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Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Bob Carpenter Talks Half Century Of Hits And More

Courtesy photo

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has been going strong for over half a century now, having emerged from the roots music scene in Southern California in the late 1960s. After an early flirtation with radio success via the track "Buy For Me The Rain," the band struggled with to find lasting acceptance in the mainstream.

That changed when the group had an unexpected hit with Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles." In 1972, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band bridged both the generation and cultural gap with Will The Circle Be Unbroken, an album which teamed them with bluegrass/Americana luminaries such as Vassar Clements, Earl Scruggs and others on songs written by Hank Williams, Doc Watson and A.P. Carter. The collection remains one of the quintessential roots albums of the last century, along with the two volumes that followed in 1989 and 2002.

By the ‘80s the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band simplified its name to The Dirt Band and recorded a series of records more in step with the times. The hits from that era, including "An American Dream" and "Make a Little Magic," remain in the band's set to this day and sit effortlessly beside the unit's more acoustic-oriented tracks. Keyboardist Bob Carpenter joined as the band transitioned into a new decade and says that to this day he and the other members are proud of their music's reach.

1987 saw the release of "Fishin' in the Dark" from the album Hold On. It became the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's third chart-topping single and remains one of the band's most identifiable tunes. Last year saw the release of Circlin' Back: Celebrating 50 Years, a CD/DVD set that paired the band with friends such as Jackson Browne, John Prine, Vince Gill and, of course, Jerry Jeff Walker.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performs at Wichita's Orpheum Theatre on Thursday, March 1.

Interview Highlights:

Jedd Beaudoin: Not too long after you joined the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, you had a pretty big hit with the song "Make A Little Magic."

Bob Carpenter: It all started with Linda Ronstadt. We did "An American Dream," and she came on board for it. When we did "Make A Little Magic," we asked her again, but she was out touring. We had known Nicolette Larson for years; we loved her music, so she came on board and did that song with us. It was a really nice period of recording for us with those gals.

Some of the music that you recorded in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a departure from the bluegrass music that Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had some success with earlier on. Yet you've maintained ties to those roots.

We've been very lucky in that, for each decade, we've had success wherever our music led us while still being true to the acoustic instruments in the band and the story songs. That's like the magic formula that's kept us going for what will be 52 years now. That whole songbook is reflected in our live shows and we're lucky that we can play all that stuff because we love all that music. People love to come and hear it and I think it makes for a very varied and entertaining show.

It'd be remiss of me not to ask about "Fishin' in the Dark." Was this a song that the band felt positive about when it came to recording or was it one you were skeptical of?

From the second we heard that song, we knew that it was going to be absolutely a monster hit. We knew it. It was the only song in our career that we knew it about. We ran right into the studio and recorded it and there was never a doubt about what that song would be. We were Patient Zero on something that has turned out to be very viral. That song's been recorded by Garth Brooks; there are so many artists that do it in their live shows. That thing has taken on a life of its own but when we heard that song, we knew. Even the record company knew it, which was wasn't the case with "Mr. Bojangles." They didn't want to put that song out. It was the tenth cut on the Uncle Charlie album. They said, "We're not releasing this. This is like a four-minute waltz!" The band didn't know that that was going to be what it's turned out to be, but "Fishin' in the Dark" was different. Out of 52 years, we were right once! [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Some people are never right.

And like everything that's successful like that, everybody went, "Yeah, that was my idea! I knew that was going to be huge!"

Do you miss the older days of radio where programming would take a risk?

Yes. Short answer, yes. It's killed a lot of the music. But people have options now. They don't have to listen to whatever radio has pre-programmed. They can get that mix and explore new music in other ways now. They used to only be able to get it on the radio and that's why it was important.

What was your main way of receiving new music? Did you have an older brother who guided you or did you listen to the radio?

I had a transistor radio early on, and then when I got to college, I joined the Columbia House record club, which is something you're probably too young to know about. You get your first 10 records for $2, then they deliver records to you every month. That was the way. But it was always turning the radio on after that. There really weren't too many different ways you could listen to music. It was either the radio or buying albums in those days. We moved on to CDs and cassettes. Whatever the new thing that comes out I've sort of latched onto it because it's part of my DNA to want to do that.


Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

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