Grit and grin

For good or ill, it’s all the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s fault.

Newgrass. Jamgrass. Slamgrass. Any other throw-in-the-kitchen-sink-grass. Countrified folk. Folkified country. For that matter, alt-country. The O Brother phenomenon. Johnny Cash singing “Personal Jesus.”

The Grits predicated it all. It would be tough to overstate their influence on contemporary music.

Though the band’s recent career is marked by hit after country-radio hit, the Grits are still best known for their 1971 cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” But brush aside the pop successes and you uncover a true legacy.

The group’s three Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums, stretched across 30 years, are seminal American art. When the first one surfaced in 1972 — a triple album (now two Universal CDs) recorded in a mere six days — it tuned a whole new generation’s rock-clogged ears to classic country and bluegrass.

The two later Grammy-nodded Circle volumes have greater breadth, throwing classic American-music genres at the wall and crafting glorious hybrids from the shards.

That said, descriptions of the band’s achievements tend toward hyperbole: The original Circle group is often caricatured as a cadre of ’60s West Coast longhairs — “layabout hippies,” one rock ‘n’ roll writer called them — who staged a cultural coup in conservative, flag-waving Music City, bringing peaceniks and rednecks together.

John McEuen still bristles a bit about that.

“We were hardly layabout,” the founding Grit, now 57, countered by phone from his California home. “The Dirt Band has been one of the harder-working bands.”

Sole bragging rights are often extended to The Flying Burrito Brothers (particularly grievous rock angel Gram Parsons) and The Byrds for originally approaching country music through the back door. But much of those musicians’ work, however sweet, has a certain air of dilettantism about it.

Not so the Grits by the time the original Circle rolled out.

“The difference [with us] is that we didn’t quit believing in country and country rock done by ‘layabout hippies,’ like all the others did,” McEuen says. “In fact, we were so persistent that finally by the ’80s, we had 17 Top 10 country hits.”

They stayed at it, the affable McEuen adds, because the audience stayed with them.

“When we first went out together, it was like, ‘Oh, this is so cool! They don’t hate us,'” he recalls, laughing.

But after 20 Nitty Gritty years, McEuen took a hiatus in the late ’80s. He was gone for more than a decade, returning to the fold in 2001.

“It was time,” he explains. “Some of the best music I’ve made in my career was with the band, and it reached people deeper than all of us had realized.”

The group certainly had its turnovers, but four of the five members from the classic first Circle lineup — McEuen, Jimmy “Ibby” Ibbotson, Jeff Hanna and Jimmie Fadden — remain, plus mid-’70s addition Bob Carpenter.

“This is the best version there’s ever been,” McEuen enthuses.

Whenever he refers to those first Circle recordings today, the joy hangs heavy in McEuen’s voice. Far from the clash of cultures that’s often described, those old country and bluegrass giants who took part truly valued the experience, he reveals.

As did the musicians who guested on Volume III (Capitol, 2002), McEuen notes.

Johnny Cash actually sought out the band with a song he’d written about the late, great Maybelle Carter, his mother-in-law (McEuen’s impression of the Man in Black, it turns out, isn’t half bad).

Cash’s “Tears in the Holston River” closes disc one of the two-CD Volume III, which also features non-Nashvillites (Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, Dwight Yoakam, Taj Mahal, others) and relatively newer Music City faces (Emmylou Harris, Del McCoury, Sam Bush, Alison Krauss, Matraca Berg) interspersed with returning legends (Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin, Earl Scruggs).

“The difference with the third [Circle] is that a good two-thirds of the people on it had grown up with the original album,” McEuen reveals. “And we had this silent — and sometimes voiced — understanding: ‘Well, it better be as good as that.'”

Still, the sense of occasion created by Volume III could never compare to that engendered by those original ’70s Circle sessions featuring Watson, Martin, Scruggs, Carter, Clements, Roy Acuff and other music icons. And how could McEuen ever suggest otherwise? he asks.

“That would be like saying, ‘I know you like my first daughter, but here’s the really pretty one,'” he quips.

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