Nitty Gritty Dirt Band marks 50 years as Americana music pioneers

Jimmie Fadden apologizes at the top if his recollections get a little fuzzy.

"Fifty years of Dirt is a lot to remember," he says.

Indeed, Fadden drummer, singer and harmonica player for Americana mainstays the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band can scarcely believe that the group he helped start as a teenager at informal jam sessions in a small music store perseveres to this day as one of the longest-running and most revered names in roots music.

"At some point you start to realize that you are a very fortunate person to have been a part of something that has lasted this long, that's been as much fun and has been as much fun for others to watch," says Fadden. "Five or six years ago, I was talking to Taj Mahal and asked him, 'Do you remember when we were the kids asking Sonny Terry about that harmonica lick?' And he says, 'Yeah, I know, and now we're the old guys and the kids are asking us.' I don't know how that's happened."

Members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band are marking their 50th year together the only way they know how by making music. The band kicked off a golden anniversary run with a live concert special, "Circlin' Back: Celebrating 50 Years," that debuted on PBS in the spring. (The show was recently released on CD and DVD.) And their current concert tour included an appearance Wednesday at the 15th annual Americana Honors & Awards Show in Nashville, leading up to their show Friday night in Memphis at the Halloran Centre.

It's a victory lap for a group that started inauspiciously at the Long Beach, California, branch of the legendary McCabe's Guitar Shop. A haven for folk musicians drawn to its large inventory of banjos, mandolins and other acoustic instruments (the original store in Santa Monica is still in operation after 58 years), McCabe's held great attraction for out-of-the-mainstream kids like Fadden.

"I had an interest in what I would call outsider music. I think we were all pretty much cut from the same cloth," says Fadden, who recalls being somewhat aimless before stepping into McCabe's. "I remember the first time I saw it. I was in a car with my mom, and I made her pull over. I got out and walked back and the store was closed, but I looked in the window, and I thought, 'This is where I need to be.'"

Around McCabe's large communal table stocked with coffee and folk music magazines, Fadden met like-minded musicians, including singer-guitarist and Fadden's fellow Nitty Gritty lifer Jeff Hanna, multi-instrumentalist John McEuen, who rejoined the band in 2001 after a 15-year absence, and Army brat turned troubadour Jackson Browne. Hanna soon formed a band out of that loose collection of players. A victory in a local talent contest snowballed into more and more gigs, but Browne, with aspirations of becoming a songwriter, left after only a few months to move to New York City.

Although no longer a member, Browne still contributed songs to Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's debut album in 1967 as well as its three follow-ups, including an early version of his hit "These Days." In its early days, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was pegged as a jug band, but their music was always more eclectic than that, drawing on a wide swath of early American music traditions and mingling them subtly with contemporary folk and country rock. By the release of their fifth studio album, 1970's "Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy," featuring their biggest hit, a Top 10 cover of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles," the group had perfected their fusion.

"The reception to what we were doing which was pretty wild and crazy, combining these influences in different ways, playing some jug band, some bluegrass, some kind of bluesy things, a whole host of things started to catch on," says Fadden.


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