It’s rare that a solo artist can extend a career 50 years. Even harder for a band to make it that long without imploding over creative differences, leadership issues or financial arguments.
Thus, when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band played Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in September for Circlin’ Back: Celebrating 50 Years, it was an unusual occasion. The resulting PBS special, airing through March 20 in various markets, hints at how the band was able to do it. Jeff Hanna might be the lead vocalist (a role he shared on this night with former NGDB member Jimmy Ibbotson, who effectively retired from the road in 2004), and mandolinist-fiddler John McEuen might throw out his share of deft solos and mood-changing puns, but the lack of self-serving bravado among the players was distinct.
Hanna, McEuen, drummer Jimmie Fadden and keyboard player Bob Carpenter went at it with a collective mentality, clearly placing the needs of the material and the band itself — not to mention a parade of guests — above their own satisfaction. They were all in the spotlight, but none tried to dominate it.
“The Band was a real inspiration for us, the way those guys presented themselves and the music they made,” says Hanna in reflection. “It was such a community effort. I think it’s a different mind-set than being a solo artist, and it’s really rewarding. It’s a little bit of a cliche, but people often say that the four of us together make a different noise than any one of us could ourselves. It becomes yet another entity.”
The last half of the Dirt Band’s career has taken place outside the top 10. One of country’s most consistent hitmaking acts in the 1980s, NGDB capped that decade with Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume II, a guest-loaded project that nabbed three Grammy Awards and the Country Music Association’s album of the year honor. Oddly enough, after that peak experience, the only time it was directly connected with the top layer of the charts again came when Rascal Flatts covered one of Hanna’s co-writes, “Bless the Broken Road,” in 2005.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to this thing,” says Hanna of the group’s quick commercial decline. “We weren’t doing anything drastically different.”
Yet its influence can still be felt across the genre. Cycling from rock into country in the era of Alabama and Exile, the Dirt Band helped change the perception of self-contained groups when the format doggedly preferred solo stars. Zac Brown Band, Eli Young Band and Old Dominion are among the acts that have benefited from the once-rocky road their predecessors paved.
Additionally, the summery tones and images of modern country — Zac Brown Band’s “Toes,” Blake Shelton’s “Some Beach,” Dierks Bentley’s “Somewhere on a Beach” and Brad Paisley’s “Beat This Summer,” among others — owe a major debt to the Dirt Band’s “An American Dream” and Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” both of which crossed from pop to country with sand and sunshine in the late 1970s when country was mostly locked up in dark barrooms.
That crossover element is an important part of the Dirty truth. Formed in Long Beach, Calif., in 1966, the band gave its first paid performance that May at a Southern California club called The Paradox — “I think they paid us in money instead of pizza,” quips Hanna — with a lineup that included some guy named Jackson Browne. The act was a jug band at the time, mixing homemade instruments into a folk-derived sound, but NGDB made it stylistically nimble. The group befriended a host of the singer-songwriter era’s most influential acts — Linda Ronstadt, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Eagles and Buffalo Springfield among them — opened for jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie, logged a top 10 pop hit with “Mr. Bojangles” and worked with the likes of Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and “Mother” Maybelle Carter on the first Circle album in 1971. The latter project likely set up its move into country in 1983.
“I don’t think we were looked upon as carpetbaggers,” says Hanna. “It was more like, ‘These guys are the real deal, let’s give ’em a shot.’ That door would crack open occasionally — you know, it happened for Kenny Rogers. There are a just a handful of acts that were able to jump from rock’n’roll to country.”
It didn’t hurt that the songs the Dirt Band wrote and/or recorded were typically blue collar in nature. “Fishin’ in the Dark,” the Rodney Crowell-penned “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)” and the Kix Brooks-written “Modern Day Romance” were all set outside of urban areas. And “Workin’ Man (Nowhere to Go),” which Fadden wrote for the band, is incisively accurate in its depiction of a proud laborer decimated by layoffs.
“The thing I love about that tune is that you don’t have to have heard it in ’88, when it was a hit on the radio,” says Hanna. “A lot of folks just hearing it for the first time are like, ‘Wow, that means something.’ ”
So does 50 years, which is why the PBS anniversary show is loaded with guests who helped the Ryman celebration: Browne, Crowell, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill and John Prine, for starters. In the same spirit at the heart of the Circle albums, NGDB trotted out nine guests when it shot Circlin’ Back, underscoring the mentality that puts community ahead of self in the Dirt Band’s philosophy.
It’s marking an uncommon milestone at five decades, holding the group together because what it’s doing collectively is so much more satisfying than anything its members could have done alone.
“The lifestyle has changed,” says Hanna, comparing road life in 2016 with 1966. “There’s different versions of being on the road in your 20s than when you’re in your 60s. But it’s something we all love to do. We really all love playing live more than anything.”
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.