The Nashville Tennessean Newspaper highlights the Dirt Band with a full page article!
After 43 years, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band still finds something to say.
The band was born nearly a quarter century before Taylor Swift, back when Vietnam raged, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Caesar?s Palace were founded and the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper?s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Roger Miller shocked everyone at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles when he pulled out something called a mobile phone. It was two years before the moon landing. Nine men have been president since then, one of whom ? George Herbert Walker Bush ? once professed his fandom of the group (though he called them the ?Nitty Ditty Great Bird?).
?I thought a decade would have been a good run,? said lead singer Jeff Hanna, though his opinion, as is sometimes the case in the Dirt Band, is far from unanimous.
?I thought it could go on,? said banjo player John McEuen, who has lately been a key part of the musical renaissance of Steve Martin. ?When the red light comes on in the studio, I always think I might be creating something that lasts longer than I do. Like Riders in the Sky with western music, the Dirt Band has in some ways become what it was emulating. And the other night, Jeff sang ?Mr. Bojangles? better than I?ve ever heard him sing it, and I believe we played it better as a band than it has been done.?
Produced by George Massenburg and Jon Randall, new album Speed of Life makes the case as well as anything that the Dirt Band is as vital and important a roots music force as ever.
?They wanted us to circle back to what we were doing in the late ?60s and early ?70s,? Hanna said. ?They wanted us to make ?a hippy record,? is the way they put it. The (1970) Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy album was probably the biggest reference point we used throughout this project, with some jug band influence in there.?
The album was tracked live at Massenburg?s studio, with Hanna, McEuen, drummer/harmonica player Jimmie Fadden and keyboard player/accordionist Bob Carpenter sitting in a room together to play the music at once. It was an instant communication situation, and when the often less-than-effusive Massenburg enjoyed a performance, he?d wriggle around in his chair and grin, in full view of each player.
?It was going down live, and since we were all in the same room there was a lot of ?bleeding? back and forth going on between the instruments. Unlike the way it?s usually done (?usually? meaning ?nearly always,? and ?usually? being ?with each instrument and voice cordoned off from the others by walls and baffles?), you couldn?t just go in and fix your part if you messed something up. If it wasn?t right, everyone had to do it over again.?
?These guys are good?
The album?s smart, rollicking opener is ?Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble To Me,? written by Shawn Camp and new Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer Mark D. Sanders. It has fresh-sounding covers of warhorses ?Going Up the Country? and ?Stuck in the Middle,? and it features a poignant version of ?The Resurrection,? written by Alice Randall and Hanna?s wife Matraca Berg, herself a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer.
?When we were in the studio and started off ?Resurrection,? Jimmie was playing harmonica on it,? McEuen said. ?I thought immediately that it sounded like an old record, in a good way. That kicked off and I felt like, ?Ooh, these guys are good.? Not that it surprised me ... but maybe it did.?
One of Speed of Life?s joys is a song about Jimmy Martin, a collaborator on the first two of the Dirt Band?s three Will The Circle Be Unbroken? volumes and perhaps the saddest brash man in America. Penned by Phil Madeira and Jimmie Lee Sloas, ?Ballad of Jimmy Martin? is a sonic portrait of a man McEuen said ?knew who he was, and wanted everyone else to know.?
?When Jimmy got sick, I went out to visit him,? Hanna said. ?He was in his bed, in the middle of the room, but he still had on his trucker?s hat that said, ?Jimmy Martin.? He was in the bed and said, ?Let?s sing a song,? but he couldn?t play guitar. I had his guitar, and I started playing so we could sing together. He said, ?Your right hand is not doing it properly,? and he grabbed my arm and started moving my wrist. And he was right: He corrected me.?
Like his bandmates, Hanna has been around a remarkable array of American music?s heroes. He and Fadden formed the Dirt Band with futureRock and Roll Hall of Famer Jackson Browne in 1966. The Dirt Band?s first Will The Circle Be Unbroken? album featured Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and many other greats. In the still-new century, Hanna played in the studio on Johnny Cash?s Rick Rubin-produced recordings. Each Dirt Band member has gone from young buck to distinguished elder, and yet the band may never have been so intrinsically connected to its young self as it is today.
?You know, I used to hang out with (bluesman) Taj Mahal a lot, and we?d go see these first and second generation blues guys like Lightnin? Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt,? Fadden said. ?We would always talk with them and get their stories. I saw Taj recently, and I said, ?Remember when we used to do that?? He said, ?Yeah, now I got a bunch of young guys asking me the stuff we asked them.? That?s the way this is, too. All of a sudden, we?re answering the questions we were asking.?