CATCHING UP WITH…Jimmie Fadden
by Bob Girouard
Fifty years ago he and guitarist Jeff Hanna founded a jug band to avoid the straight life. Today the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s beautifully twisted tale continues unabated.
Nineteen sixty-six was an important year in the history of country-rock. Early progenitors like L.A.’s the Byrds and NYC’s Lovin’ Spoonful were on the charts (“Eight Miles High” and “Mr. Spaceman” coming from out west and “Nashville Cats” and “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice” from back east). Meanwhile, a peculiar bunch of Californians called the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who’d come together during impromptu jams at a local music shop, were making a name for themselves on the southern California scene with a unique blend of American roots music. Thirty-three albums, three number-one singles, and a couple of Grammys later, drummer/vocalist/harmonica player Jimmie Fadden is anything but complacent.
“I’ve been very lucky,” Fadden says. “In the beginning it was all about having fun and keeping the music going. Over the years it’s morphed into maintaining the connection with our audiences, and they’re the reason we’re [still] here.”
Often credited as the founding fathers of the Americana genre, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is a long-runner in a short-run business. Its hits include “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” “Long Hard Road,” “Modern Day Romance,” “Fishin’ in the Dark,” and its signature tune, Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles,” which was released in 1970 and spent several months on the charts. “‘Mr. Bojangles’ is my friend,” Fadden says. “I’ve never grown tired of it, and I can’t think of any time where I’ve told myself I’ve played it too much. It has such a wonderful dynamic; it’s a reward to play it as often as I have.”
In 1972 the band released the seminal album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which invited country icons like Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, and Merle Travis to the party, resulting in a watershed moment in the fusion of country, bluegrass, and old-time mountain music. Were Fadden and his “long-haired” crew intimidated in the presence of the older-generation country stars? “It wasn’t something we even considered,” the drummer says. “It’s hard to find folks anywhere who weren’t influenced by the American originals on that album.”
With Levon Helm’s passing in 2012, Fadden remains one of the few roots-oriented singing drummers on the national scene. “At the beginning I was a mandolin player,” Jimmie recalls. “When I was twelve I was introduced to the guitar and thought, Now THIS is cool. For me, [performing on an instrument] was a way to connect with people—whether it was autoharp, bongos, mandolin, or harmonica, it was fun.”
And the drumset? “The drums are very satisfying for me,” Fadden says. “I enjoy the feel of the instrument. There’s just something about it that’s right, and singing is always interesting from the drummer’s seat. Both your phrasing and lyrics are affected—it’s an intriguing conversation between your limbs and your brain.”
In the end, though, Fadden explains, “Music is all about the art of entertaining. You just need to find the pulse and connect with your audience. They need to feel your joy and your sorrow. You’re sharing yourself, so play it from the heart.”