June 02, 1980 12:00 PM

“If I knew what made a hit record,” says John McEuen, 34, of the old Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “we would have had another one sooner.” Indeed, after a smash 1970 version of Mr. Bojangles, the sales of the Aspen-based group were almost inversely proportional to its impact. It invited C & W heavies like Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Mother Maybelle Carter to join its classic 1972 LP, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, and became a pioneer of today’s dominant country-rock fusion. Then, in 1977, it was the first and only American rock group to tour the Soviet Union. But it took the Dirt Band—the “Nitty Gritty” was dropped to get away from the washboard image—a whole decade to find another hit single. And the new one came with a little help from Linda Ronstadt, a friend of the band from the start. “She asked me to dinner one night last summer,” recounts lead singer Jeff Hanna, 32, “so I said, ‘Why don’t you come to the studio instead?’ ” The result was An American Dream, the title cut off the group’s 11th LP and its first to make Top 20 since Bojangles.

“When you know you’re going to sing with someone as good as Linda, you work harder,” explains Hanna. “She opened the ears of people who hadn’t heard the Dirt Band before,” acknowledges McEuen, who doubles on fiddle and banjo. Anyway, he jokes of her contribution, “I’d rather stand behind Linda than Jeff.” The group used so many guest musicians—16 besides Ronstadt—that it took sessions in studios from Bogalusa, La. to Los Angeles to finish the album.

The band’s original trademark was its eclectic instrumentation. McEuen also plays mandolin and dobro, and Jimmie Fadden, 32, the other Dirt Band founder, frequently adds harmonica and drums to his work on lead guitar. The group’s once mostly acoustic sound—a mixture of rock, jug band, folk and country that Hanna calls “Granola rock”—has become more mainstream. “In the early days, we owed more to theater and weirdness than to music,” he says. Adds McEuen, “We’re better now. Our music is more pop and more commercial.”

The band grew out of a Long Beach (Calif.) high school combo, the Illegitimate Jug Band, started by Hanna and some friends in 1965. McEuen’s older brother, Bill (now the group’s manager), helped produce its first single, Buy for Me the Rain, which promptly made the Top 50. Says Hanna: “We were 18 and arrogant, and we thought it was going to be easy.” But the band made its name mostly for helping create the sound that the Eagles and Jackson Browne (a member of the group for six months in 1966) eventually commercialized. Says Hanna, “It’s like a culture shock to realize they are heroes now.”

After staying in “too many motels where even the rats checked out early,” McEuen recalls that the group tried to cash in with a 1968 B movie, For Singles Only. It flopped, and the boys broke up, leaving Hanna to play backup for Ronstadt and McEuen for Andy Williams. Six months later the band had reunited and landed a role in the film adaptation of Broadway’s Paint Your Wagon. Finally, reports McEuen, the success of Bojangles “put us back in business.”

For four years Steve Martin (also managed by Bill McEuen) opened for the band and often got booed for trying comedy on a rock audience. The group returned the favor by doubling as the Toot Uncommons on Steve’s later gold single, King Tut. Jokes Martin of John McEuen: “We’ve been friends for 15 years, and really close friends the first five.”

The band’s Soviet tour came about in part, McEuen says, after the Russians told him, “Your audience doesn’t smoke as much dope as the others.” Fadden remembers, “When somebody would get up waving and clapping, the KGB made them sit down.” The Soviets did allow the group to play 25 concert dates and three TV specials, one of which purportedly reached 125 million viewers. “The people all seemed depressed. We never realized what we had here until then.” So, as McEuen puts it, “When we got back, we decided to make the band as good as we could.”

The current lineup—there have been 15 Dirt Band members through the years—includes bassist Richard Hathaway, ex-Loggins and Messina violinist-saxophonist Al Garth, keyboardist Bobby Carpenter and, since last month, Jimmy Buffet’s old drummer Michael Gardner. These four, all in their mid-30s, share the band’s profits equally with the three founding members.

Since 1971 the Dirt Band’s recording base has been Aspen, but only Hathaway actually lives there. McEuen and his Mormon wife moved to Salt Lake City because, he says, “I wanted my family to live in as normal an environment as possible.” He does not expect to enforce his liquor-and weed-free abstemiousness on his colleagues. “Unless it gets in the way of performing, I don’t care if they drink gasoline,” he reasons. Fadden and his family have emigrated to Sarasota, Fla., and Hanna has moved to Evergreen, Colo. with model girlfriend Karen Rohrbacher and a collection of valuable Les Paul guitars. (His ex-wife, the twin sister of McEuen’s present wife, moved to Salt Lake City with their 8-year-old son.) Garth, the divorced father of a 5-year-old boy, lives a few blocks from Hanna with Veronica, an iguana he says “sings with me in the shower.” Carpenter and friend Meg Gallagher roam with an Abyssinian cat and a Lhasa Apso in West Hollywood. Gardner lives alone in his native Memphis.

The group is just about to release its 12th and most accessible album, the Fadden-produced Make a Little Magic, and plans a series of benefit concerts. Their past causes have included Gene McCarthy, diabetes research and a campaign to save a Hopi burial ground in New Mexico. They also take on individual projects and sessions work. Fadden’s harping turns up on records for the likes of Dan Fogelberg and John Denver, and McEuen plays about 40 solo dates a year. But, says Hanna, the group comes first. “There’s a funny sort of bond. For Jimmie, John and me, it’s the only band we’ve ever been in, and I guess we’ve always felt we deserved something out of this.”

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