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Roots music pioneers get to the Nitty Gritty at Country ThunderDon’t try to pigeonhole the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It’s much easier to sit back and enjoy their blend of Americana, country, blues, bluegrass, Tin Pan Alley, pop and country rock than it is to attach a definitive tag.
“And you can throw a little jam band in there too,” Jeff Hanna, vocalist, guitarist and original band member, said by telephone Monday. “We just play the music we like, and the hardest thing about music is describing it in print, or just describing it, period. That’s because it’s such a personal experience and it affects everybody differently, which is a beautiful thing, I think.”
The next opportunity to catch the Grammy Award-winning Dirt Band’s eclectic act is Friday at Country Thunder, when they perform in the middle of a lineup that includes the JaneDear Girls, Brantley Gilbert, Eric Church and Jason Aldean.
“We’re excited about this,” Hanna said. “We’ve worked with Eric Church and Jason, I think, is really great. We did the Levon Helm Ramble up at Woodstock, N.Y., about a year-and-a-half ago with Eric and it was so much fun. Eric is a really talented guy.”
The Dirt Band lineup coming to Country Thunder features founding members Hanna and drummer Jimmie Fadden, multi-instrumentalist John McEuen joined early on (left in 1986 and returned in 2001) and keyboardist Bob Carpenter, who joined in 1977.
“We do about 75 shows a year, which is up,” Hanna said. “We’d slowed up to about 40 a few years back, but we just enjoy playing. Everybody’s healthy and we have a good time out there, so that keeps us on the road for about a half a year.
“We’re celebrating our 45th year this year. Wow, that’s crazy!”
And with 45 years’ worth of material, Hanna joked that the first challenge to putting their current show together is “trying to keep people awake!”
“We have a lot of material to draw from, so we’re doing some stuff from the new CD (Speed Of Life), and we go back as far as ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ so we have a little bluegrass thrown in for good measure, some Cajun rock and roll; it’s a good time!”
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band formed in Los Angeles in 1966. Except for a short break in the late 1960s, they’ve played continuously with a variety of lineups for over four decades.
“When our band started, we were a jug band. The newest song we played was probably written in the 1930s,” Hanna, who was born in Detroit and grew up in Phoenix through his teen years, said. “It was really old-timey music, a kind of a blues hybrid. We had things like a washboard, a washtub bass. It was all acoustic.
“That kind of described our music – getting down to the nitty gritty. It was kind of self-explanatory.”
The name, for some didn’t automatically roll off the tongue. In 1992, at a country music awards show in Nashville, President George H.W. Bush inadvertently referred to the band as the “Nitty Ditty Nitty Gritty Great Bird.”
Hanna defends the 41st president, saying, “Oh, he wasn’t the first to do it, so we have to cut him a little slack, I think!”
Their first national hit was “Buy For Me The Rain,” a combination of pop, country and protest rock that charted in the spring of 1967. Later, the Dirt Band would find its natural niche.
“About three years into our career, we started playing this new music called ‘country-rock,’” Hanna said. “There were other bands in southern California like Poco and the Flying Burrito Brothers doing the same thing. This had a lot of appeal to us as kids who grew up with guys like the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. That mixed with our love of bluegrass and country music – we were also big fans of Buck Owens.
“We found our own version of that to play. What separated the Dirt Band from bands like Poco and the Burritos was that we leaned more on the bluegrass side of things.”
“Mr. Bojangles,” composed by Jerry Jeff Walker and the DIrt Band’s first Top Ten single in Billboard, was the centerpiece of their album, Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy. A which also featured Michael Nesmith’s “Some of Shelly’s Blues” and an early Kenny Loggins tune, “House At Pooh Corner.”
“When you start talking about the Dirt Band records that we’re most proud of, aside from the Circle records, Uncle Charlie is high on our list,” Hanna said. “It’s what we would recommend.
Hanna said that while the band has always been proud of “having a pretty good ear for songs,” “’Mr. Bojangles’ happened totally by accident.”
“’We were working on material for the Uncle Charlie album and I heard the song late one night driving home from rehearsal. I didn’t hear the whole song, just the last minute-and-a-half – it was Jerry Jeff’s single,” Hanna recalled. “I came to rehearsal the next day raving about this tune that I thought would be great for us. One of the other guys said he thought he knew the song. In the trunk of his Dodge Dart, under the spare tire, he had a copy of the 45 of Jerry Jeff doing the song. We learned it off that scratchy record, got a couple of the lyrics wrong because the needle skipped! But Jerry Jeff forgave us, thank you! Hey, it worked out really good.”
Will The Circle Be Unbroken
In 1972, a concept album like Will The Circle Be Unbroken – a triple-album of folk, country and blues featuring a lineup of legendary guest stars – was nearly unheard of. It earned Platinum status, received two Grammy Award nominations, and was eventually selected to the Grammy Hall of Fame
“The ability to do that record was really set up by the fact that we had a huge hit with ‘Mr. Bojangles’ at the time, which was a Top Ten pop hit and a million-selling single for us. Because of that, it gave us the artistic freedom to be able to take a hard left turn and make an all-acoustic album with essentially our heroes from American music, people we all cut our teeth on like Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis and Roy Acuff. That was a fantastic experience for us, and I think it bridged a generation gap at the time.
“But it wasn’t intended as a commercial endeavor at all.”
To the band’s delight – and surprise – Liberty/UA, their label, reacted favorably to that “hard left turn.”
“They kind of rolled their eyes, but they said, ‘you know what, we trust you. So go ahead.’ We looked like geniuses to them (laughing) because of ‘Mr. Bojangles.’”
The Grammy-nominated project , which later inspired Volumes II and III, is considered to be the Dirt Band’s magnum opus. Hanna agrees.
“I think so. I mean, that’ll work for me,” he said. “It’s definitely the thing on our permanent record that certainly stands out. We’ve been a working band all through this, too. The one thing about the Circle record being a community project, we were kind of the anchors, but all of the folks who came in to sing and play with us was such a big deal to us.”
Throughout their career, starting with Will The Circle Be Unbroken, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band welcomed opportunities to collaborate with their famous friends, such as Linda Ronstadt (“An American Dream”), Nicolette Larson (“Make A Little Magic”), Karla Bonoff (“You Believed In Me”) and backing comedian Steve Martin on “King Tut” as the “Toot Uncommons.”
“A lot of people don’t know that me and another guy from the Dirt Band, Chris Darrow, played in Linda Ronstadt’s first solo band after the Stone Ponies,” Hanna said. “The Dirt Band took about a year off (in late 1968). Chris and I had a little side project called the Corvettes. Linda heard us and really liked it, so she hired me and Chris to be in her band.
“Years later, Linda returned the favor singing on ‘An American Dream.’ Linda’s great. She’s a really good pal and an amazing talent. I still listen to her records a lot.”
On “King Tut,” Hanna contributed the last line to Martin’s 1978 satire on the American tour of King Tutankhamen’s remains. The single earned a Gold Record.
“’Got a condo made of stone-a,’” Hanna remembered. “I played lead guitar on that. The other guys were doing the ‘King Tut’ background parts.”
Fishing In the Dark
The Dirt Band scored its first country No. 1 in 1984 with “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)” and reached No. 1 again in 1985 with “Modern Day Romance” and in 1987 with “Fishing In The Dark.” They also hit the country charts with hits like “Dance Little Jean” and “Partners, Brothers and Friends.”
“That song seems to have a life of its own, and that’s certainly our calling card at a big country festival like this,” Hanna said. “Here’s something for you, ‘Fishing In The Dark’ just became our first certified gold digital single this week – over 500,000 downloads.
“That’s really funny because for an old band like us, this is pretty cool!”
The Dirt Band remains busy in the studio, releasing the album Speed Of Life in 2010. Nearly every track is composed by the band, with the exception of two classic rock covers, “Going Up The Country” (Canned Heat) and “Stuck In The Middle With You” (Stealers Wheel).
“It’s the first album we’ve released in a while,” Hanna said. “The whole intention of that album was to get back to the whole Uncle Charlie feel, which was kind of a live experience and having a good time.”
Speed Of Life was produced by two longtime friends of the band, George Massenburg and Jon Randall Stewart,.
“They’re buddies of ours who were cheerleaders and taskmasters combined,” Hanna said. “They pushed us pretty hard, but we’re very proud of that album.”
Hanna noted that due to the increasing lack of music stores, it’s easiest to locate their new CD at www.nittygritty.com, iTunes or Amazon.
In the last 25 years, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has received its share of accolades – including five Country Music Association nominations and a CMA award for album of the year n 1989; Grammys in 1989 for best country collaboration with vocals, best bluegrass recording and co-producing the best country instrumental.
They won a Grammy in 2005 for best country instrumental (with Earl Scruggs, Randy Scruggs, Jerry Douglas and Vassar Clements). And, in 2009, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s recording of “Mr. Bojangles” was inducted into the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame.
“That was a proud moment for us,” Hanna said. “It’s great to be recognized by your peers, because most of those organizations are our fellow musicians and writers. It’s great to have that. Obviously the most important thing is that people still show up at our concerts and buy our CDs.
“We have a groove that people, I think, understand,” he added. “We’ve been fortunate that we have a great fan base and people keep showing up! It’s a wonderful thing, and we’re very grateful.”
After 45 years, that’s no small accomplishment.