What are the odds that two 1960s California boys would a) become part of one of the longest-running bands in history and b) both end up living in the Sarasota area? That’s what happened with Jimmie Fadden and John McEuen, two highly versatile, crazy-talented musicians with deep roots in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, playing March 27 at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
The concert is part of a tour celebrating “50 Years of Dirt,” with the recent release of a CD and DVD of their Emmy-winning, PBS all-star concert recorded at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. While 50 years would be a milestone for anyone in any field, it’s particularly amazing with a band, where dramatic breakups can seem simultaneous with success.
Not so with NGDB, which has seen line-up changes over the years but remains active with Fadden, an original member, and McEuen, who stepped in shortly after the group’s founding when Jackson Browne left for solo stardom. Vocalist/guitarist Jeff Hanna is likewise a stalwart from the earliest days, while keyboardist Bob Carpenter is, jokes McEuen, “the new guy,” with less than 40 years under his belt.
McEuen, who started out on banjo while still a teen (he and high school buddy Steve Martin learned the instrument at about the same time), was inspired by legendary bluegrass group The Dillards; over the years he added guitar, fiddle and mandolin, among other instruments, to his toolbox. Fadden has played everything from drums to guitar but may be best known for his harmonica work. “He’s influenced countless other players with that,” says McEuen. “He’s just one of the best, and he showed that early on.”
Fadden, for his part, says the band has always worked on the principle that “Whoever picks up the instrument first, because they see how to build a riff, gets first choice. Sometimes you get second or third choice, but that’s all right. It’s like building with Legos.”
While band members also play apart from the NGDB, Fadden says, “Some of us are probably more driven than others.” McEuen, whose recent CD Made in Brooklyn scored rave reviews, is on the road more, playing with other musicians including former NGDB member Les Thompson, Jim Photoglo (who wrote one of the band’s big hits, “Fishin’ in the Dark”) and Matt Cartsonis, who plays on the Brooklyn CD (as do such names as John Carter Cash, David Bromberg and old friend Martin). McEuen also plays, when in town, at the Fogartyville Community Media & Arts Center.
Fadden spends less time traveling to play but has a regular spot at downtown’s The Blue Rooster, in a trio with bluesman Al Fuller and J.P. Coley. His relationship with Sarasota dates back to the 1970s, when the band’s “Mr. Bojangles” was “our representative record. I remember staying for a week at the Longboat Key Holiday Inn,” he says. He moved here from Colorado not long after, left for a while and then came back eight or nine years ago. “I’m a beach guy,” he says. “The coastline here reminds me of Long Beach, California, where I grew up. I’m on the beach every Sunday if I can be. I’m glad to see the art school [Ringling College] growing the way it is. And I wanted to play the seashell [the Van Wezel] before it’s torn down, if that happens.”
McEuen, who lives on the Manatee River, decided on the area as his home about three years ago. “I’ve played everywhere, spent time in a lot of places, and it was always good to be here,” he says. “It’s quiet, people are nice, there’s never a line at the airport. When I’m here I’m often still working—editing video, cooking up projects—but I also like to go to St. Armands Circle or the beach on Longboat Key. The theaters here are good, and it’s so easy to get around. Whenever I want to remember L.A., I just park half a mile away from where I’m going.”
What keeps these musicians, who’ve played with everyone from Jack Benny (yes, really) to the Doors to the Allmans to Linda Ronstadt to Johnny Cash—the list goes on forever—at it?
“These four guys can do something no other four guys can do,” McEuen says. “Together, we have done things we can’t individually equal. I’m not going to be the first American band that went to Russia again. I’m not going to be in the Grammy Hall of Fame, as we are because of ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ again. And I’m not ever going to be part of something like Will the Circle Be Unbroken? [the band’s legendary 1971 three-record set] again. Plus, I think we have a responsibility to the audience that likes what the band has been.”
Fadden agrees. “We all enjoy being part of the soundtrack of someone’s life,” he says. “We’re not just getting up there and doing it for us, we’re doing it for you, because at some point the song meant something to you. It connects you to places in your lives, and it connects us to you.”