Although they’re probably more famous now for their ’70s output, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s greatest chart success came the following decade. After years of introducing listeners to the likes of “Mr. Bojangles” writer Jerry Jeff Walker and Will the Circle Be Unbroken fiddler Vassar Clements, the country-rock group enjoyed a run of commercial success that culminated with 1987’s platinum single “Fishin’ in the Dark.”
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s lineup at the time–singer and guitarist Jeff Hanna, singer and keyboardist Bob Carpenter, drummer Jimmie Fadden, bassist Jim Ibbotson and multi-instrumentalist John McEuen–struck the perfect balance between their roots and contemporary country hits with this tender love song. It’s accessible enough that two very different artists in Kenny Chesney and Garth Brooks didn’t seem lost in neck-high bluegrass when they performed cover versions. At the same time, it’s rootsy enough for fans of the band’s more traditional material to not feel cheated when they drop the needle on the album its from, Hold On.
The Product of Pop Songwriters
For the band’s third and final number one hit, they turned to sources beyond their fellow Nashville rebels. While the first (Rodney Crowell’s “Long Hard Road (A Sharecropper’s Dream)”) and second (Kix Brooks co-write “Modern Day Romance”) chart-toppers were penned by country purists, this one came from more pop-oriented minds. Co-writer Wendy Waldman made a name for herself later on with Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best For Last” and other popular hits. Co-conspirator and future Nitty Gritty Dirt Band touring member Jim Photoglo entered the Nashville scene through the world of soft rock. Without country-specific minds writing the song, as had happened on prior hits and on such inside jobs as Ibbotson’s “Dance Little Jean,” the group gained a new air of pop accessibility.
With a little magic from producer Josh Leo, the song became a hit for Warner Bros., knocking Rosanne Cash’s equally brilliant “The Way We Make a Broken Heart” from the top spot of the country music charts in both the United States and Canada. Coincidental or not, it proved that roots- and bluegrass-influenced pop could sell records before Diamond Rio brought a similar approach to the mainstream.
The Garth Effect?
What we’ll call the Garth Effect has been kind to the song in recent memory. Brooks’ version appeared on 2005’s The Lost Sessions and again on the 2013 box set Blame It All on My Roots. This probably can’t be quantified in any way, but it’s so easy to assume that one of the biggest selling artists in popular music history helped point those million-plus downloaders to the song as it reached platinum status in 2014.
Be it the Garth Effect or the great song effect, “Fishin’ in the Dark” continues to define the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s string of chart success and still gets toes a-tappin’ whenever it’s played at live shows.