September 15, 2013

47 Years of Dirt

by Jim Newsom

Bob Carpenter is a rarity: a college graduate who quit his day job because he was making more money playing music.

“I went to a technical college,” he told me recently, “Drexel. I got a band together there and started playing music. When I got out of school I had a real job, but I was playing music on the weekends and it was more fun and it paid me more money. So I quit my real job.

“That took me to LA eventually, in the late ‘60s. It wasn’t working out so I went up to Colorado and that’s when I ran into the band. I started doing some shows with them and working in the studio, and the next thing you know, here we are.”

“The band” he ran into in Colorado was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, coming to the TCC Roper Performing Arts Center for a Sunday evening concert on September 29th. He’s played keys with them since the mid ‘70s. During that time, the Dirt Band has gone from country rock pioneers to middle-of-the-road pop success to the top of the country music charts.

“We never planned any of that stuff,” he said. “We were a product of the times and the music that was going on, and the stuff that we were listening to. It just naturally took us in different directions. The center of the whole thing is the fact that the band has always been an acoustic-based act. We have so many acoustic instruments that we use—mandolin, acoustic guitars, fiddle, banjo, accordion, things like that. As we went along through our recording career we always used them to a large extent, but the way we used them changed slightly.

“And radio changed. Take a look at ‘Bojangles.’ That came out in the early ‘70s and was on pop radio. If that came out today, I don’t know if it would be on country radio. It would’ve been in the ‘80s when we were on country radio. But now it would probably be considered roots or Americana music. The labels have changed, radio stations have changed. Everything has changed except for us, I think.”

Today’s Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is made up of three founding members—Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden and John McEuen—and Carpenter, who probably qualifies as a charter member after all this time.

“We’re gearing up towards our fiftieth anniversary in a couple of years,” he said. “I think things are gonna ramp up. We’ve got a bunch of stuff on the table that we’re looking at right now—a special recording project, a documentary that we’ve been talking about doing.

“Back in the early ‘90s, just as a joke, we made up a t-shirt that said ’50 Years of Dirt’ with a cartoon of us onstage in wheelchairs and walkers. It seemed so far away at that point, but we’re there almost—2016. We had 20 Years of Dirt and we had Live 2-5. Every time we do one of those projects we say well this will probably be pretty much near the end. Boy were we wrong!”

The NGDB first came to our attention with the semi-hit “Buy For Me the Rain” in 1967, and hit the pop top ten in 1970 with a definitive version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” and the album Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy. In 1972, they busted down the barriers between country, bluegrass and rock with their first Will the Circle Be Unbroken collaboration with the then-living legends of country music. A decade later, they began a lengthy run atop the contemporary country music world with hits like “Fishin’ in the Dark,” “I Love Only You,” “Dance Little Jean” and “Long Hard Road.”

“That crowd has all gotten a lot older,” Carpenter said of the band’s first batch of fans, “and they don’t come out to a lot of shows anymore. Depending on where we play and the type of venue it is, we get a demographic that thinks we started with ‘Fishin’ in the Dark.’ And then they discover some of the older stuff we’ve done. People are always surprised. We play ‘American Dream’ and people think that was a Jimmy Buffett song. It’s a discovery process for a lot of our younger fans.”

Carpenter himself discovered music growing up in Philadelphia, listening to songs like “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” and watching TV with his parents:

“They’d watch Lawrence Welk and I’d beat on pie tins with a stick. They got me an accordion so I’d stop beating on the pie tins. That’s how I got into the keyboard stuff. I know all the polka songs. I took lessons for a while when I was twelve years old and learned all the standards.”

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band continues to be a standard bearer for great music that cuts across genres and defies definition.

“We’re so fortunate,” he said. “We all started doing this because we loved playing music, and we’re still doing it. What better thing could you have in your life?

“There’s a whole new generation of kids who are seven or eight years old who come up to us and go, ‘My parents’ song is ‘Fishin’ in the Dark.’ This is music that has been passed on from generation to generation.”

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
TCC Roper Performing Arts Center
Sunday, September 29 – 7:30 pm
Tickets: $30.00-40.00

copyright © 2013 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.


”The Circle Remains Unbroken”
Treehouse Magazine
February 18, 2009
An extended interview with Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

”Gettin’ Down to the Nitty Gritty”
PortFolio Weekly
February 17, 2009
Talking with Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.