The legendary Nitty Gritty Dirt Band will play at 8 p.m. on Wednesday at The State Theatre.
Founding member John McEuen fondly remembers discovering bluegrass and finding his way to co-founding the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
“I was an Orange County teenager trying to figure out what to do with my guitar, and I saw a group called The Dillards, a bluegrass group from Missouri who were in L.A. being the Darling family on ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ ” McEuen said. “They had a huge effect on bluegrass, and they were the best. That was my epiphany moment when I saw them at 17 1/2 and went ‘That’s what I want to do; be in a band and play music and go around the country.’ I was working at the magic shop in Disneyland at the time, and music became my new magic. After playing a few years, I wanted to get on the radio somehow. And, the best way to do that would be some kind of group situation. It was July or August of 1966 and along comes the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. We were hanging around the same music store in Long Beach, McCabe’s Guitar shop. Everyone was spending as many hours there as they could, because you’d be surrounded by folk music records and bluegrass records — records from places you’d only heard of. And people playing fantastic music.”
Mutual love of music brought the band together.
“It started being a group of guys that were just playing songs together and trying to learn some of that music,” said McEuen. “Then in May or June, they started playing together. A group of six of them. Well, one of the guys in that group that had played in that bluegrass group was me, Les Thompson. The name’s not important, because he went away. It’s important to me. Two months after that, one of the guys that had been playing in this newly forming band decided to quit doing that and Les Thompson called me and said, ‘Hey why don’t you come play with us? We can use what we do together.’ So two or three months into the band, I was playing with them. Of course, I auditioned them first. I was going to play at a banjo contest, and I needed people to back me up. So, they all learned this song of mine, and we won the contest. So, I figured OK, here’s a proven situation and from that point on (July ’66) we started practicing, and my brother started managing. We made four albums and had moderate success — some critical disdain and acclaim. After we confused enough people, including ourselves, and did the movie ‘Paint Your Wagon,’ the band broke up and quit. Pretty good career, we made four albums, did a movie, and now we’re done. That was 1968. But, in 1969, we got back together and made the fifth album, ‘Uncle Charlie and his Dog Charlie,’ and that had three radio hits. That was kind of the beginning of the real beginning. That had ‘Bojangles’ and two other songs that made the radio. We were on the way, I’m not sure what we were on the way to, but we were on our way.”
While McEuen may not have known immediately that the dirt band would be a lifelong endeavor, he always knew he’d be an entertainer.
“I knew that I would be doing something in show business from the time I was 15,” said McEuen. “... By the time I was 21, we put out our first album. In the ’70s, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was the hippie/country-rock band that spoke to many people. Some of them were younger, some of them were older. And, after ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?’ album came out ... we were on bluegrass shows being called a rock band, we were on rock shows being called a country band, and on country shows being called a bunch of hippies from California that played bluegrass. So, quite a diverse footprint, you might say.”
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has made history its entire career, and it was the first American band to tour Russia with 28 sold-out shows in May 1977. The band’s storied success has been largely attributed to an ever-evolving and growing fan base, McEuen said.
“A normal dirt band show nowadays has an audience that says everything from: cool, groovy, far out, awesome, absolutely, ‘know, right?’ ” said McEuen. “And what I mean by that, each one of those phrases represent a different generation almost. ... It’s an exciting time. The last couple years seem to be pulling people out of the woodwork.”
The band will be performing older songs for the first time in decades.
“You’re going to see a bunch of guys go up on stage that are so happy to be there playing music from over a 50-year period,” McEuen said. “It’s different from some groups from the ’60s or ’70s that play music from that section of time that they had success, not that that’s bad, but the dirt band has had some sort of success in every decade that it’s been together, and that’s reflected on stage. We have put a lot of ‘new to the stage’ songs from our catalog into the show that haven’t been there for 30 or 40 years. It’s definitely a revitalized show compared to two years ago, four years ago, five years ago. If someone saw us then, they’d see something even better (now). I always want people to leave a concert saying to their friends the next day, ‘You should have been there!’ ”
McEuen has collaborated with a star-studded list of talent including legends such as longtime friend Steve Martin. McEuen has a late summer solo release slated through Chesky records, but his real passion is in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Wednesday’s show will prove to be a showcase of the band’s entire career.
McEuen and company’s legacy has extended far beyond being simply a “big band from the past.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has solidified itself with nearly all listener demographics. Some of the biggest stars in the world are fans of the band.
“It’s strange to me because you never know who you are reaching,” McEuen said. “Usually at shows it’s easy because ‘Oh, look who we are playing to.’ ... One time I was at a party at Eric Idle’s house several years ago, and Tom Hanks showed up. So, I asked Eric, ‘Will you introduce me to Tom Hanks?’ I had always wanted to meet him. So, I go up to meet him and Tom Hanks says, ‘Oh, I know who this is: John McEuen from the Nitty Gritty Band.’ Then I said, ‘I’m shocked that you know us,’ and he said, ‘Well who didn’t know you? In the ’70s, it’s what everybody listened to!’ I wish I had a recording of that (laughs). He said he had an album of ours when he first moved to Aspen in 1977. He said, ‘I only had one tape. It was the album “Symphonion Dream,” and I played it over and over all the way from New Jersey to Aspen.’ Then he started quoting lyrics from songs. It was really cool. Things like that have popped up all over the map.”
IF YOU GO
- What: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
- When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
- Where: The State Theatre, 130 W. College Ave., State College.
- Info: thestatetheatre.org