Americana Awards Music

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band arrives for the Americana Music Association Honors & Awards Show Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, in Nashville, Tennessee. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)


Vince Hoffard writes the weekly Country Scene column.

Hardcore honky-tonk junkies, average fans and people that rarely find the genre on their radio dial were all left spellbound by the recent Ken Burns documentary “Country Music,” an eight-part series lasting 16.5 hours that aired on PBS.

Beginning with the footprints made by titans Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family, who meshed folk, blues and gospel influences to create the first “hillbilly” songs, the industry would constantly evolve for nearly a century, thanks to the creativity of legends like Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson, Patsy Cline, George Jones, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash.

After each episode aired, there was constant chatter at gas stations, sporting events and grocery stores about new light shed on unearthed facts that were nearly lost to history. Just to be mentioned in the film gave your career a stamp of approval.

One cornerstone event showcased by Burns was a weeklong Nashville recording session orchestrated by little known group The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In an effort to preserve country music history on audio, they brought together the musical talents of Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis and many others to record the classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album in 1972.

A minor contributor on the rock scene, the critically acclaimed masterpiece would tremendously elevate the band’s credibility in the country music world.

Celebrating more than 50 years together, The Dirt band will be in concert at 8 p.m. on Oct. 18 in the Effingham Performance Center. Tickets are $51, $41 and $35 and available at tickermaster.com. For more information, call 217-540-2788. Box office hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

A decade after recording “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the band finally found the magic chemistry for Billboard chart success. From 1984 to 1988, the group released 14 consecutive singles that made it into the Top 10, including chart toppers “Fishin’ in the Dark,” “Modern Day Romance” and “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream).”

Lead vocalist Jeff Hanna and drummer Jimmie Fadden are the only original members left with the group, although keyboardist Bob Carpenter has been around since 1979.

Hanna says the band has been re-energized with the addition of bass guitarist Jim Photoglo, fiddler Ross Holmes and his son, Jaime, on lead guitar.

“It’s like when you throw a couple puppies into a pen with a bunch of old dogs. All of the sudden, the old dogs start playing. You know, that’s kind of what’s happened with us,” Hanna says.

“The basic vibe is so up and positive, and the music — we’re hearing surprises from Jamie and Ross all night. And they’re encouraging us in the same way to take more chances. It’s opened a lot of doors for us musically, and the morale is great.”

Starting out as a Southern California jug band in 1966, the original lineup included future rock star Jackson Browne. Fiddler John McEuan had two long stints with the band, including the period of Billboard domination.

Combining essentially rock instrumentation and vocals that were pure country, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band joined the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons and The Byrds in pouring the foundation for country-rock music. Subsequently, these bands influenced superstars like Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.

The Dirt Band established themselves with a cover of “Mr. Bojangles,” written by Jerry Jeff Walker. At a concert in Nashville, they met Earl Scruggs, who planted the seed that grew into the historic first “Circle” album.

At the height of their career, the group toured as the opening act for Johnny Cash, who wanted to be part of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. 2,” released in 1989. This project also had contributions from Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, John Hiatt, Roger McGuinn and Levon Helm.

The album won two Grammy Awards and Album of the Year honors from the Country Music Association.

“Will The Circle Be Unbroken: Vol. 3” was released in 2003. This package included, “Earl’s Breakdown,” a Grammy Award-winning tune featuring flawless picking from Earl and Randy Scruggs, Vassar Clements and Jerry Douglas.

The newest configuration of the band sparks creativity and a desire to replicate the trademark sound to perfection, Hanna says.

“The energy these day is so up and our fans have responded in a great way,” Hanna says.

The Effingham Performance Center seats 1,518. The spacious facility has incredible acoustics and short, unrestricted sight lines. There’s not a bad seat in the house. Driving from Marion, the venue is closer than St. Louis.

Upcoming concerts include: The Charles Daniels Band, with lead guitarist Bruce Brown from West Frankfort; Lonestar; The Oak Ridge Boys and Restless Heart, featuring Paducah native Larry Stewart of lead vocals.

Visit www.the-epc.org for a complete schedule of upcoming events.

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Vince Hoffard can be reached at vincehoffard@gmail.com or 618-658-9095.


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