The nitty-gritty on Ibby
The contradictions run deep in Jimmy Ibbotson, the complexity is thick.In between skirmishes of a loud, entertaining battle at the height of lunch hour at the Woody Creek Tavern – Ibbotson is defending the behavior of the Aspen police during a recent guns-drawn run-in with some local kids – Ibbotson shares stories from his own youth in Lower Merion, Pa., where the cops were fair game for insults, snowballs and whatever else young Jimmy and his friends could hurl in their direction. Over the course of an interview at his Woody Creek home – in which he crosses from exasperation at going over his history to enthusiastically recalling hazy escapades from the past – Ibbotson claims he’ll be in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band till he’s dead. This is quickly followed by his musing that if the Dirt Band refuses to play new material, he doesn’t see how he can continue on with his mates of 35 years.As a commentator – he writes a semi-regular column for the weekly edition of The Aspen Times – Ibbotson is adept at getting a rise from all ends of the social spectrum. Recent writings have documented his own drug use, and backed the arguably heavy-handed actions of the local police.Ibbotson is a hell-raiser. But one who can find a place of spiritual clarity from which to write the gospel tune “I Find Jesus,” a high point of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s recent CD, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 3.”Drumming and drinkingIbbotson began his musical life as a drummer, a fact that seems to fit with his natural orneriness. Both the religious and the political sides are in his blood: Ibbotson’s father, Arvey James Ibbotson, was a Baptist preacher on Sunday mornings (and a loan officer during the week), while his mother, Mildred, was a politically involved housewife who spent her hours away from the house as an operative for the Republican Party.Ibbotson, born in 1947, calls his younger self a “pretty good” kid – “until I started drinking and playing rock ‘n’ roll,” he adds. At 14, he fell in with an older crowd of Air Force cadets living on Long Beach Island, Ibbotson’s hangout on the New Jersey shore. Ibbotson became the drummer for the Arista-Tones, and by the time he was 15, he was spending his nights playing Ventures-style surf rock in frat houses around Philadelphia.”I was the hottest drummer in Philly, the hottest white drummer in Philly,” said Ibbotson. “I was making money, so my parents couldn’t keep me in the house at night. I had more money than anyone. I always had the best cars, with big back seats to hold my whole drum set.”Ibbotson despised high school. “The biggest fight of my life was my dad telling me I had to stay in school,” he said. But he loved the education he was getting outside of school. His band mates in the Arista-Tones taught him how to sing and play guitar and drink. And when he was old enough to drive, a new world opened up to Ibbotson and he left the Arista-Tones behind.”As soon as I started driving, I liked other bands better,” he said. “Banger & the Surf Boards, where I got to play guitar and sing and there was more drinking, more fun. I even got to be Banger for a while.”Ibbotson stumbled his way into a partial music scholarship to Indiana’s DePauw University, thanks to an impressive drum piece he performed for a recruiter. But when it became apparent that he couldn’t read music and was in over his head in DePauw’s music department, Ibbotson transferred to the liberal arts school. Ibbotson still got his musical education – playing in bands every weekend, and occasionally assuming an alias, Sonny Kinkaid, to play solo gigs at Midwest colleges. The nitty-gritty on the Dirt BandNothing brings the contradictions out of Ibbotson like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the country-rock group he first joined in 1969 – and has quit twice since.Ibbotson first met Dirt Band hands Jeff Hanna, who had formed the group in 1965, and John McEuen backstage at Hollywood’s Troubadour. Ibby was there to audition for the band Pogo. But word had spread about Ibbotson’s talent, and after he played a few Buddy Holly and Kenny Loggins songs, the Dirt Band offered Ibbotson $50 – a month’s rent – to cancel the audition and join Nitty Gritty instead. Things clicked quickly, as evidenced by the story behind the Dirt Band’s first hit, a cover of “Mr. Bojangles.” In a Jack-in-the-Box drive-in, McEuen told Ibbotson about a song he had heard, about a guy and his dog with a bunch of acoustic guitars. “`Mr. Bojangles,'” said Ibbotson, who went into the trunk of his car and, from out of a puddle, pulled out of his entire record collection a water-logged 45 of Jerry Jeff Walker’s song. The Dirt Band recorded a version of the song on its 1970 album “Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy,” and the group had its first hit.On a roll, the Dirt Band went to Nashville in 1972, to seek out the country and bluegrass establishment. The resulting album, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” was not only a million-seller, but a critical cultural moment as well, connecting the Nashville elite – including Mother Maybelle Carter and Earl Scruggs – with the younger rock crowd. Still, all was not well in Nitty Gritty, as the more pop-oriented Hanna clashed artistically with Ibbotson and his acoustic leanings. Things came to a head in 1976 around two events: the erasing of more than a minute of tape from Ibbotson’s “Ripplin’ Waters,” what Ibbotson calls “the best thing they’d ever recorded,” and a call to come from Denver, where Ibbotson was living, to Aspen, to play a benefit gig. The benefit turned out to be for the Save the Ski Pass Foundation, not exactly the noble cause Ibbotson had in mind. “That threw me over the edge,” he said.Ibbotson quit the band and got divorced from his first wife, Sandy, with whom he has two daughters, Sarah and Jennifer. (Ibbotson later remarried to Anne Burrows, from whom he is divorced. The two have a son, James.) In 1975 Ibbotson moved back East, where he painted houses, drank, contracted hepatitis and went broke. One night, seeing his Colorado buddy John Denver hosting “The Tonight Show,” Ibbotson snapped.”I switched the TV off. I couldn’t stand it,” he said. “This was a guy who used to come see me play, who modeled his band after the Dirt Band. “But I went back and turned [the TV] on, and [Denver] said, `I’m going to do a song I wish I hadwritten.’ It was `Ripplin’ Waters.’ The depths of my psychosis hit me.”In 1979, looking to restart his career, Ibbotson moved to Aspen where he found a receptive audience. “Suddenly, everywhere I’m playing is full,” he said. “Jeff Hanna would show up to play with me, and he’d have more fun than with the Dirt Band. He said, `You got to get back in the band.'”Ibbotson rejoined the Dirt Band in 1980, and the ensuing years saw some of the group’s biggest hits – “Dance Little Jean,” “High Horse” – written by Ibbotson. In 1984 the group made history, becoming the first American rock band to tour the Soviet Union. In 1989, volume two of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” earned a Grammy Award and Album of the Year honors from the Country Music Association.But the tensions remained between Ibbotson, who wanted the band to be more daring, and Hanna, who, in Ibbotson’s eyes, aims for the mainstream. In 1999, Ibbotson parted again, over the issue of bringing McEuen, the band’s hotshot instrumentalist, back into the group.”I said either you get McEuen back in, or you replace me,” he said. “John makes us relevant. Without his banjo and mandolin, we’re the Kingston Trio with drums. “Jimmie [Fadden] and Jeff had never been in other bands in their lives, practically. So when John and I say, `Fuck you, do it without us,’ they’d get crazy. They couldn’t imagine us quitting the band.”Ibbotson rejoined the band shortly after his second departure, with McEuen close behind. Last year, the band hit an artistic peak with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 3,” featuring stars of country and bluegrass from the late Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash to Alison Krauss. But the album didn’t sell well; Ibbotson chalks that up to people recognizing that the music was more a reflection of the guests than the Dirt Band. For Ibbotson, who has consistently pushed the band to do new material, there was at least one sweet moment: his new original tune “I Find Jesus,” inspired by his father and performed without guest musicians, was an album highlight. As a bonus, Ibbotson got to perform with the Cashes before they died. The disappointing sales of “Circle. Vol. 3” was followed by the recent cancellation of a major tour that would have had the Dirt Band backing Rosanne Cash and Iris Dement. Still, Ibbotson can’t see leaving the band. “It’s a life sentence, without the possibility of parole. It’s a brand name,” he said, adding that performing with the Dirt Band is still “great fun.” Or maybe he could imagine going his separate way. “They’re always looking back. I want to look ahead,” he said. “If they don’t want to look ahead, they’re going to have to do it without me. I want that feeling where I’m onstage and I don’t know what’s coming next. I wish the time would come for the songwriter to step up and say, here’s what we’re going to do.”What that songwriter would like to see now is having the three singers – Hanna, Bob Carpenter and Ibby himself – settle into Ibbotson’s Unami Studio, at his home in Woody Creek, for a series of vocal and songwriting sessions. Ideally, that would be followed by a CD of original, rustic-sounding songs, along the lines of 1994’s “Acoustic.” For the moment, though, Ibbotson is aiming at establishing himself as a solo artist alongside his Dirt Band career. He plays solo at Main Street Bakery on Wednesday, Oct. 8.”I want to get comfortable playing just with the guitar and singing,” he said. “And if people want their money back, they can have it.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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