How did Door Community Auditorium score a return visit from the legendary Nitty Gritty Dirt Band? By being Door Community Auditorium.
“The Door County auditorium is a very nice place in a great area,” string wizard John McEuen said in an interview last week. “Great audience, nice room, and I’m even coming up a few days early so I can go to the White Gull Inn.”
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” collaboration with country and bluegrass stars is credited as one of the building blocks of Americana music, brings its 50th anniversary concert tour to the auditorium at 8 p.m. July 28. The band played the DCA stage in 2012.
It has been more than a half-century now that a group of Long Beach, Calif., teenagers assembled a group that played an odd mix of jug band, ragtime, folk and bluegrass music. They had a regional hit with a poetic ballad called “Buy for Me the Rain.” One of those teens was a young singer-songwriter named Jackson Browne. Although he left the band before it secured a recording contract, Browne’s “Melissa” appears on its first album, the first of a handful of his songs recorded by the Dirt Band.
“We were very young,” McEuen said. “One guy was a junior in high school, one was a senior – that first album had I think 11 songs on it; we only knew 12.”
The band’s 1970 “Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy” featured a surprise hit in “Mr. Bojangles” and set the stage for the “Circle” album with Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson and a host of other country stars reaching across generational gaps to play with the long-haired youngsters. The band’s straight-ahead interpretations of Ralph Stanley’s “Clinch Mountain Backstep” and Earl Scruggs’ “Randy Lynn Rag” helped convince the older performers to join the project.
The three-record (now two-CD) set secured the group’s first two Grammy nominations and was added to the National Recording Registry of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” recordings in 2005. Second and third “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” projects were recorded in 1989 and 2002.
In the meantime the band reinvented itself a time or two, dropping the “Nitty Gritty” and hitting the charts as the Dirt Band in the late 1970s (“Make A Little Magic,” “An American Dream”) and spending the 1980s as a fixture on the country charts under its original name (“Fishing In The Dark,” “Working Man,” “Partners Brothers and Friends”).
Last September it launched its 50th anniversary year with a sold-out show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium — aptly titled “Circling Back” — that also featured special guests Browne, Vince Gill, Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell and another former bandmate, Jimmy Ibbotson.
Jeff Hanna (lead vocals, guitar) and Jimmie Fadden (drums, harmonica) have been with the group for the entire half-century, joined by keyboardist Bob Carpenter in 1977. McEuen (banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar) was there in the beginning but left to pursue solo projects from 1986 to 2001.
The band’s enthusiastic fan base has kept them on the road all that time, McEuen said.
“People say, why has the band been there so long? I would say, well, my question is why have the fans been around so long?” he said with a laugh. “Because they’re the reason, you know. Believe me, if we only had five people come to see us, I don’t think we’d be out there very long. And what’s strange is the crowds are getting bigger.”
McEuen is excited about his latest side project, “Made in Brooklyn,” featuring a group of his other musical friends, including Steve Martin and John Carter Cash, son of the country legend. The album, to be released Sept. 30, is a collection of songs he always wanted to record.
“They’re all kind of Americana classics in their own way. They each had their own importance,” McEuen said. “One was a song written by my friend Bernie Leadon — after he wrote the song he went on the form The Eagles. Another song was written by Boudleaux Bryant, the guy who wrote ‘Rocky Top’ and ‘Dream’ and all kinds of songs, and it was given to me by his son, who said, ‘I’ve got this song of my dad’s that no one’s ever heard or recorded’ … I said, oh yeah, that’s perfect. I wanted John Carter Cash to sing his dad’s song, ‘I still Miss Someone.’ He does a great job of it.”
For more information on the Dirt Band or McEuen, go to www.johnmceuen.com or www.nittygritty.com.
Warren Bluhm is news editor of the Door County Advocate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 920-743-3321, Ext. 122.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is in concert at 8 p.m. July 28 at Door Community Auditorium, 3926 Wisconsin 42, Fish Creek. Tickets are $45 to $68, and advance purchases are recommended. For tickets or more information, go to the DCA box office, call 920-868-2728 or visit www.dcauditorium.com.