50 Years of Dirt: Jeff Hanna treks across a half century of American Music
In the fall of 2015 The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band celebrated their fiftieth anniversary by packing Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and putting on a concert that honored their longevity and stature in the music business. The affair was nothing if not star-studded, with guest appearances by Jackson Browne, John Prine, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell, and Jerry Jeff Walker. The Dirt Band, as the house band for the evening, was augmented by the talented trio of Byron House, Sam Bush, and Jerry Douglas.
One of the highlights of the night was the standing ovation that greeted the introduction of former NGDB member, Jimmy Ibbotson. Seeing Ibby back in the fold, if only for a few songs, was itself an emotional moment. Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, John McEuen, and Bob Carpenter show no signs of fatigue or road wear. In fact, it seems as if another decade, at the very least, is there for the taking if they want it. Talking to Jeff Hanna on the phone for over an hour I never once sensed he was ready to hang up his spurs.
Listening to Hanna, one comes away with the impression that he is still a bit in awe of the road he has travelled. As we revisited the nascent country rock scene of the late ‘60s the conversation flowed easily. Hanna gets a lot of credit for that, he is an affable and approachable person. During our time on the phone there were several questions I didn’t get to ask. Not because he was avoiding them, but because as we traipsed across the landscape of Hanna’s memory he got there before I had the chance to ask. It went that smoothly.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was very much at the epicenter of a musical shift in the late ‘60s, as rock began to ease its obsessive grip on psychedelia and search for more organic and rooted forms of expression. Most of the writing about this period focuses heavily on Gram Parson’s work with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Dylan, and the other residents of Woodstock, New York, The Band.
At the same time the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Poco, were two bands that were pioneers; as artists, they influenced their peers and the generations that followed in their wake. It was only fitting that they went into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame together in 2015, along with Firefall and Manassas. As we talked of the early days, and on through the recording of the Circle albums, Hanna’s tone was that of a fan, as if he was a spectator watching his own life story. Pinch me, surely, I must be dreaming?
At their October show in Charlottesville, Virginia, the band seemed to be having the time of their life. Their picking skills and vocal harmonies were spot-on, and they were clearly on a roll, as if the passing years had left no tell-tale sign upon them. They are still vital, and we are better for it. The show that October night emphasized how fluidly the band moved across labels and genres. With the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, it is all about the music, whatever you choose to call it, and it all comes full circle whenever these guys take the stage.
You had a hit with “Buy for Me the Rain” in 1967.
We were a bunch of surfer dudes who loved jug band music. The song charted but the records that followed fell flat. Believe it or not, from mid-’67 to the end of 1968 we released four albums. At the end of ’68 we appeared in a film called Paint Your Wagon.
Saw it in the theater…
My wife and I watched it recently. For a long time, I couldn’t see past the sets and make up. But it’s a really great film. We rented it recently. At the time, it was made it was the most expensive film…it had the largest budget, when they released it in 1969.
But it wasn’t enough to convince you to take Clint Eastwood out on the road with you…
No… (Laughter)…We were huge fans of all three of those actors. Jean Seberg was brilliant…God bless her. Clint Eastwood, I’m a huge fan of his movies, both as an artist and as a director. Lee Marvin was a gas, he was just as funky and salty as you might assume. It was great fun. But again, it was a bunch of kids from Los Angeles being plucked out of Hollywood, and dropped into this beautiful national forest in Oregon for three months. By the time we got back to L.A. we were starting to unravel as a band.
Part of it was different musical directions. Chris Darrow and I started really getting into the country-rock thing. He has a bluegrass background, and he had bought the Bryds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. As a fan of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, as well as a fan of bluegrass, it was easy to see the potential for that. It just wasn’t the right bunch of guys to play that kind of music.
You guys were right in the middle of that scene. You took a more bluegrass turn…
We did. When we got back from Oregon we did a live album and the band broke up at the end of ’68. We were going in three different musical directions. Some of the guys weren’t digging the management scene. It was everything that could break up a band all happening at once. Chris and I went off and started a band called The Corvettes, which was ironic, by the way. A country-rock band called the Corvettes, we thought that was funny. We had a great rhythm section, John London and John Ware who later became The First National Band for Mike Nesmith. Ware went on to play in the Hot Band with Emmylou Harris.
The four of us went at it and Mike Nesmith took an interest in us and he produced four sides on us for…I think it was Dot Records. It was great experience, Mike is a really talented cat. But we didn’t have any gigs, we didn’t have an album, we weren’t getting on the radio. Our old pal Linda Rondstadt said, “I’m looking for a band, would you guys be my band?" And we said yes. The Stone Poneys had just broken up. She loved Chris’ fiddle playing, and she and I had been friends since ’67. It was a great opportunity to be able to sing behind that voice. I’m singing tenor, Chris is playing lead guitar, Ware and London on bass and drums. It was amazing training.
Six or seven months later I ran into John McEuen at a Poco gig and we were saying to each other, “We can do this.” We just had to figure out how to re-imagine the band…to rebuild it. So, Les Thompson, Jimmie Fadden and John and myself formed the Dirt Band. We were looking for a singing drummer, and one of the reasons was that we had such great admiration for Levon Helm. And we loved George Grantham, who was with Poco.
A friend of ours recommended Jimmy Ibbotson, who had just moved to Los Angeles from New Castle, Indiana for fame and fortune. We met Ibby at a good time, he was looking for a gig and he sat down and…yeah, he could sing and play. What we didn’t know until that rehearsal was over was that he could play guitar really well, and bass, piano, and clarinet. And he and I could sing…you know…kind of like our version of the Everly Brothers. It was like a sibling harmony, which was kind of amazing for a guy from Detroit and a guy from Philly. We hit it off big time. The chemistry was there. He was a good hang, too, we all got along great. We began rehearsing for the album that would become Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy. That was late summer of ’69.
The first Will the Circle Be Unbroken album has a tendency to dwarf, unfairly, some of your other work. There were such great songs on Uncle Charlie. It was almost like you stamped your musical DNA on vinyl. Every iteration of your career was there in seed form, rock, bluegrass, straight country, folk-rock.
The first song we worked out was “Some of Shelley’s Blues” which I used to sing with Linda every night on stage. It was that Mike Nesmith tune. And then Jimmy Ibbotson says “I know this kid who is really a great writer. He’s just starting out…his name is Kenny Loggins.” We cut four or five of Kenny’s songs on the album. We didn’t do a lot of original material on that record. There was also a lot of between song chatter on that album, which is sort of charming I think. It showed everything we did from the Cajun things to our take on 50s rock and roll, without being kitschy. We came up with our own country-rock version of Buddy Holly’s hit “Rave On.”
Jimmie Fadden and I played wash tub bass and wash board on some of the bluegrass stuff, which was a nod to our jug band roots. So we had the five-string banjo, a little mandolin, a little dobro, some fiddle… I think the mountain sound in our music is what set us apart from Poco or the Burritos. There was plenty of room on that musical bus.
Poco, at that time, had some mandolin and banjo on their records, but mostly it was pedal steel.
I always thought of Poco as…and I say this as a compliment…kind of like The Beatles with steel guitar. They had those beautiful harmonies and there was a huge thread of Buffalo Springfield in there with Richie. And they had all these great singers, Randy Meisner, later Tim Schmidt, and always George Grantham. Messina, and later Paul Cotton, I’m still a huge fan. Those guys are brilliant, man. They have gotten less credit for what they have done, than they deserve. Richie is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because of the Springfield, and yet, Poco has their biggest hit with “Crazy Love” after he was gone. Everybody had left but Rusty and Paul when they had that big hit.
The Flying Burrito Brothers were the classic long-haired honky-tonk band. Those guys were stone country. The way that Chris and Gram sang together, and with Bernie coming in later, it was super cool. A quick six-degrees story for you. After I left the Corvettes, Bernie Leadon took my place. So, he and Chris and John and John became Linda’s band. I was really touched by his comment, because he said, “Thanks for getting me that gig with Linda, thanks for leaving” because that was where he really began honing his electric guitar chops. He was, at that point, mostly a bluegrass guitar and banjo picker. He said that came in really handy went he went over to the Burritos. After a few months Linda’s got Henley and Frey on the road with her, and then she asked Bernie to come back and, boom, you’ve got the Eagles. Life is funny.
You guys, as a band, have always had a knack for recording your own great songs, but also for demonstrating great instincts when it comes to picking material from outside writers.
Thank you very much. The simple version of that is…this is another example of Linda’s influence on me. As time goes on it becomes more important that you write your own songs. But back when we made the shift to country-rock and were becoming what we are, it was like…when you find a great song like “Mr. Bojangles” when we recorded it only Jerry Jeff Walker and Nina Simone had recorded it at that point. Now, years later, scores of artists have recorded that tune. I am so thankful to be associated with that hit. We had songs by Jerry Jeff, Michael Nesmith, Kenny Loggins, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, and Randy Newman on that album. It was an eclectic mix. But we didn’t have any songs by Jimmy Ibbotson, who, arguably, if not the best writer, is one of the best writers our band has ever had. We did some of his stuff on the next record along with some of mine and started opening that (songwriting) door.
So, after Uncle Charlie comes Will the Circle Be Unbroken, vol. 1. The story goes that John McEuen asked Earl Scruggs to record with the Dirt Band and it grew from there…
That is a version of that story. Here is what happened. We played a gig at Vanderbilt University. Earl came to this show, with his whole family, including his sons, Gary, Randy, and Steve. They were fans, they had the Uncle Charlie album and dug it. We were backstage after the show and Earl said something to John. He said something like, “You played ‘Randy Lynn Rag” the way I intended it to be played.”
High praise indeed…
John’s feet were off the floor for a while. As they were leaving that night, Earl said something like, “If you guys would ever like to cut a track, I’d love to get in the studio with you.” We all filed that away as something that would be cool to do. John’s brother Bill was our producer at the time. As far as I know, he came up with this concept of doing a record with these people who were our heroes. Bill and John had this bluegrass background. They were all over Jimmy Martin, I didn’t really know who he was. Bill called us all up and asked us what would we think about doing this record.
Personally, I was thinking, why would we want to do this, we have a hit record on the charts. Bill said, “Trust me. You’ll thank me later.” So I said I was willing to follow his lead. It wasn’t hard to get us to sign on. I mean, come on, getting to hang out with Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Merle Travis?
So John and I went to see Earl play a club in Boulder in the winter of ’71. The Earl Scruggs Revue was playing. So, on the drive to take Earl back to his hotel John is sitting in the front seat with Earl, and I’m sitting in the backseat listening to this conversation. “Well, uh, what would you think of making a record with us, Earl?” The way John tells it is great, it involves a lot of stammering.
Earl said he’d be proud to, and so, we had Earl Scruggs. A few weeks later John went to the same club and talked to Merle Watson, Doc’s son, who was a fan of the band. And he told his father, “Daddy, these boys are really good.” Doc said “If you got Earl, sign me on.” We knew Merle Travis already, we had played with him when we were a jug band.
So John and Bill went to our record label, United Artists, and explained the concept to the record company president. His reaction was much like mine, he said we should be in the studio doing a follow up to Uncle Charlie. But he gave us a budget of thirteen, fourteen thousand, and his blessing. We came to Nashville in August of ’71. We went into Woodland Sound Studio and started rolling tape. The entire project took a week to record, most of the time was editing all those takes.
One significant thing that happened, we took a meeting with Roy Acuff on the front end, hoping we could get him to do this record. He was kind of suspicious. The way he put it was, “I don’t know if I can trust a band that I can’t see their faces.” We were sporting some pretty rocking beards in those days. We were covered in hair, the prototypical west coast hippies. He wanted to think about it. We didn’t think we stood much of a chance with him. So, one day we were doing the Merle Travis tracks, and he came into the studio at the end of the day and he asked Bill to play him something. We were all holding our breath. I think Bill played him “Nine Pound Hammer.” Roy said, “That ain’t nothing but country, I’ll be here tomorrow. Be ready.” It was so cool.
We were into the process a couple of days when Earl asked how we would feel if Mother Maybelle Carter joined in. We had all learned the Carter scratch when we were kids learning how to play “Wildwood Flower.” It was beyond hero worship. We were so stoked to make that record. John gets a lot of credit for that because he was the grassiest guy in the band. He and Les, together, were the grassiest guys in the band. We all admired Earl and Doc and Maybelle. But when it came to John and Earl in there playing banjo it was pretty stunning.
The impact of that record, later, was really interesting for us. We were listening to the playbacks thinking, dang, that’s good. We were very pleased with the results. Later, to have people say things like we were bridging a cultural divide, or a generational gap, was very rewarding. To hear people say things like my dad and I weren’t talking because I liked that damned rock and roll and he was a country guy…it was really touching. The war between the hippies and the rednecks…it seemed to put a fork in that for a while. That generation of musicians were really welcoming, very gracious.
Dylan gets a lot of credit for paving the way. He came to Nashville to record Blonde on Blonde. It was pivotal. Fast forward; the first time we met, Bruce Springsteen brought up something really cool. He talked about how Circle I was something of a primer for him on that kind of music.
If you had gone into the studio trying to create a cultural event, you probably would not have made as good a record.
I agree. That’s the point. With anything related to art you can really over think it. If we had gone into it with that goal it wouldn’t have happened.
How did Circle II come about?
We were on tour with Johnny and June Carter Cash, I think we were in Switzerland. She came to our dressing room and was talking about how much Maybelle admired us. She called us, “them dirty boys,” with a smile on her face. And then she said, in passing, “If you ever think of doing a second Circle record John and I would be proud to take part in that.” That was seventeen years later. We had thought, why would we do a second one. We had resisted the concept. Would it almost be …sacrilegious…to do another one? But with John and June’s blessing…
How could you pass on that invitation?
Exactly. When we got to Nashville (for Circle I) Earl really had a lot to do with smoothing the way for us, he got Junior Huskey to play bass, Vassar Clements to play fiddle, He made these introductions around town, saying, “These boys are good boys.” With Randy Scruggs producing Circle II with us, it had a little more of a singer songwriter vibe to it. We had John Prine, Bruce Hornsby and John Hiatt…
McGuinn and Hillman…
Right. We got to do one of our favorite songs, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” how cool was that? To do a sort of grassy version of that. Later that became a top ten country single for us. We all knew Chris Hillman by that point, and we had always looked up to Roger McGuinn. What a brilliant guy. Circle II has a little more bass and drums than the first one but overall, with Johnny Cash and the Carter Sisters, Levon Helm and Hornsby we really had something unique.
Hornsby had been interviewed in some music magazine for an article on desert island discs. And, if memory serves me right, I think he said Will the Circle Be Unbroken was one of his favorites. “The Valley Road” was a hit at the time. I asked him how he knew the Circle record. He said, “Are you kidding me? Me and my brother John sneaked into one of your shows.” They just picked up some gear and brought into the venue, they were college kids. I think it was at William and Mary.
We won a Grammy award for bluegrass recording for “The Valley Road.”. We were very proud of that, and it had piano on it. That caught more than a little shit from the traditionalists. Hornsby is one cool cat…the work he has done with Ricky Skaggs over the years…he is seriously committed to that music.
The idea for Circle III came about when the remastered 25th anniversary edition of Circle I came out. We took it back to a more traditional bluegrass route with Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Del McCoury and others. It was great to get to play with Del and Ronnie and Rob. Taj Mahal, our old pal was someone who we always had wanted to record with, from back in our days in LA when we were playing clubs with him. Jimmy Martin and Earl Scruggs were on all three records. It was very moving to see a lot of those players, who were getting on in years, gathered together in the studio.
I want to go back to the Acoustic album. You always joke about no one having heard it. But it was a great album front to back. You guys really made a landing with the Uncle Charlie record, and bringing in all those outside writers, playing other people’s stuff. And then you record the Acoustic album, that, unfairly, doesn’t get the notice it deserves. But in the process, you have one of your biggest hits when someone else records your material…
“Bless the Broken Road.” Marcus Hummon, Bobby Boyd and I wrote that one. We turned that album into our record company and they said they didn’t hear a single. At that time in the early nineties, it wasn’t like we were swinging for the fences trying to get on country radio. People really loved that song. We got letters asking for the sheet music because they wanted to sing it at their wedding. The story resonated with them. A number of people wanted to record it. Melodie Crittenden recorded it, but just as it was being released her record label went belly up. So, it just sat on the shelf for some years. I think Bette Midler was interested in it, Bonnie Raitt…Brooks and Dunn wanted to record it.
Then I got word that Rascal Flatts had recorded it. Ten years later it was a hit song. It was a big record for them, nominated for Song of the Year by the CMA and won a Grammy for Country Song of the Year. We didn’t set out to write a hit single, we were just talking about our personal lives. As a music fan, myself, it is touching when someone says that something you have done mattered to them. I get it. I mean, the impact that music has had on me has been profound.
The new record and dvd, Circlin’ Back is a great career retrospective. It features some great highlights from the Circle records and mileposts from your history that spans a half century.
Thank you. You know, you could say that we threw ourselves a birthday party and invited a bunch of friends. But each of those people either recorded with us or deeply influenced us.
It was great to see Ibby singing with you guys again.
It was really wonderful having him up there. It was a special moment for all of us.