Call the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band country rock pioneers and longtime band keyboardist Bob Carpenter will laugh.
“I think it was a term put out in the late ’60s when some of the rock ’n’ roll musicians started to use more acoustic instruments in rock albums – banjos and mandolins and things like that, which were traditionally country instruments,” he told The Bee. “They also used some country sensibilities to tell more story songs. There were lots of terms for us. I think they now call what we do roots music. It is hard to figure out the verbiage. People have to call it something so they could talk about it, I guess.”
After almost 50 years, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has earned the right to call itself whatever it wants. Since 1966, the band has created a catalog of some 400 songs that have become an indelible part of music history. In fact, the group’s 1972 collaborative album, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” was inducted into the U.S. Library of Congress, as well as the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Carpenter, who began working with the band in 1975, was friends with its members for a while before joining. He said the group’s influence over the years has as much to do with its staying power as anything.
“Any time you have a group of musicians that continue to play music for 48 years, I think people have an affinity for what they do,” Carpenter said. “If you are around for so long, you tend to influence people if they are exposed to their music.”
While it has gone through many incarnations, revolving members and even names – for a while in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it went by The Dirt Band – two founding members (guitarist and vocalist Jeff Hanna and percussionist and harmonica player Jimmie Fadden) remain. Multi-instrumentalist John McEuen joined shortly after the band was formed.
Carpenter said the group’s instrumentation has been the “bedrock of the sound” since its self-titled debut album in 1967. Over the years, the rock and the country landscapes both have changed dramatically. Today, country uses more heavy guitars and rock sensibilities, and rock has less of the blues influence it reveled in in the 1960s. So country rock has evolved, as well.
“Country rock’s been divergent in the fact that the bleeding of the two (into the other) isn’t necessarily the same as the late ’60s,” Carpenter said. “Instead of going separate ways, it is something that is thrown around so loosely, it’s too mind-boggling to try to parse it out now.”
But Carpenter said the appeal of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s brand of country rock continues to span generations. While playing festivals across the country, he said he often sees three to four generations of fans in the audience. And, just like its audience, the group’s hits cover the decades, too. They range from “Mr. Bojangles” in the 1970s to “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)” and “Fishin’ in the Dark” in the 1980s and “Bang, Bang, Bang” in the 1990s. The band won Grammys in 1989 and 2004.
“We get kids kids ages 6 and 7 years old, their parents and their sometimes their parents’ parents,” Carpenter said.
These days, the musicians play around 70 shows a year. Carpenter said they do it for the joy of performing live, whatever people want to call the music.
“The thing that has always kept us going for the 48 years is understanding, whether we’re playing on radio or how many records we have, that we love to go out and play live music in front of people,” he said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing it anymore. We play about two hours in our show and we touch on music from every decade that we’ve been recording. We do one or two new songs and go all the way back to ‘Bojangles.’ We throw in some Cajun, bluegrass, country rock. We try to give them a good mix so everyone can feel they heard what they came out to hear.”