and Maybelle and Merle — that most of this was BS. Music transcends all of that. For Earl Scruggs, such an open-minded, generous guy, there was two kinds of music, good music and bad, just put me in front of a mic. That was the attitude that carried through those sessions.”
On “Circle,” Maybelle Carter sang songs she and the Carter Family had popularized, including “Wildwood Flower” and “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
On the new “Circlin’ Back” live album, it’s one of the highlights when Hanna and the band perform “Keep on the Sunny Side” with Allison Krause singing a crystalline lead.
For “Mr. Bojangles,” the band was reunited with the songwriter, Jerry Jeff Walker, who sings it with them on the CD.
The band thought the song would be an interesting album cut, but never considered it a possible single. “A four-minute song about an old guy and his dog, a song in three-quarter time? Not exactly a toe tapper,” Hanna said with a laugh.
But after the album came out, a radio station in Shreveport, Louisiana, started playing “Bojangles.” Listeners started requesting it, and soon the label did release it as a single.
“We will not make our livings as (record company) A&R men who predict hits,” Hanna said. “But we’ve got good taste.”
Susan Whitall, author of “Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Live, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul,” is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News.
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
7:30 p.m. Sun.
Sound Board at MotorCity Casino, 2901 Grand River, Detroit
Tickets: $40, $30 and $25. Go to Ticketmaster.com, or charge by phone at (800) 745-3000. You must be 21 or older with a photo ID to be admitted.