PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
February 17, 2009

Gettin' Down to the Nitty Gritty

by Jim Newsom

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has covered a lot of ground since its first paid gig in 1966. Their first single, “Buy For Me the Rain,” was a folk-rock hit in 1967; they struck middle-of-the-road gold with “Make a Little Magic” in 1980; they lived at the top of the country charts from 1983 to 1989 with songs like “Fishin’ in the Dark” and “Baby’s Got a Hold on Me.” And they created a franchise of their own with the Will the Circle Be Unbroken trilogy of albums.

But for the Woodstock generation, the Dirt Band established itself with an album called Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, released in the fall of 1970.

“That’s the benchmark record for the band,” founding member Jeff Hanna told me early this month from his home in Nashville. “Even though we started recording in ’67, it wasn’t until we cut that record that we got a chance to really make a record that was true to us.

“Our template was country rock/The Band. I thought The Band was a more mountainy version of country-rock at the time. We idolized them, but we had more of a bluegrass bent than they did. It felt more west coast and Poco-y to us at that point. But that combination, combined with some Cajun fiddle on top of it, kind of defined what we were at that point.

“I’m really proud of that record because it was our record. And as proud and grateful as I have been of the Circle records we’ve done over the years—and those will always be in the first line linked to our name—in terms of just strictly Dirt Band music, I thought the Uncle Charlie album really nailed it.”

The driving force behind the success of that recording was their cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” You couldn’t turn on a radio in the early months of 1971 without hearing Hanna’s voice reciting the tale of a down-on-his luck street dancer in a New Orleans jail cell.

“I heard part of Jerry Jeff’s version on FM radio late one night driving back from rehearsal,” he recalled. “I came into the rehearsal space the next day—it was actually a juke box factory—I walked in and said, ‘Guys, I heard this song and it’s so great.’ And [former bandmember] Jimmy Ibbotson said, ‘I think I know what you’re talking about.’

“So we went out to his car, a Dodge Dart, opened the trunk and he had this 45 that a woman in Indiana had given him before he drove out to California to be a star. It was a scratched up, no-sleeve record of ‘Mr. Bojangles.’ We listened to it on a juke box, with a stack of pennies on the needle, and we got some of the words wrong. ‘Spoke right out,’ we didn’t hear it right, but I think people dug ‘the smoke ran out,’ you know, hippie era.”

Hanna and his longtime bandmates Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter and John McEuen recently finished a new album for release this spring, Speed of Life. They’ll preview some of those songs and serve up a heapin’ helpin’ of favorites from the last forty years Saturday night at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts. Besides “Mr. Bojangles” and “Fishin’ in the Dark,” they’ll definitely play “Bless the Broken Road,” a song Hanna co-wrote that won the Grammy for 2005 Country Song of the Year.

“I had this lucky stroke,” he said, “where this song that we recorded back in 1994…It became this thing where people went, ‘that’s our song.’ In the world of relationships, anyone that didn’t get it right the first time can really relate. Then Rascal Flatts had this hit of it three years ago, and that changed the life of it.

“On top of that, Carrie Underwood, who was an American Idol contestant that year, did the song twice on American Idol. I had people calling me up about that. But, hell, it just got exposed to another fifty million people tonight!”

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts
Saturday, February 21 – 8:00 pm

copyright © 2009 Jim Newsom. Used by Permission.