Gary James' Interview With Jimmie Fadden Of
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
They appeared on TV shows like The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. They shared the concert stage with people like The Doors and Jack Benny. Their rendition of "Mr. Bojangles" went to number nine on Billboard's Hot 100 chart and spent thirty-six weeks on the charts. They backed Steve Martin on his big hit, "King Tut". In May of 1977 they became the first American group to tour Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Latvia. They played twenty-eight sold-out concerts and made a television appearance that was estimated to have been watched by some 145,000,000 people. In 1989, their album "Will The Circle be Unbroken: Volume Two" went Gold, won two Grammy Awards and was named Album Of The Year at the CMA (Country Music Association) Awards. In 2002, they were nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance. In 2003 they were nominated by the Country Music Association for Vocal Event Of The Year. And in 2005 they received a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental. We are speaking of course about The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Drummer Jimmie Fadden spoke with us about the history of the group.
Q - You guys have just come off the road after a twelve day tour. What type of venues have you been performing in?
A - Well, Performing Arts centers that are anywhere from say 900 to 2,500 seats. We played the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, which is about 800 seats. It's not very big. We played another casino in Escondido and played the Fox Theatre in Tuscon. A variety of places. There's a place called The Pepper Mill in Wendover. It's about 2,500 seats. So, somewhere between 800 and 2,500 seats is about what we're playing.
Q - That's a pretty good mix.
A - Yeah. It's nice. The places that are larger seem to be built in such a way that there's still a sense of intimacy in them. It creates for a good audience rapport.
Q - What is this I hear about festivals being the new rage in music? Nobody wants to play to grandstands anymore?
A - Well, a grandstand is essentially at a fair, a State Fair or a County Fair. We play a lot of those. We played a State Fair grandstand in North Dakota. I think you have to have a current audience and an association with a number of people through maybe radio. To get that kind of crowd out it's an awful lot of people. You gotta be a Pop star right now, babe. (laughs)
Q - Your music is essentially timeless. It almost sounds like it could've been recorded yesterday. There's no gimmicks or elaborate stage production in The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It's just pure music. That is the appeal of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Bad, isn't it?
A - We'd like to think so. I think the idea of having an elaborate stage production was kind of lost on us. It just seemed like what do we want that for? I imagine we could use that, but I don't think we want it. I don't think it adds to what we do and it might be distracting.
Q - So, MeCabe's Guitar Shop is where this band was launched? You used to jam there?
A - We used to hang out. We used to avoid going to school. (laughs) After I got out of school I would hitch-hike there. Most of it was walking as a matter of fact. My friends became my friends that hung out there, Jeff, Bruce, Ralph and John and a few other people. There was a bunch of guys that hung out there and were interested in playing instruments. They were interested in learning to develop a style and a vocabulary on the instrument of their choice. Some of them were guitar players. Some of us were banjo players or mandolin players. I played the harmonica. We were interested in traditional music. We were a group of young outsiders essentially. We didn't seem to find ourselves comfortable in each of our whatever school or social groups that we were pretty much confined to. When we were away from them we hung together because we felt comfortable in the environment of McCabe's Guitar Shop. That was the usual group of folks we would associate with in our neighborhoods.
Q - You didn't start off as a drummer, did you? You were a jug player?
A - I started playing harmonica. I played mandolin along the way. Autoharp. Washboard bass and jug and guitar. I still play guitar some. I can be talked into playing the jug for fun. I have one sitting around the house. We play jug band music in some form or another. Some of the songs we played in the group were jug band songs, not unlike The Lovin' Spoonful or Jim Kweskin And The Jug Band.
Q - What was the first paying gig like when you played The Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, California? How did your music go over?
A - Well, it went over very well. You know, we were so eclectic and crazy. We wore silly suits. We wore double-breasted suits and we did some unusual material and so people thought we were fun. I think essentially we've always been about having fun and I think we still are. Can't get too old for fun.
Q - When the group was put together, did you have an idea that you wanted to be a touring, recording group? Was that part of the idea?
A - Maybe in the back of our minds that was something we thought we could do. Essentially I think we knew what we could do was entertain people. We could get a room full of people and we could have a good time. We could play some music that they maybe had not considered listening to or never heard before. We were a group of guys that had very diverse musical interests. John is very much a Bluegrass kind of guy. Jeff's more a Country guy. I'm a Blues kind of guy. And so, everybody that added to the mix had their one little musical taste buds so to speak that created the whole flavor of the band. So, I think based upon that, everybody that came to see us found something they enjoyed.
Q - When Liberty Records said, "Okay guys, we're going to sign you," were you jumping up and down?
A - The fact of the matter was that it legitimized us in a way that we probably hadn't considered before. It was pretty dog gone exciting. It was heavy stuff to have a record on the radio. That's hard to deny, you know?
Q - You guys opened concerts for people like Jack Benny and The Doors. I can see Jack Benny being a good fit for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. But, how about The Doors? What was it like to open for The Doors? Did you meet Jim Morrison?
A - Yes, we did. We were so eclectic that people enjoyed putting us on the show just because we were completely different. Often times the audience might be in what we might consider an altered state of some sort, taking into account what was going on back then. Based upon that, we were even more entertaining. (laughs)
Q - What was Morrison like?
A - He was a little elusive. One night I remember at The Hullabaloo Theatre, where Hair had become the in-house production there later, they called it The Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood, he was walking on the edge of the roof, (laughs) thinking that he needed to prove something I guess. He had some sort of anaesthesia from the doggie doctor, some crazy stuff. (laughs) There was a lot of crazy stuff going on back then. We were pretty self-abusive at times. Kids will be kids and boys will be boys. It's amazing that some of us made it out alive. We were willing to try some things that were probably not recommended at this point. (laughs)
Q - I never did understand what all that had to do with making music.
A - Well, it has to do with the personality that might take somebody in the direction of becoming a musician simply because they needed more attention. Something in our play book we have to come to terms with, the attention we need and why we actually need to do this. In the end I think if you don't really realize that your job is to entertain people and allow them to have a good time, then I think you're missing the point.
Q - You also opened for Bill Cosby at Carnegie Hall. Those were the days! A band could open for a comedian and vice-versa. You don't see that happening anymore.
A - Not too much. We did that a lot with Steve Martin. We were on tour with Bill Cosby actually for ten days that ended at Carnegie Hall. A little memorable moment being the last night he came down to our dressing room and talked to us and tell us what he thought about the tour and so forth. He said, "Hey, I got this friend and I want him to come sit in with us and why don't you do that kind of boogaloo thing you used to do when we played off and I come on." We said, "Oh, sure. We can do that." So he stuck his head out from out dressing room and said, "Hey Dizzy, come down here and meet the guys." We were supposed to be the rhythm section for Dizzy Gillespie to do a little spot. (laughs) Of course at that moment, after ten days of feeling great, we just had this lightning strike of ineptness settle in. So, you never know.
Q - And you also appeared on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. What was that like?
A - Well, not only the Johnny Carson show. We've done just about every major TV show that you can do. It's always interesting. All of the hosts are always fun. We don't get to hang out with them or do too much, but you get a chance to chat a little bit. Letterman was great. Leno was great. Carson was a real family name and an institution. It's hard to fill that place I think after he left. It was such a great show. I think everything sort of changed since then, but that's the nature of life and entertainment. We've pretty much done every show you can think of, Joey Bishop, Smothers Brothers, Glen Campbell Show. Everything there is to do, we've done it. Steve Allen. How's that? (laughs) All of 'em. We have done all of 'em. We haven't done any of the real recent, new shows. We haven't done Conan or any of the other guys. At some point you realize you've done an awful lot. I don't know how much more you need to do.
Q - You've proven that the group can go over on TV.
A - Well, we do have fun and that's really the bottom line.
Q - How did this song, "Mr. Bojangles" come your way? I seem to remember Sammy Davis Jr. singing that song. What I can't remember is if his version came out before your record did or after.
A - It came out after ours. Sammy used to give us credit for it, but in fact the guy who wrote it was Jerry Jeff Walker from Texas. It was kind of a period of time when we were working on the album, "Uncle Charlie", which "Mr. Bojangles" ended up on. We were driving back and forth between Los Angeles and Long Beach to rehearse. We were rehearsing six days a week. We would get down there about noon and head home about seven I guess and get home about eight o'clock at night, something like that. On the way home one night Jeff heard it on the radio, this little FM station, KTFK, coming 'live' from Coldwater Canyon. He was just struck by the nature of the song and the character that was portrayed in it and really loved it. The next day at rehearsal he was all excited about having heard it. One of the other members, Jimmy Ibbotson, said "Now wait a minute, wait a second," and went over to his guitar and he opened the trunk of his car, fished around the back and down under some stuff, I think maybe the spare tire and a little bit of rusty water, was a 45 of "Mr. Bojangles" a girl had given him when he left college in Indiana to come to California. He said, "Are you talking about this?" to Jeff (Hanna, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member). He said, "That's exactly what I'm talking about." Kind of a roundabout way of getting to finding a song, but if you find it and it fits, life's great.
Q - Would it be easier to find material today with all the technology that exists?
A - No. I think we spend about as much time and energy going through and / or writing and / or being involved in writing maybe with a co-writer, unlike as before. I don't think anything has really changed in that matter. I do know we're not any less rigorous about the trying out or the voting on or the accepting of any particular song. Sometimes we'll find something and we'll work it up. We'll create an arrangement. We'll play it and see if we can make it fly. Sometimes it's so easy it's like falling off a wall, as in "Fishin' In The Dark". That song was just fun to play and still is fun to play. It's easy to play and it just suits us. So these are the kind of songs we look for. It's like going to the store and finding a coat that you're looking for, a sport coat. You put in on. This doesn't fit. No, this doesn't fit. Aaah, now this fits. That's kind of the way a song affects the band.
Q - How do you find band members who all get along, who all have the same ideas?
A - We don't all have the same ideas.
Q - What do you do then when members pull in the opposite direction?
A - When we do pull in the opposite direction sometimes we'll allow that to happen and go explore to see where that's going to go. It's about being flexible. It's about being flexible. It's about having the ability to try things out and try to see what somebody's talking about. It takes a little longer sometimes, but sometimes there's some really great things. Everybody will have a little idea about what I think I want to add to this. I would like to see the instrumental section of this song four bars longer. Does it seem too long? You just have a way of trying things on and seeing whether or not it's comfortable to everybody, but there's a certain believability about it that becomes evident and we all get at some point and take it from there.
Q - Did you go on tour with Steve Martin?
A - Not essentially on tour, but we've done a lot of shows with him. At one time he lived in Colorado and we did too. We played in Aspen quite a bit together at a little place called The Aspen Inn. We still have people coming up to us today saying, "Oh, I saw you at The Aspen Inn with Steve Martin." And he was opening the show for us. You know, John McEuen (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member) produced at least one of his records that I know of. I'm not sure about the second one. He's been involved with Steve as friends and as banjo players since high school or college. They've known each other for a long time. We haven't done too much together with him as of late. We'd like to in the future. I think there's a few more opportunities coming around the bend that we're going to try and get together on.
Q - Did the record "King Tut" give the band a career boost?
A - They didn't know it was us, so it really didn't boost our career. Nobody knew The Toot Uncommons was The Dirt Band. (laughs) But it was fun. What can you say? It was a great opportunity to do something goofy and have people like it. What can you say?
Q - And, you don't hear people singing novelty songs anymore either.
A - Well, that one's pretty novel. I don't know. I think we're kind of a different crowd these days.
Q - People are too serious.
A - Well, they are serious, but I don't think they really know what to be serious about. (laughs) I think they're serious about their iPhones and Xbox and things that are seriously distracting. I think we sometimes have difficulty discerning what is really, really important in life. We've gotten distracted about some things in our culture, in our country. I don't relate to it like I did. I think people in some cases don't really understand the nature of why they think it's a video game for them.
Q - The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was the first American group to perform in the Soviet Union? Who got the ball rolling on that one? I imagine there must've been a lot of red tape, no pun intended, to pull that off.
A - Well, it's kind of interesting. The government was involved in that. During the Carter administration they had decided that a great step forward in relationships between the U.S. and the Soviet Union could be forged through the Arts. I don't know that they essentially believed that we could get past the politics, but we can start talking about things. So, they started an idea of an exchange program with arts and music. We were playing and somebody said, "Hey, the Russians are out in the audience and they're watching you." We're like, "What?" They said, "Yeah, they're looking for groups to come tour the Soviet Union. We thought this is too weird. What do we do? Do we really, really want to do this? Will you just tell them to go away? It's just too strange for us. Well, as it turned out, there was a number of people on the list that were suggested to them as groups to possibly fill this opportunity. They came back again and told us. We had sort of forgotten about it. It was like, oh no, not this again. Then they went away and came back and said, "We really want you to come to the Soviet Union and play, but we'd like you to bring a woman if you could to sing a few songs. We had a friend and her husband, Jan and Vic Garrett from Colorado, that filled the bill nicely. They finally decided after seeing us perform with her and him that we were exactly what they wanted to tour the country with. We were there for about a month, maybe a little bit longer. We did twenty-eight shows in a period of twenty-eight days, which included two 'live' concerts from the TV station. So, we would do two shows a day, two shows the next day and one show on the third day and then we'd have travel, sometimes by train and sometimes by plane, which was always very interesting, sitting at the airport waiting for a plane to show up. Is the plane coming? Can we get on the plane? Well, we think one's coming. (laughs) It was really so different than anything anybody could have imagined. We had a great time. We really did. It's kind of hard to explain to people what we did over there. We met some very nice people. We met some very interesting people. We drank a lot. (laughs)
Q - I bet the audience were respectful.
A - They were, but they were enthusiastic. It was something we were warned they wouldn't be. Hey, they're not going to get excited. Don't worry about that. But they were way, way more enthusiastic than the Soviet managing company thought they were going to be. In fact, they were totally surprised at the audience being as out-going and fun-loving as they were.
Q - Have you been back since then?
A - We did one other tour which was very short. It wasn't really a tour. Primarily we were in Moscow in 1988. We went with an art collector. I don't know, raconteur. (laughs) A fellow from Denver who had a wonderful western art collection which he hung in the museum in Moscow. So, we were part of the cultural exchange and we were part of that. It was a tremendous experience. We had a lot of fun. Some of the restrictions on us were pretty minimal. There was usually a KGB guy following us around on the '70s tour, which we made fun of too. We'd take three or four of us out for one agent, then we'd go different directions. We liked to frustrate 'em and try to let 'em figure out who was going where. (laughs)
Q - When you performed there, did you fly your equipment in or did they have equipment waiting for you?
A - We took quite a bit of it with us. Because the government was involved in the first trip, we pretty much had carte blanche where that was concerned because they wanted to make sure everything worked well. We had to pick up a voltage regulator when we went through Switzerland to take with us to manage the onstage voltage because of the difference between their current and the needs or our equipment. I took my drums. I remember taking my drums. I also remember being on a stage that had a drum riser that wouldn't move. I said I don't want it there. They were freaking out. They wouldn't move it. It turns out they hadn't built the stage underneath because they didn't want to use the extra wood. (laughs) So there was a hole under the drum riser, that's why they couldn't move it.
Q - Are you putting out any new recorded product?
A - Well, we're going to be recording this Fall (2015). It's been about four years since we recorded.
Q - How about a tour behind it?
A - We tour so extensively that by the end of the year everybody's tired and wants to go home. (laughs) This year (2015) is forty-nine years, so it's been a long haul and we're trying to keep our sense of spontaneity and fun and frivolity and youthfulness and still have a good time. We don't want to wear ourselves out too much. But this year we're hopefully going into the studio. We're working on a documentary about the band and we're going to do a P.B.S. Special in September, a fund raiser for public broadcasting which we've done a number of but we'll be doing again with some of our favorite friends and we'll be doing that 'live' from the Ryan Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. So, besides the touring we have a few big things. We were just inducted into the Colorado Music Hall Of Fame in Denver along with some of our friends, Poco, Firefall, Manassas. So, we're still active. We're still busy. We're still creating. We're still being the band we always were and I think getting better for it. It's kind of hard to look at that as our intent, to become better players, better musicians, but I think in fact that is kind of what's been happening over the last ten years without us really sitting down and saying I'm going to work hard at what I do. I think we've just become better at playing together.
Q - You could live anywhere. Why are you in Florida?
A - It's nice here. I like the ocean. The Gulf of Mexico is beautiful. We have great beaches. It's nice in the winter when I'm home. But I've lived in Nashville and the winters were rather cold, wet and depressing, (laughs) when you get down to it. I love the beach. I grew up in Southern California and I miss the beach. So moving to Florida was a little like California only less busy, fewer people, not as aggressive. It's a quieter, nicer way of life for me. John (McEuen) and I both live here.