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Getting Down to the Nitty Gritty

Every town has one—a place where teens gather to share their interest in music. In 1966, McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Long Beach, California, was where young people gathered to talk about music, see the latest instruments, and jam.

“One of the main topics of conversation was how to not have to work for a living,” recalls John McEuen.

McEuen was originally from Oakland. After seeing a performance by the Dillards in 1964, he became interested in music, learning to play the banjo and, eventually, the fiddle and mandolin. He spent a lot of time at McCabe’s. That same year Jeff Hanna, also a regular at McCabe’s, attended a Bob Dylan performance at the Wilson High School auditorium in Long Beach. He attended the concert with a group of friends, including Bruce Kunkel. Jimmy Fadden was also a Dylan fan and spent hours playing Dylan’s songs with Hanna. Their common thread was a love of folk and roots music and their time at McCabe’s Guitar Shop.

Surely when the young men formed the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1966, they had no idea the band would span decades and would still put out records over twenty years into the next century. The original band included Hanna, Kunkel, Fadden, McEuen, and a guitarist/vocalist named Jackson Browne. The group started as a jug band, which was popular then. Combining that with the new folk-rock style of music, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band created a unique sound and an intriguing look, often performing in pinstriped suits and cowboy boots. Browne left the group early on to start his career as a singer-songwriter.

McEuen’s brother, William McEuen, took on the role of the band’s manager and secured bookings for the band. He also produced their album, Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy, in 1970. One of the songs on the album, “Mr. Bojangles,” was the band’s first hit. Written and originally recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker, the song rose to number nine on the Billboard “Hot 100” list in 1971 and stayed on the list for thirty-six weeks. Another popular tune on the album was a Kenny Logins song, “House on Pooh Corner.”

Wanting to solidify their standing as a country band, they set out for Nashville, where they planned to record an album with country music greats Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson.

“I got up the nerve to ask Earl if he would record something with us, and he not only said yes, but he also said he could bring in Doc,” says John McEuen. “The next thing we knew, Roy Acuff showed up, then Maybelle Carter, Junior Huskey, and others. I was a bit starstruck, but it all felt so natural. We sat in the studio and just started playing, with one person after another suggesting songs.”

It became a platinum-selling three-album set that received two GRAMMY nominations.

Over the years, members of the band came and went. The band changed its name to the Dirt Band between 1976 and 1981 before going back to the original band name. McEuen left after twenty years, only to rejoin the band in 2001 before leaving again at the end of 2017, following the band’s fiftieth-anniversary tour. Jeff Hanna and Jimmy Fadden are the only two original band members still on board. Jeff’s son, Jaime, has joined the band on guitars and vocals.

In their nearly six decades as a band, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has released 24 albums, and the Will the Circle Be Unbroken LPs. One of the albums is a Christmas album released in 1997. The band’s latest release, Dirt Does Dylan, is a full-circle project for Jeff Hanna, who paid $4 to see Dylan perform in a high school gym so long ago. The album, released in 2022, contains ten of Dylan’s songs, including the iconic “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The band is joined by Roseanne Cash, Steve Earle, Jason Isbell, and The War & Treaty. The album ends on a light note, with Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn).”

For those who would like to see the band play live, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has tour dates that start February 10 and runs through September 2023.

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