The genesis of contemporary country and roots music is often attributed to the year 1966, when singer/guitarist Jeff Hanna, drummer Jimmie Fadden, multi-instrumentalist John McEuen and singer Bruce Kunkel formed a rock/jug-band hybrid known as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in Long Beach, Calif.
“We were only 18 when we started, and it was fun, and there was this big rock movement going on in California, but we really liked folk music so we wanted to find an alternative to the rock bands out there and the jug band was just perfect for us,” Hanna said. “It was almost kind of a lark.”
This year, the band is celebrating its golden anniversary. Although the group has undergone numerous lineup changes over the course of five decades—including adding Bob Carpenter on keyboards in 1977—all but Kunkel remain from the original foursome.
“It’s pretty astounding to us. Most bands have a shelf-life of about 5-10 years if they are lucky, so when we hit 20, we thought that was really cool, and the next thing we knew, we were somewhere in the mid-40s and we knew we had to do this,” Hanna said. “We’ve been doing this the majority of our adult lives and it’s great to have had fans who have hung in there with us through all kinds of musical changes.”
Best known for song hits as “Fishin’ In The Dark” and “Mr. Bojangles,” over the years, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has released countless platinum and gold records, have won numerous Grammy and CMA awards and their groundbreaking “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” album has been inducted into the U.S. Library of Congress.
Last September, the band played to a sold out crowd at The Historic Ryman Auditorium with some close friends to film a 50th Anniversary Special that aired on PBS in March.
“It was a great night and celebration of our 50 years,” Hanna said. “It’s raised our profile in a really positive way and it’s been great to have people show up and help us light those candles on our birthday cake.”
In a more private celebration, the guys got together with their families to mark the occasion as well.
“There’s a couple of guys in the band who don’t drink, but we certainly raised our glasses in a fashion,” Hanna said. “There was a lot of hugging and backslapping and high-fiving. It’s quite an accomplishment and I don’t think it was lost on any of us.”
On May 19, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band will head to Hamilton Live, celebrating 50 years of playing great music.
“We have a lot of songs and we’ll try and cover all the bases and dig deep into that songbook which goes way back,” Hanna said. “We’re fortunate in that I think we all still play and sing as well as we ever had, and that’s another thing to celebrate as well.”
A special guest at the concert will be Jim Photoglo, a long-time friend of NGDB and co-writer of one of their signature songs, “Fishin’ In The Dark.”
“He’s been a good pal all of these years and he’s taking a break from his touring schedule to come out and sing and play bass with us, so we’re all excited about that,” Hanna said. “We have a lot planned that will excite our fans.”
Hanna and his bandmates have seen plenty of changes in the music industry since 1966, but he thinks the most impactful is the way artists are developed in the 21st century.
“The biggest change in our industry to me is that artist development has become a thing of the past. These days, if a kid gets signed to a record deal, they are going to expect he or she to have a million-seller right out of the box,” he said. “When we started making records, it wasn’t unusual that an artist’s best album was their second or third, so you had a chance to grow. I think the pressure of economics and the fact there is so much out there has caused a lot of talent to not be developed properly.”
As for the future, Hanna noted the band is going to continue playing and staying relevant and is grateful fans are coming along for the ride.
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