The Aspen Deaf Camp Picnic was a local institution that drew big huge crowds and, for a lot of the people who were there, became an indelible mark of a certain era in the Roaring Fork Valley. The picnic is making a long-awaited return to the area this weekend.
Which means that the Deaf Camp Picnic has nothing on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In fact, the Dirt Band, which headlines the event on Saturday in Snowmass Village, is one up on the picnic. While the Deaf Camp Picnic has been absent for some 15 years, the Dirt Band never completely disappeared. While the membership has changed and radio has been fickle about playing their tunes, the Dirt Band has been a consistent presence for 47 years. The pace of their recording has slowed considerably since the ’80s and the first half of the ’90s, when they were releasing an album nearly every year, but they remain viable recording artists: their last album, “Speed of Life,” came out in 2009, and there is talk of getting back to the studio in the next year or so. It is likely that the Dirt Band earns the distinction of being America’s longest-running music act that records with some consistency.
And though the group was born in southern California — around McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, another enduring institution of American music — the Dirt Band can comfortably claim to be a part of Aspen history. When the San Fernando earthquake hit in February of 1971, the band members, most of them California natives, got spooked and looked for safer ground. Right around that time, they happened to get a gig in the unlikely spot of Aspen, a remote ski town where no national pop act had thought to play.
“It was just a ski town. Who plays a ski town? Was our career over?” banjoist John McEuen, an original and current member of the Dirt Band, said by phone from his home in Sarasota, Fla. “Only one guy, Les Thompson, skied.”
But Aspen, which for a couple decades had been something other than just a ski town, was on the verge of one of its notable changes. The hippies were converging, and at the Dirt Band’s shows at the Aspen Inn, at the base of Aspen Mountain, crowds lined up outside in the falling snow. Bill McEuen, who was John’s brother as well as the band’s manager, decided he wanted to live here. Jimmie Fadden, who sang and played guitar and drums and harmonica in the group, also wanted to stay.
“So we kind of ambled up there, between 1971 and ’73,” McEuen said. McEuen never quite attained the status of Aspenite; he lived in Idaho Springs. But he makes a claim to honorary local: “I’ve been over Independence Pass 50 times.”
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s first three albums, two from 1967 and one from 1968, made little impact on listeners. But it was not lack of success that drove them out of Los Angeles. In 1970, with singer Jimmy Ibbotson having joined the band, they released “Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy.” The album featured four tunes by the young songwriter Kenny Loggins, including the modest hit “House on Pooh Corner”; more significant was a version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” which reached number nine and showed there was a broad audience for the band’s left-coast take on country, folk and bluegrass.
It wasn’t just country-rock that was gaining hold. Aspen as a music town was also coming into its own. McEuen recalls that, while the Dirt Band was settling in as an Aspen band, they watched another southern California band, the Eagles, come to town to polish and test out its brand of country-ish rock. By the mid-‘70s, there was a legitimate scene with national implications.
“The thing that was fun was Jimmy Buffett or John Denver would come sit in with us. Because they liked playing. And because they lived here,” McEuen said. “Steve Martin opened for us; his career hadn’t started taking off yet.”
It wasn’t only Aspen taking flight. Colorado became the epicenter of the country-rock boom. “A lot of people were transplanted there,” McEuen said. “Caribou” — a recording studio in Nederland where Stephen Stills, Elton John and many others recorded — “was getting underway. There was a studio in Golden. Fogelberg was starting to happen. People were starting to record outside the main centers.”
Eventually, Colorado became the home the Dirt Band had never known in California, and affected the music. “Colorado was reflected in the overall feeling of having a home base. It was hard to feel that way in L.A., even though that’s where most of us came from,” McEuen said. “Aspen in the ‘70s was where a lot of people were finding a new direction. That effect was felt in the song ‘Rippling Waters,’ which became a Dirt Band standard. ‘Make a Little Magic’ was written in Aspen. There was a general feeling of unity working in one state, one area.”
The band recorded 1979’s “An American Dream” in Aspen. Also in Aspen, they recorded “King Tut,” the novelty song that Steve Martin performed on “Saturday Night Live.”
Even in that era, though, the group’s most noteworthy adventure happened outside of Colorado. In the summer of 1971, the band headed to Nashville to see how a group of hippie folk music lovers would be received by the country music establishment. Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff and Mother Maybelle Carter joined the Dirt Band in recording “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a triple album of old-time songs that connected old-school Tennessee to newfangled country ideas. It would become a platinum seller and spawn two follow-up volumes.
Aspen even affected the make-up of the group. Bob Carpenter, a keyboardist and singer, had followed the same path as the Dirt Band, relocating from southern California to western Colorado in 1971. After spending a few months on an organic farm in Paonia, he came to Aspen and became part of the burgeoning music scene, playing in the bands Black Pearl and Homebrew. Eventually he co-founded Starwood which, like the Dirt Band, was managed by Bill McEuen. Starwood played often on bills with the Dirt Band — one especially memorable gig was the Concert to Save the Season Pass, at the Aspen Middle School — and Carpenter drifted toward the Dirt Band, recording on their albums and writing songs with Dirt Band singer Jeff Hanna. In 1979, he became a full-time member as the group expanded into a seven-piece ensemble.
With Carpenter, the Dirt Band enjoyed its best commercial success. Through the ‘80s, the band had a handful of hit albums, including “Plain Dirt Fashion” and “Hold On.” But it didn’t happen in Aspen.
“Well, thing change,” McEuen said. “It’s difficult to work out of Aspen, with flights. Our focus in the ‘80s was Nashville, in terms of making albums.”
The Dirt Band — a quartet of McEuen, Carpenter, Fadden and Hanna since 2005 —is going strong, having played 90 shows last year. Carpenter says much of the longevity is due to maturity — they have learned not to sweat the small stuff in the interest of the band staying on course.
“You get to know each other and you don’t push it,” Carpenter said. “We all value what we have enough that we don’t worry about one thing that would tear us apart.”
While the musicians might have become tamer in how they treat one another, Carpenter says that onstage, there is still a desire to let things rip.
“Every time we get onstage, we do our best to entertain people a lot,” he said. “People deserve that. There’s tons of pride.”
Part of that drive is due to the way crowds have been turning up to see the 47-year-old Nitty Gritty. McEuen says the group is well-received in blue states and red states (and especially well in Canada), by fans who saw them at the Aspen Inn 40 years ago and by kids who weren’t born in time to see the commercial heights of the ‘80s.
“I’ve seen many times, people in their early 20s singing every word,” McEuen said. “I think the Dirt Band has more parents who played the music for their kids, and it stuck.”
At one time, McEuen saw the Dirt Band as country-rock’s answer to the Kingston Trio — a product of their time, that would quickly fade. “I thought we were just lucky for a few years. We got good at one thing,” he said. “But Jeff kept picking good songs. Now it goes back 47 years — 42 to ‘Uncle Charlie.’ People are coming to see something they remember, and that was good, is still there.”
McEuen agrees with Carpenter that the band is in as good shape as it ever was. In his eyes, Fadden has become an influential harmonica player, and Hanna keeps learning new licks on guitar.
“Everybody’s appreciating that the road in front of us is shorter than the road behind us,” he said. “And now we know a lot of the turns.”
Carpenter says he doesn’t miss Aspen too badly. “I had my share of skiing, playing in the clubs,” he said. “I’m glad I did that when I was younger.” (One thing he will do that hearkens back to the old days: Carpenter will sit in with Starwood during their opening set on Saturday.)
McEuen says returning here will inevitably cause him to miss the Aspen of his memories, including the time when the Deaf Camp Picnic was the biggest gathering each summer, with appearances by Denver and Buffett.
“I miss the time when the argument was about the stoplight: ‘We don’t want a stoplight! Or it was ‘Save the Ski Pass!’” he said. “I miss the time when this town was forming. I like a lot of the great memories that happened there, from the Wheeler to the Aspen Inn to the Deaf Camp Picnic.”