In more than four decades, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has worn many different musical hats.
When singer-guitarists Jeff Hanna and Bruce Kunkel first formed the group in 1966 in Long Beach, Calif., it was an acoustic-based jug band. Two years later, the group had adopted a full drum set and electric instruments in many of its songs, pushing its sound in country-rock direction.
In subsequent years, the band moved between folk and bluegrass-inflected country on such albums as the classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in 1972, to more pop-oriented rock during the late ’70s, when the group shortened its name to the Dirt Band.
The band has gone through just as many lineup changes as stylistic changes, too. Even long-standing members have changed roles in the band over the years — Jimmie Fadden, who, along with Hanna, has been one of the band’s consistent members, started out playing the jug and guitar, and moved to drums when the band adopted them into its sound (he has played harmonica consistently throughout all incarnations of the group).
But even with the changes in style and membership over the years, one thing has remained constant in Fadden’s mind — the group’s interest in Americana and roots music.
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
with Asleep at the Wheel
When: 8 tonight
Where: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 30 2nd St., Troy
How Much: $42, $25
More Info: 273-8945, www.troymusichall.org
“It encompasses some different corners of the musical layout, but I think in general we’ve always pretty much been that — the Dirt Band has always been roots music,” Fadden said recently from a tour stop in Greenville, Tenn.
Adding to texture
“We’ve always either done bluegrass or blues or something in between. I think each one of us has our own little niche interest, so essentially when we’re playing, anything we do, it lends to the texture of what the final arrangement ends up being.”
The band, which since 2005 has been a four-piece featuring Hanna, Fadden, keyboardist and bassist Bob Carpenter and banjoist, fiddler and mandolinist John McEuen, shows this roots music fascination throughout its latest album, 2009’s “Speed of Life,” which was recorded mostly live in-studio and touches upon sounds from throughout the band’s career.
With rootsy artists dominating the modern indie rock landscape, the band’s position as forerunners of the alt-country sound has kept them busy on the road, and helped them maintain a younger audience. The band hit about 90 shows this summer and will be going strong through October, hitting the East Coast, Canada and the West Coast. Their next show is at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall tonight, which will kick off the venue’s 2012-2013 season.
“I think there’s a genuine curiosity from a younger crowd that wasn’t essentially affiliated with a downstream situation with their parents — where the parents played the music all the time,” Fadden said. “There is a group that has maybe become aware of us through the mention from other acts, and have been initially attracted to us that way. I think when you look at some of these Americana acts that younger audiences pay attention to, somehow we come up in the conversation about where things started, and our part in it.”
The mix of acoustic and electric instruments that first found its way onto the band’s third album, 1968’s “Rare Junk,” was the result of a gradual evolution. During the band’s first formation as a jug band — which included Jackson Browne, who would go on to solo success and was replaced by McEuen — co-founder Kunkel initially wanted to push the band in an electric direction much sooner, and ended up leaving due to this disagreement. But the change happened soon enough.
“Somehow, a [drum] set ended up in the house where we all lived — it was kind of like, I don’t know, something creeping into your world,” Fadden said. “And they sat there in the living room, and we would take turns kind of playing it. It wasn’t as though I set out to be a drummer; I didn’t study it at school or any of those things. We just decided to include them on some songs, and we had a little set — we thought it added to the authenticity of the songs that we chose to use them on. . . . And then, the electric instruments just sort of crept in.”
There was never any dilemma or controversy, at least within the band, over the evolution to electric instruments. It was all about serving the sound of the songs, and that mentality has continued throughout the band’s career.
“I don’t think it was a big decision; honestly I can’t remember if we were pulling our hair out, ‘Should we or shouldn’t we? What about our pledge to never be electric?’ ” Fadden said.
“What we were concerned about was that we could create a variety of textures by using different instruments together, and that’s essentially been our method of operation ever since. We liked the different sounds of the different instruments, like mandolin and electric guitar together; we liked the drums and banjo together. We like these unlikely things, so that’s what we do.”
The band earned some of its greatest success playing straight country music on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which was recorded in collaboration with bluegrass and country players including Earl Scruggs, Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family, Doc Watson and Jimmy Martin, among others, with the goal of bridging the gap between new and old generations of country players. Since then, the band has recorded two sequels in the same format, most recently 2002’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. III.”
Those projects ended up having a strong influence on the recording process behind “Speed of Life.” Like the “Circle” albums, “Speed of Life” was recorded live in the studio — co-producer George Massenburg had built a studio primarily as a live studio, and tested it out on the band. “I think he felt as a band, we would be a great lab animal, I guess,” Fadden said.
“We have always done things more live than not, and in some cases — ‘The Circle’ being a great example — all live, two-track, so there wasn’t a lot of room for going back and fixing things,” he said. “It was really more about the way we play in person, and how that translates into the studio. We’re much better at doing that than we are at some of these other methods of work, which has looping, heavy multitrack layering — we’ve never really done an album like that. I don’t think it really captures who we are.”
The band has a number of new projects coming down the pipeline, including a compilation album and a tribute project in collaboration with other artists that Fadden would not go into much detail on. “We’re doing something along with some other people to honor somebody that we lost, and that’s enough said, I think,” Fadden said.