It's the addiction to playing in front of live audiences that's kept Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on the road performing its influential country rock music for 50 years.
"We enjoy the creative process of writing songs and going into the studio to record them, but there's something about that immediate response you get from a live audience," says Jeff Hanna, one the band's original founding members. "It's so communal. The energy is being passed back and forth. We thrive on that."
A forerunner of the country rock and American roots music movement of the '60s, the band has multiple platinum- and gold-selling records, strings of Top 10 hits, and multiple Grammy, International Bluegrass Music and Country Music awards and nominations. Its 1972 album, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," is among collections of the Library of Congress and the Grammy Hall of Fame. The band's recording of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles" also was inducted in 2010 to the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Today, Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter and John McEuen continue to add to their accolades with nonstop touring and a new CD/DVD set, "Circlin' Back: Celebrating 50 Years Live," to be released Sept. 30.
The band and some old friends got together last year for a live show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Billing the show Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Friends, the guest-packed concert was filmed and recorded and has been running since March as a fundraiser for PBS.
"We gathered to celebrate our 50 years together with musicians who are essentially all our friends," Hanna says. "These are people who've had a direct impact on our music. Some, like Rodney Crowell, have written songs that were milestones for us in our career. John Prine joined us to play 'Paradise,' one of our favorite songs. We played 'These Days' with Jackson Browne, which is a song he wrote when he was part of the band in its early days, along with a jug band number with Jackson called 'The Truthful Parson Brown,' a really cool tune. Alison Krauss sang 'Keep on the Sunny Side,' which we originally recorded with Mother Maybelle Carter on our first 'Circle' album.
"Jerry Jeff Walker joined us for 'Mr. Bojangles.' That was a big deal for us. We honored a lot of the music on the first 'Circle' album. Vince Gill did 'Tennessee Stud,' which Doc Watson did on the 1972 album; Sam Bush did a great Merle Travis song called 'Nine Pound Hammer'; and former Nitty Gritty member Jimmy Ibbotson came and did a couple of songs with us.
"It was a great night in Nashville," Hanna says. "We had a roomful of rabid fans."
Celebrate "50 Years of Dirt" at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15, in the Britt Pavilion, 350 S. First St., Jacksonville. Nashville singer, songwriter and musician Will Hogue will open the show. Bluegrass band Siskiyou Summit will perform at 6 p.m. in the Performance Garden. Tickets are $49 for reserved seats, $38 for lawn seats, $20 for age 12 and younger, $196 for premium blanket seating for four, $98 for premium blanket seating for two, and are available online at brittfest.org, at the box office, 216 W. Main St., Medford, or by calling 541-773-6077.
Original members of Nitty Gritty are Hanna and Fadden. McEuen was with the band from '66 to '86 and returned in 2001. Carpenter joined the band in '77.
Along with the 1972 "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," which paired such traditional country artists as Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff and Jimmy Martin with the band, a follow-up album based on the same concept, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. II," was released in 1989. It was certified gold, won two Grammys, and was named Album of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards. A third "Circle" album was released in 2002 and featured Del McCoury, June Carter Cash, Dwight Yoakam, Gram Parsons, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash, to name a few.
Nitty Gritty formed in 1966 in Long Beach, Calif. At informal jam sessions at McCabe's Guitar Shop, they met like-minded musicians — including Jackson Browne — and started a jug band, playing in local clubs while wearing pinstripe suits and cowboy boots.
"We were just teenagers," Hanna says. "Some of us were still in high school or attempting a first year in college. We spent a lot of time at that guitar shop. Unlike our peers, our interests were in folk music. That was the stuff that resonated with us. Jug band music seemed like a great way to go without having to get a drum set, electric bass and amps. We could fit all our stuff in John's Chevy Nova. We were lucky. We had a great regional following, and about 10 months later we signed with Liberty Records."
Label executives didn't want to record jug band music because they thought it would never get airplay, and the boys were crushed.
"But we knew songwriters Browne, Steve Noonan and Greg Copeland," Hanna says. Steve and Greg wrote 'Buy For Me the Rain,' and it was a hit on both coasts. That got us on the road with The Doors and Jefferson Airplane. We'd go out and play our jug band music, and then we'd play our hit. It was a lot of fun."
Two following albums, "Richochet" and "Rare Junk" weren't as commercially successful as Nitty Gritty's first eponymous album, and the band took most of 1969 off. Hanna went to play with Linda Ronstadt's band, and McEuen went to Las Vegas to play banjo in Andy Williams' orchestra. Later in the year, Nitty Gritty reformed as a country rock band.
"It was a turning point for us," Hanna says. "We were acoustic. The Byrds, Poco, Buffalo Springfield and others were electric. Some in the band had a hard time getting our heads around the idea."
Hanna, a great fan of jug band music, didn't stop playing a washboard for another 10 years. He and Fadden would play washboard and washtub bass in the band's bluegrass numbers.
"It was our version of a rhythm section," he says. "But we reformed our music by putting more emphasis on bluegrass and Cajun music. Then we stayed with that. It became the cornerstone of what we do."