Bands Come ‘Home’ to the Mountains

By Beacon Staff

Even after four decades on the road the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band hasn’t grown tired of playing before a crowd – big or small.

“Playing for hundreds of people is no different than playing for thousands,” Bob Carpenter, keyboard player and singer, said. “Our fans will come out for us.”

Described by some as an influential spark in country rock and roots music, the band first formed in California in the late 1960s. Since then they have won numerous country music awards and most recently a Grammy for best country instrumental act in 2005. With hits like “Fishin’ in the Dark” and “Mr. Bojangles,” the group has created a loyal fan base, some of which will make the trek to Libby on July 9 when the band headlines the first ever Big Sky Bash, a fundraiser hosted by the CARD Foundation to benefit asbestos-related care in the Libby area. Joining them will be the Copper Mountain Band from Troy, a local favorite that just finished a European tour.

Even though the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band originated in California and its current members have been strewn about the country, the Northern Rockies are a familiar place, a flashback to their time in Colorado, when Carpenter first joined.

“It’s always great to be up in the mountains,” he said, adding that they always have a good time when playing in Montana.

Carpenter said that the band had already started to make a name for itself when he first joined in the late 1970s. At the time he was working with another band when he was connected to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band through his manager. From that meeting he began to play and record with them and by 1980 he became a full-time member.

“I eased into the situation. There was no online dating involved and I didn’t send in a job application,” he said, laughing.

Little did Carpenter know that joining the band would be the beginning of nearly 30 years’ worth of unending touring, doing 60 to 70 shows a year. When they’re not touring Carpenter and the other band members – Jeff Hanna on the guitar, Jimmie Fadden on the drums and John McEuen switching up between the guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin – return to their individual homes across the country. Carpenter said that after working together so long, it doesn’t matter that the band doesn’t live in the same area.

“We’ve (been) on the road so much in the last 45 years that it hardly matters where we do our laundry,” he said, adding that their dedicated fan base has kept them together.

And Carpenter said the best place for those fans to experience their music is at a live show, which takes on an entirely different feel than their studio work.

“When you get energy back from the audience, it’s a different performance,” he said.

Fans who travel to Libby to see them on Saturday can expect that same type of energy. Carpenter said they plan on giving the audience a resume of their work, from its beginnings in the 1960s to their most recent stuff, featured on their 2009 studio album “Speed of Life.”

“We try and give them a little taste of everything,” he said.

According to Patricia Ryan of International Special Attractions, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has played in Libby before and its down-home country music played well to the local crowd.

“People are ready to have them back,” Ryan said, adding that more often than not, the band sells out its Montana shows.

One of the people who can’t wait to see them again is Nate Norman, bass player for the Copper Mountain Band, who will be opening the show on July 9.

The five-piece group from Troy has, like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, gathered a strong local following, which has helped them as they toured the West and even France this spring. Norman said that their brand of high-energy country music reflects a lot of different influences, including Saturday’s headliner.

“We’ve gotten to do some amazing things with amazing groups and they’re at the top,” he said. “They’re idols in my eyes.”

But one of the highlights for the band on Saturday will be playing for a local crowd and a good cause, said Norman, whose extended family has been affected by the deadly asbestos mining that took place near Libby.

“It’s pretty cool that we get to play at home,” Norman said. “We’re excited to be back in Libby and we hope we make a bunch of money for a great cause.”

That is the same hope shared by Betty Jo Wood, development officer for CARD, who is one of the main organizers for the event, something they hope could become a yearly tradition in Libby.

“It’s something we’ve kicked around for awhile,” she said. “Libby is starving for entertainment like this and we wanted to do something to benefit the community.”

Wood said to bring a lawn chair or a blanket to the concert, being held at J Neils Park along Montana Highway 37 starting at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the gate.

“We’re just really excited about it,” Wood said. “It’s going to be a fun event.”

For tickets and more information go to www.donatecardfoundation.org.

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