Music Interview: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Turns 50
Amazingly, the group’s 50th anniversary tour features three of the original members: lead singer/guitarist Jeff Hanna, string player John McEuen, and drummer Jimmie Fadden.
By Brett Milano
A good portion of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s half-century career has flown under the radar. You may know about their 1972 triple album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the first to pair a bunch of young hippies with the elders of bluegrass. And you likely know their 1970 hit “Mr. Bojangles” — the best and most famous version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s song — or their country crossover hits from the later ‘70s. But their very first, self-titled 1967 album (which included a long-forgotten hit single, “Buy For Me the Rain”) was a stellar example of psychedelic country-rock, a sound that lingered to varying extent through their first decade. In recent years they’ve returned to a mostly-acoustic country-folk sound that’s not too far removed from the one they came in with.
Amazingly the group’s 50th anniversary tour features three of the original members — lead singer/guitarist Jeff Hanna, string player John McEuen, and drummer Jimmie Fadden — along with keyboardist Bob Carpenter, who joined in 1979. The tour begins at the Wilbur on Tuesday the 10th; we recently talked about the band’s long history with Jeff Hanna.
Arts Fuse: I’ll say straight out that I’m a big fan of your first few albums.
Jeff Hanna: You mean the really early ones? Thanks, man. Those were recorded under duress to some degree because we were fighting with the producer we had. But we certainly loved the jug band music we were playing back then.
AF: Someone in your band was really good at finding songs. Of course there was “Mr. Bojangles” in 1970, and that same album had Mike Nesmith’s “Some of Shelly’s Blues” — one of my favorite songs, and you were one of the first to record it.
Hanna: I’ll take credit for that one. That happened during a time when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had split up, myself and Chris Darrow had formed a country-rock band called the Corvettes, and Michael Nesmith was our producer. As it turned out Linda Ronstadt had just left the Stone Poneys and was looking for a band, so the Corvettes became her group. “Some of Shelley’s Blues” was in her set and I got to harmonize on that one with her every night. So when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band reformed we carried that song into the band; me and Jimmy Ibbotson got to do our Everly Brothers thing on it.
AF: Jackson Browne was associated with the band in its earliest days. Was he a full-fledged member?
Hanna: Oh yeah, though it gets a little confusing. [Founding member] Les Thompson, Jackson, and I were all hanging out at this club in Orange County called the Paradox. Jackson said ‘Hey, that looks like fun, can I be in your band?” We said, sure, come on! This lighthearted jug band music is so different from what people associated with him. But he was a great guitar player and did the washtub bass as well. At the time we all shared this funky house together in Long Beach — the typical band crash pad where we all lived together. Clearly Jackson’s calling wasn’t to play ragtime music and he wanted to pursue the songwriting full time, which was not a bad idea. But he’d started that with us, I’m pretty sure that he wrote “These Days” while he was in our jug band.
AF: You collaborated with many of the great bluegrass players on 1972’s triple album Will the Circle Be Unbroken. I’m wondering what kind of mark those sessions left on the band.
Hanna: I’d say it was a life experience, more than just a musical experience. We grew up in Southern California where the typical music being played for harmonies was the Beach Boys. Everybody was forming rock bands, and we were all into folk music. That’s what we all had in common, when we sat around listening to music, it was very likely we’d have a Doc Watson, Flatt & Scruggs, or a Merle Travis record. And you know how it’s often that when you meet your heroes, you wind up wishing you hadn’t? That couldn’t have been further from the truth in this case. We wound up developing lasting relationships with all those guys. I think the average age of our band was 23 or 24 at the time — so in terms of lasting influence, none of us could have predicted it.
AF: During the ’70s you shortened your name to the Dirt Band, and went for a more mainstream country sound. Did you see which way the winds were blowing?
Hanna: Yeah, we went to Buffett-land to some extent with “American Dream,” a wonderful Rodney Crowell song that I got to sing with Linda Ronstadt. And there were a couple of pop hits after that. I think we were getting a little tired of doing country-rock at the time, and when we looked at the mainstream of country music, it was probably a little more like what we’d been doing than the rock world was. We saw bands like Alabama, and people like Ricky Skaggs that we related to in mainstream country. So we came to Nashville to make some records, and I’m grateful they accepted us. If you look at bands who make that shift from rock and roll to country, it’s not always successful.
AF: Here’s one I didn’t know about before looking around. You guys were the Toot Uncommons on Steve Martin’s “King Tut”?
Hanna: That was a couple of us, during the Dirt Band era. Our rhythm section [at the time] was Merel Bregante and Richard Hathaway, the Toot Uncommons was them and me. John McEwen’s older brother Bill [who managed both Martin and the Dirt Band] had a studio in Colorado where Steve Martin was working on the song; then he came to a show we did at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Steve didn’t even have a finished song yet, he said ‘Just lay down a funky groove and I’ll come out and do it.” So he did it that night, and when we got back to Colorado he wanted to record a demo of the song. We did it live in the studio, with Steve standing in front of me doing this hilarious ‘wild and crazy’ guy schtick. So he takes that to Mo Oston at Warner Brothers and said “Okay, let’s go into the studio and cut this for real.” And Mo says, “What are you talking about — that’s the record, let’s master this thing!” It came out that way, and it’s still the only gold 45 RPM record I have on my wall. You’d think there’d be one for “Bojangles” but sometimes you need to audit those record labels.
AF: When people talk about the most influential country-rock bands, the first ones they usually name are the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, maybe the Eagles. Shouldn’t you guys be on that list?
Hanna: Yes. (Laughs). I like it when other people say that. You reach a point where you’re just happy you got to do this for your entire adult life, and there’s a lot of gratitude in this band. But in terms of the influential part, I think we get left out of the conversation more than we should be.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat. His latest book is Don’t All Thank Me At Once (125 Records), a biography of the unsung pop genius Scott Miller, who led the bands Game Theory and The Loud Family.