It’s fueled him most of his life. At 76 years old, it’s what still gives him his fire.
Bob Carpenter of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band said that touring — walking through airports, checking into hotels and performing in front of large crowds — certainly brings his energy up at his age, but it’s in creating something, bringing something into being that really preserves his youth.
“Well, there is a lot of sleeping that goes on, on the tour bus,” he said in a recent telephone call from his home in Studio City. “But as far as getting up on stage for two hours a night and doing soundcheck and doing all the other stuff that goes along with it, yeah, as they say, God willing. It’s really this thing that keeps us alive.”
Carpenter told The Signal that a year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic — not creating as much — made him realize how much his creative output gives him his spirit. After recording the 2022 release “Dirt Does Dylan,” the band’s first album in five years and their take on the music of legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, coupled with hitting the road again, the keyboardist-accordionist-songwriter-vocalist is excited and newly energized.
He and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band are coming to The Canyon in Santa Clarita. Known for blending country music, bluegrass and folk rock, and for hits like their cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles,” “Fishin’ in the Dark,” “An American Dream” and their 1989 Grammy-winning album, “Will the Circle be Unbroken: Volume Two,” they’re set to go on stage at 6 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 14.
Carpenter is excited to meet the fans and to just play music. He said his love for playing goes back to when he was 4 years old.
“My parents used to watch Lawrence Welk,” he said. Welk was an accordionist, band leader and host of “The Lawrence Welk Show,” which originally aired on TV between 1955 and 1982. “Well, I used to bring out the pie tins and start beating on them. My parents went, ‘Nah. Drums? No. Look, here’s an accordion.’ So, they bought me an accordion in 1950 when I was 4 years old. And I still play it. That’s the accordion I’m playing on stage.”
Carpenter added that those who bought the new “Dirt Does Dylan” CD will find pictures within the inner sleeve of the band recording, one of which shows that very accordion.
“Yeah, I don’t know how that happened,” he said, “because a lot of the stuff I’ve had over the years has disappeared. But I still have that accordion, and I’m still playing it.”
The oldest recording that Carpenter could recall that had an impact on him comes from — again — the young age of 4 years old.
“I was in a booth in the South Jersey Shore, singing harmony with my mother to ‘You Are My Sunshine’ on one of those things — you used to be able to actually cut a lacquer for like $1 in a booth. You’d walk in there to a microphone, and the needle came down and cut the lacquer.”
Growing up in the 1950s, he said he also loved tunes like “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” — like all kids who grew up during that time, he said. It was ultimately his passion for hearing, singing and playing music that guided him through life.
“I just started playing in clubs with a band and I could make some money and it was fun,” he said. “And I didn’t have to wear a coat and tie to work. It was just something that I found that I was good at. It was like the path of least resistance. And I always loved music. My family was musical. They, you know, sang in church, and I sang in church, and we all sang at church. So, I had an ear for it. And it was just something that I realized there was a path forward, and I decided to take it.”
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was similarly formed. During the summer of 1966, according to the band’s website, singer-guitarist Jeff Hanna, singer-songwriter-guitarist Bruce Kunkel and their group hung around McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Long Beach, trying to “figure out how not to have to work for a living.”
That early band, which included none other than Jackson Browne on guitar and vocals, performed in the Southern California folk-rock scene. They became known for wearing 1920s pinstripe suits and cowboy boots.
And the name — Nitty Gritty Dirt Band? Well, Carpenter wasn’t there during the formation of the band, but he told the story about where the name came from.
“Jeff was sitting in, I don’t know, English class in college,” Carpenter said, “and he was trying to think up a name for the band. The band started as, not as a country band, you know — they had like a washtub bass and all that kind of stuff. So, he wanted to think up a name. Well, the instructor said something about getting down to the nitty gritty or something like that. He used the phrase ‘nitty gritty.’ And Jeff thought that the music was earthy, so he put the name ‘dirt’ in front of that. And that’s —” Carpenter paused, then said, “He’s the guy to blame.”
While Carpenter hails from Philadelphia, the music business would lure him to California. But he said he only lasted about a year in the Golden State, and in 1969, he moved to Colorado.
“At the same time,” Carpenter said, “the guys from the Dirt Band in Long Beach decided to move to Colorado, and that’s where we hooked up — early ’70s.”
They’ve been active ever since, Carpenter continued. Just this year they’re doing about 70 shows, he said, and he’s loving it.
Those who come to the Oct. 14 show at The Canyon can expect to hear everything from the band’s very first single back in the 1960s to the hits of the ’70s and songs from their big radio days in the ’80s and ’90s. The band will also be playing tunes from “Dirt Does Dylan.”
“We try to get to all the different decades of music that we released,” Carpenter said. “The people that come to our shows — their ages vary so much. I mean, we’ve got the younger generation coming to hear ‘Fishing in the Dark,’ even though it’s like, what, 30 years old or something like that. And then we’ve got the ‘Circle’ fans that like that type of music. We’ve got bluegrass fans and we’ve got, you know, a lot of genres going on here. So, we try to get to everything.”
At 76 years old, Carpenter and the rest of the band — most around the same age — live for this.
“Like they say, people need a reason to get up in the morning,” Carpenter said.
Full of energy and enthusiasm, he seems to still be that 4-year-old who started out beating on pie tins to Lawrence Welk, creating, playing and loving music. Putting it his way, God willing, he’ll remain active as long as he can.