When the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band ambled onto the stage of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium last September, it was a full circle moment for the group of pickers who helped revitalize string music with 1972's seminal Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Taped for the PBS special Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: 50 Years and Circlin' Back, the performance reunited Dirt Band members Jeff Hanna, John McEuen, Jimmie Fadden and Bob Carpenter with the artists they admired in their formative years: John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker and former Dirt Band member Jackson Browne. It also paired them up with some of the country and bluegrass names they've influenced, from Vince Gill to Alison Krauss.
McEuen, the Dirt Band's master of the mandolin, among other stringed instruments, says it was the ideal venue for the group — and particularly satisfying for him. "Fifty-two years ago I went to see the Grand Ole Opry and I couldn't get in, and I had to look in the back window when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs came out with Maybelle Carter," he says. "I never thought I'd be on that stage. But every one of those people that night was influenced by the people that had walked across the Opry stage." (Including folk giant Prine, who sang his own "Paradise" with the Dirt Band; watch the video below.)
Says Fadden of the evening's all-star collaboration, "Sam Bush called it 'The Nitty Gritty E Street Band,' which is appropriate." Especially when you consider that the Dirt Band recorded Bruce Springsteen's "Cadillac Ranch" on their 1984 Plain Dirt Fashion album.
And therein lies the secret to the Dirt Band's longevity: their staggering musical versatility. From the old-timey traditionals of their three Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums to the yacht rock of 1980's "An American Dream" and "Make a Little Magic," the group has been expert at reinventing itself, while never straying too far from its roots-music origins.
"'American Dream' would be more of an Americana record today," says Hanna, who sees some of that same Dirt Band versatility in contemporary-country artists like Dierks Bentley. "Dierks and I have talked about it a lot. That Up on the Ridge album he made [Bentley's 2010 bluegrass foray] is an album that five times as many people should have bought. It's a fantastic record and he's a good bluegrass singer.
"What's going on in country right now, for these younger artists, [pop and rock] is their influence," Hanna continues. "They want a sampled snare drum or a lot of screaming Les Pauls. Personally, I miss steel guitar and fiddle, but it's cyclical. I don't want to be all, 'Get off my lawn!'"
The band members do enjoy pointing out, however, that they're all older than the iconic guest stars —Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Mother Maybelle Carter, among them — who appeared on Volume One of Will the Circle Be Unbroken in '72.
"We were all in our 20s when we cut the first Circle album," says Fadden. "Maybelle was 63, but they were all younger than we are now."
During their Ryman show in September, the Dirt Band revisited many of those Circle songs, which they're also doing on their 50th anniversary tour — a celebratory run of dates that stretches from Boston to Bayfield, Wisconsin. But while the string jams of the Circle albums may be the spiritual center of the concerts, there's one particular hit that sums up the group's commercial appeal and influence: "Fishin' in the Dark." A 1987 Number One off the band's Hold On album, the riverbank anthem, written by Wendy Waldman and Jim Photoglo, has since amassed more than one million downloads.
It's also become a staple of country radio and, in a further display of the Dirt Band's versatility, garners occasional classic-rock radio spins, much like Charlie Daniels Band's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."
"Eight out of 10 country acts are playing it somewhere tonight on tour," says Hanna of "Fishin' in the Dark." Indeed, Carrie Underwood has been including it in her set on her current Storyteller Tour, transforming it into a duet with Easton Corbin. And Hanna recounts how Luke Bryan used it as his secret-weapon song early in his career: "He said, 'If the show starts going south, all I do is sing 'Fishin' in the Dark.'" According to Fadden, Chesney once showed up to Hanna's birthday party with the sole intent of singing "Fishin'" around the campfire with the group.
Such impromptu performances are how the Dirt Band started, says keyboard and accordion player Carpenter. "Playing live music is where we all came from. We've never strayed from that. We've toured in places for 50 years, and that is where real music lives: in front of people. And [our audiences] are time traveling, back to when they first heard 'Fishin'' when they were kids."
Along with their 50th anniversary tour, the group is considering recording new music ("We have some things bubbling," says Hanna). In the meantime, they're content to relish their own unexpected maturation into string-music's elder statesmen. "We have become what we were emulating," admits McEuen, who anticipates a resurgence for traditional country, and even old-timey music.
"When the Urban Cowboy thing happened, people said the real country is over. But the tastes change, the marketing changes. . . Who knows, maybe with what's happening now, in a few years, we'll start hearing a band like the Avett Brothers on country radio."