While still in high school in Long Beach, California, two guitarists, Jeff Hanna and Bruce Kunkel, formed a duo named The New Coast Two, before starting a group called The Illegitimate Jug Band. In college they met guitarist Jackson Browne and formed the first version of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band which included Glen Grosclose (drums), Ralph Barr (guitar) and Les Thompson (bass/vocals). Browne left to pursue a solo career after a few months and was replaced by John McEuen (banjo, fiddle, mandolin, steel guitar, vocals). John was the younger brother of the group's manager, Bill McEuen, who helped them land a recording contract with Liberty Records. They released their debut album, "The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band", in April of 1967, and had modest success with a single called "Buy For Me The Rain", which went as high as #45 on the Billboard Pop chart.
A second album, "Ricochet", released seven months later, was a critical success but a commercial flop. The band now found itself torn apart over the issue of whether or not to go to a more electric sound. During the dispute, Bruce Kunlel left the line-up and was replaced by Chris Darrow (guitar, fiddle). Ironically, by mid-1968, the group had gone electric. Their first electric album, "Rare Junk", was released in June of 1968, but it too was a commercial failure. With their mixed bag of Jug-Band, Vaudeville and Pop material, the band had trouble finding work on the live circuit, but recorded another unsuccessful album called "Alive" in May of 1969 before spitting up.
The members went their separate ways for a while, but six months later the group reformed. The new line-up included McEuen, Hanna, Fadden, Thompson, and Jim Ibbotson (guitars, accordion, drums, percussion, piano, vocals). When they returned to their record company, they demanded full control over their recordings and the company agreed. Bill McEuen became the group's producer as well as its manager. Their first effort was an album called "Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy", issued in 1970. The album had a Country feel, but no trace of the Vaudeville and novelty numbers that had appeared on their earlier records. The album yielded what is the group's best-known single, their cover of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles", which climbed into Billboard's Top Ten. The album made it to #66, and managed to produce two more minor hits with Kenny Loggins' "House At Pooh Corner" (#89) and "Some Of Shelly's Blues" in 1971.
Their next album, "All The Good Times", released in early 1972, had an even more countrified feel and failed to make much of an impact. The band then went to Nashville and recorded a selection of traditional numbers with Country stars Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Travis, Doc Watson and Vassar Clements. Some Nashville stars were sceptical at first, but they soon saw how respectful the band was toward them, their work, and their music, as well as how serious they were about their own material. The result was a triple disc album called, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken", released in January of 1973. It became a million-seller, reaching #68 on Billboard's album chart and gained positive reviews from both the Rock and Country music press. The band had become a full-fledged cross-over act, reaching Country and Bluegrass audiences even as their Rock listeners acquired a new appreciation for Country music.
During the year and a half that followed, Les Thompson left the group, reducing the band to a quartet. Their next album, "Stars and Stripes Forever", released in the Summer of 1974, was a odd, live album, that mixed concert performances and dialogue. Following one more LP, "Dream" (1975), the group released its first retrospective, a triple-LP compilation entitled "Dirt, Silver and Gold", issued late in 1976. It was about this time that Jim Ibbotson left the band and was replaced by session player Bob Carpenter. The remaining trio of Jeff Hanna, John McEuen and Jimmie Fadden shortened the group's official name to The Dirt Band.
Continuing their habit of drifting from one style to another, they backed Steve Martin on his 1978 novelty hit, "King Tut", which made it to #17 in the U.S.A. In 1980, a duet with Linda Ronstadt called "An American Dream" brought their name back to the pop charts when the record went to #13, followed six months later by "Make A Little Magic", with Nicolette Larson, that hit #25. By 1982 they had switched back to their Country roots, re-taking the name The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and welcoming Jim Ibbotson back into the fold. The album, "Let's Go", released in the middle of 1983, heralded their return to Country music and started a string of 16 Top Ten Country hits, of which three, "Long, Hard Road", "Modern Day Romance" and "Fishin' In The Dark" went to number one. In 1984, after 17 years with Liberty / UA / Capitol, they switched labels to Warner Brothers, and that same year made headlines as the first American Rock band to tour the Soviet Union. In 1986, McEuen left the band to pursue solo projects.
Their Warner albums sold well, but by the end of the 1980s the group again switched labels. In 1989 they recorded "Will the Circle Be Unbroken 2" for MCA / Universal Records, reuniting with surviving Country and Bluegrass veterans from the original album and adding a whole roster of new players, including Johnny Cash, Chris Hillman, and Ricky Skaggs. The album won the Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance (duo or group) and the Country Music Association's Album Of The Year Award in 1989.
Their next several albums saw them never veering very far from their Country / Bluegrass roots and the group continued to record a new L.P. every year or so. An in-concert album, "Live Two-Five", celebrated their 25th anniversary as a band, followed by a non-electric effort called simply, "Acoustic". In 1999, they returned with "Bang Bang Bang" and in July and October 2001, John McEuen and Jim Ibbotson joined the remaining members on stage for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Reunion Tour.
The band continued to tour into the new century, performing for a loyal fan base and released a new CD called "Speed Of Life" in 2009. Of the 13 tracks on the album, 11 were new songs penned by members of the band, and two were classic covers: Canned Heat's Woodstock hit "Going Up the Country" and Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle (With You)".
For 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, the band's website, www.NittyGritty.com, showed a busy touring schedule. In August, 2015, Jeff Hanna announced that on September 14 the group would take to the stage with special guests Sam Bush, Vince Gill, Jackson Browne and former member Jimmy Ibbotson to celebrate the opening of their 50th Anniversary Tour. The show was slated be taped for a PBS special that was scheduled to air in March of 2016. After that, the band was planning to extend the tour into 2017.
For more, be sure to read Gary James' interview with Jimmie Fadden of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.