Times Staff Writer

For the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the circle was left unbroken at the band’s 20th anniversary concert Tuesday night. But unlike the words to the old country standard, the event took place not in the sky but in the Mile High City.

The veteran country-folk-rock group that played its first show in May, 1966, at the Paradox club in Orange, marked two decades of music making with an exuberant all-star celebration at McNichols Sports Arena.

Over the course of nearly 50 songs in the 4 1/2-hour show, more than 10,000 fans got a healthy sample of the variety that has marked the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s career since it was born two decades ago out of Long Beach-Orange County folk scene.

It remains one of the few groups that can successfully move from Bill Monroe’s traditional bluegrass to Cab Calloway’s jumpin’ jive to Bruce Springsteen’s driving rock.

Fittingly for a group whose two decades are framed by its first hit, “Buy for Me the Rain,” and its latest single, “Stand a Little Rain,” the original plans to hold the concert at the outdoor Red Rocks amphitheater were quashed by heavy rainstorms for three days before the sold-out show.


Less than 12 hours before dozens of guest performers would be appearing with the Dirt Band, as it is often referred to out of expediency, the site was shifted to the indoor McNichols Sports Arena.

The only note of disappointment in an otherwise celebratory evening was the news that Colorado favorite son John Denver was unable to appear as scheduled because he contracted the flu in Italy earlier in the week.

But it would have been hard to imagine any complaints following several riveting performances by Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Doc Watson, Rodney Crowell and Jerry Jeff Walker among the highlights.

The show’s format had been described as similar to the band’s famous “Last Waltz” because, like that all-star show, the Dirt Band provided backing for most of the performers rather than each bringing his or her own regular band.

But since it was a recap, rather than a swan song, it would have more accurately been dubbed as the group’s “Anniversary Waltz.” Additionally, most artists performed songs that were in some way associated with the Dirt Band. Jerry Jeff Walker joined the group singing “Mr. Bojangles,” the song he wrote in 1970 that became the group’s biggest pop hit, while Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell aided the group’s performance of its 1980 hit “An American Dream,” which was written by Crowell.

The show began with a 45-minute set by the Dirt Band alone, in which the quintet “dusted off” several rarely played songs from its past, including Kenny Loggins’ “House at Pooh Corner” and Mike Nesmith’s “Some of Shelley’s Blues,” guileless numbers that underscored the band’s winning--and remarkable--sense of innocence. That quality has stuck with the group and is evident in more recent hits like “Dance Little Jean” and the autobiographical “Partners, Brothers and Friends.”

Over the next four hours, the Dirt Band was joined by Doc Watson for a thrilling bluegrass set that was followed by segments featuring Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, J.D. Souther, Nicolette Larson, Rodney Crowell, Oak Ridge Boys member William Lee Golden, Michael Martin Murphey, former Pure Prairie League vocalist Vince Gill, as well as numerous instrumentalists.

The evening’s climax was a performance of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” followed by a rousing reading of the country gospel standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

The fans weren’t the show’s only beneficiary--as a partial benefit, the concert raised $5,000 for Denver Post charities.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band grew out of a series of musical associations that group founder Jeff Hanna began while a student at Long Beach City College.

At one time known as the Illegitimate Jug Band, the group was typical of the folk-oriented conglomerations of the early and mid-'60s spawned by the Weavers and disciples such as Peter, Paul and Mary.

Hanna recalls skipping a night class to do the Jug Band’s first concert at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. One member of Hanna’s group during that period was another Orange County resident musician--Jackson Browne.

Its first show as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which also included drummer Jimmie Fadden who is still with the group, was at the Paradox club in Orange. That show remains little more than a blur to the band members who were there. Fadden simply recalled that it was “too much fun,” while Hanna said, “All I remember is that it was packed, smoky, and I was scared to death because it was the first show we headlined.”

Shortly after that, Hanna spotted Garden Grove resident John McEuen sitting in at the Golden Bear with a New York bluegrass band and invited him to join the group. Vocalist, bassist and guitarist Jimmy Ibbotson joined in 1968, while keyboardist Bob Carpenter rounded out the present lineup in 1978.

In the early ‘70s the group members shifted their base of operations to Colorado because, as McEuen put it, “I couldn’t wait to get out of Orange County.”

Along the way they’ve made some formidable musical collaborations, including the Top 20 pop hit in 1980 with Linda Ronstadt on Rodney Crowell’s “American Dream.”

Their most notable recording, however, was their landmark 1973 triple album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a critically acclaimed documentation of the history of country music for which they were aided by such country music giants as Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis, Doc Watson and others.

The idea of musicians from the rock world recording in Nashville hardly seems noteworthy in 1986. But when the long-haired Dirt Band members arrived in Nashville in 1970, when George Jones still wore a crew cut and Waylon and Willie were still holed up as country outlaws in West Texas, “we were considered freaks,” Ibbotson recalled.

That is no longer the case, and in the last few years the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has had its greatest successes on the country charts, not because of any shifts in its own musical direction, but because country radio has been more receptive to records mixing country with rock.

Yet the group’s career hasn’t been without problems. The Dirt Band scored only one Top 30 hit between 1970 and 1980. When commercial success bottomed out in the mid-'70s, Ibbotson quit to pursue a solo career that never took off.

It was while Ibbotson was on his own that the band, which dropped the Nitty Gritty from its name for a few years, was invited as the first American rock group to tour the Soviet Union. It was an experience that McEuen said gave him a permanent and deep-seated appreciation for life in the United States.

Ibbotson rejoined the band in 1980. His songwriting skills had been sharpened and he has been responsible for several of the group’s hits in recent years.

Through the 20-20 vision of hindsight, all concede that the split was good for all parties. “They learned how to play in tune,” said Ibbotson; to which McEuen added, “And he learned how to write again.”

Rodney Crowell compared the feeling of good will that characterized Tuesday’s show to that of the 1984 concert tribute at the Pacific Amphitheatre for the late singer-songwriter Steve Goodman, whose songs were performed by several artists.

“It had that same kind of emotion,” Crowell said after the show. “The Dirt Band members are still unpretentious and everybody likes that.”

Respect for the spirit that the band has retained throughout its career was the reason cited by many performers for flying to Denver just for one concert and then heading back to various commitments early Wednesday morning.

The rain that shifted the concert indoors also played havoc with airline flights as well as the rehearsal schedule. Some performers arrived an hour or less before the show began. John Prine, however, didn’t let the fact that his plane from Nashville was held up in Chicago for nearly three hours change his plans for the evening.

“I’m just waiting until everybody settles in,” Prine said with a playful smile. “I’m ready for anything.”

Emmylou Harris, walking briskly out to a car that was taking her back to the airport immediately after the show, said she attended because, “They’ve been friends for years. Their intentions are honorable and they still love what they do.”

Fans, too, came from various points around the United States. One group even chartered a flight from Alberta, Canada.

Trina Bodily, who at 16 has been listening to the Dirt Band’s music for six years, drove with her parents from Roy, Utah, where she works part time at a local country music radio station.

Her lapels dotted with Dirt Band buttons, she said that through her association with the radio station that she has “met them all a couple of times. They are wonderful people.”

Lynn Buhlig, 28, moved to Boulder from Orange County in 1984 but didn’t discover the Dirt Band until she heard Hanna and Ibbotson performing at clubs in Aspen.

“I got to know them a little there,” she said. Before the show Buhlig said, “I’m a John Denver freak. But even if he wasn’t playing I would come here.”

George and Judi Conklin arrived at Red Rocks at 7 a.m. Tuesday in the rain in hopes of getting choice general admission seats in front of the stage. It was then they were told the show had been relocated.

As one of the first to arrive at McNichols Sports Arena, the Conklins wound up with front-row center seats. “I think this is going to be special,” Judi, 40, said. Added George, 46: “Especially being this close.”

At night’s end, the band members seemed genuinely overwhelmed.

“How do we follow this?” asked John McEuen. “I’m not sure. I think I’ll eventually go to sleep. When I wake up tomorrow, it’ll be like ‘What happened last night?’ ”

Jimmy Ibbotson was more reflective. “I have to come down from this. What we need is a big dose of reality, like playing some honky-tonk in Des Moines with a disco floor and blinking lights and play two shows with nobody listening to us.”

Ibbotson attributed the response of their peers and the fans to the perception of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as “kind of just a run-of-the-mill, one-of-the-guys bands. I think a lot of people appreciate the fact that we look for good songs.”

“People have always looked at us as team players who haven’t gone on ego trips,” Ibbotson said. “But, of course, we have. I went on an ego trip and quit the band. John went on an ego trip and did his own record. I got humble real quick after mine went nowhere, and I think John will, too. But, thank God, the band’s still together.”