STORY WRITTEN BY ROB NAGY
For Digital First Media
Instrumental in the birth of the California country rock movement of the late 60’s, “The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band” has amassed record sales in the millions, numerous industry awards (Gold, Platinum, Grammy and CMA honors) along with a non-stop concert-touring schedule. Revered for the classic song “Mr. Bojangles,” they are celebrating their 50th year as a band.
“We’re really grateful,” says Jeff Hanna, from his home in Nashville, Tennessee. “It’s hard to keep a band together five years much less fifty. We went through most of our growing pains thirty years ago. It’s really been a pretty smooth ride for the past couple of decades, and we’re very grateful for that.”
“It’s insane being on the road for 50 years (laughs),” adds Hanna. “We love this, but it’s a heck of a lifestyle to be leaving your home for half of the year. It helps when you are in relationships with people that understand the paradigm. We’re darn lucky, and we’re fortunate that we’ve found ourselves playing music and that we collectively get along really well. We all have a good sense of humor. We take our music very seriously, but we try not to take ourselves too seriously.”
Formed in California in 1966, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s current line-up features founding members Jeff Hanna (guitars and vocals) and Jimmie Fadden (drums/harmonica/vocals) and veteran band mates John McEuen (banjo/fiddle/guitar/mandolin) and Bob Carpenter (keyboards/accordion/vocals). Along with contemporaries “The Byrds,” “Poco” and “The Flying Burrito Brothers,” the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band helped lay the foundation for the burgeoning country rock movement that would dominate the 70’s.
“Our take on country rock was a little different and it was clearly California country rock,” recalls Hanna. “We grew-up on the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. Those were our heroes. (There was) just such great music when we were kids. Doc Watson and Flatt and Scruggs — all that music formed what we did. We took all these influences we had as kids and added a little taste of blue grass and Cajun and we were writing stuff to fit that. We were fortunate to find some great songs like “Mr. Bojangles” by a guy who was a fairly unknown singer named Jerry Jeff Walker.”
The band’s 1972 “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” album, heralded as a critically acclaimed American treasure, assembled a host of living music legends, including Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Roy Acuff. A 40th anniversary edition has been released, featuring renditions of Black Mountain Rag, Nine Pound Hammer, Honky Tonkin’, The Precious Jewel and Wabash Cannonball from the world of country, bluegrass and mountain music.
In honor of their upcoming 50th anniversary, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performed an all-star concert at Nashville’ s Ryman Auditorium in the fall of 2015. Filmed for PBS and released on CD/ DVD, the concert featured guest appearances by Jackson Browne, John Prine, Sam Bush, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Douglas, Jerry Jeff Walker, Alison Krauss and Byson House and Jimmy Ibbotson.
“It really captured a very cool night,” says Hanna. “All the places we’ve been and all the faces we’ve seen. Some of the great things are the personal and musical relationships you develop doing this. We’ve been really fortunate to have an amazing fan base that has stuck with us. I’m really proud of that.”
Navigating through decades of a rapidly changing music landscape, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has remained true to the art of songwriting and live performance, thriving as a country rock, country and American roots music band.
“I think what has changed are the formats that have embraced us,” says Hanna. “Right now what we are — American Roots or Americana — is not remarkably different in a general sense than what was going on in the late 60’s.”
“We’ve always been huge fans of songs that told a story,” adds Hanna. “A lot of music that’s made today is sort of track driven, and it’s about the groove and not necessarily about the lyric. In that sense, I guess we represent something a little different.”
“Will The Circle Be Unbroken” has been inducted into the U.S. Library of Congress and the Grammy Hall of Fame. “Mr. Bojangles” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2010. Most recently, the Nitty Gritty Dirty Band was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, class of 2015.
“It has been a great ride,” says Hanna. “We’re really proud of all the music we’ve made. I think our music has been consistently good and sometimes great over the 50 years. We’ve always brought it live. That’s something we take particular pride in. We want to give folks a couple of hours away from whatever they are doing and have them walk out of that room with a smile on their faces. That’s the greatest gift you can give folks when you’re doing what we’re doing. We’re super proud of that. Thank you to our fans for hanging in there with us. It’s great to be surrounded by so many folks as we’re leaning over that birthday cake. It’s a really sweet feeling.”
“I think that this big birthday celebration that we’re in the midst of it feels different in a good way,” adds Hanna. Folks say, ‘How can you keep singing “Mr. Bojangles?” You must have sung it a thousand times, more than a thousand. The energy that we get back from the crowd is what gives it that collective aura. The energy in the room between the band and the crowd becomes another beautiful thing. We’re lucky. We get to do something we love to do.”