February 18, 2009

The Circle Remains Unbroken

by Jim Newsom

When the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band comes to the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts Saturday night, they’ll bring with them a long history of music making and a rich catalog of songs and styles to draw from.

“May 6th of ’66,” founding member Jeff Hanna said when he called recently from his home in Nashville. “That’s the first time we played and got paid. We had been doing church basement gigs and talent contests, and at that point we headlined a weekend at this club called the Paradox in Orange, California, a coffee house that held about 150 people.

“We were a jug band back then.”

In little more than a year, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had a hit single and was appearing on national TV shows.

“We did Bandstand in ’67,” he said, “when ‘Buy For Me the Rain’ was a hit. We were still a jug band, but we had a friend named Steve Noonan who had written this song that was more of a folk-rock thing. Our record company at the time didn’t think anybody would play jug band music on the radio. They said ‘go find something else.’ So we looked right in the same room, one of our coffeehouse buddies.

“It became a regional hit—I think it made the Top Ten all up and down the east coast and the west coast; it was number one in L.A. So we pretty much thought we were big shots and indestructible. The mean age of the band was eighteen. Your first single goes to number one!”

It was an auspicious beginning for a band whose career is now in its fifth decade. Three of the four current members were there at the beginning—Hanna, Jimmie Fadden and John McEuen. Keyboardist Bob Carpenter joined in 1977. All but McEuen sing, and all can play a slew of instruments. Reading the credits on their early records, it looks like everybody played everything.

“We were sort of the fire drill going on,” Hanna laughed, “with everybody running around. At one point there were three of us playing drums in our set. Nowadays, Jimmie’s on the drums, but he plays harmonica in time. He’s got this contraption rigged up where he’s got what I call a Burger King mike, a headset microphone and a harmonica rack, and he’s playing drums. You’ll be astounded.

“We’ve got three singers and John plays his butt off on the fiddle, mandolin and banjo. He’s got a whole toy box of stuff, and he just resurrected the lap steel; we hadn’t used that in about 20 years. I’m busy mostly playing some kind of guitar. I’m about 50-50, half electric and half acoustic.

“Bob plays bass with his left hand. We haven’t had an electric bass player for 20 years. We got stuck one weekend because our bass player had quit. Bob got this contraption and took it out on the road—it’s a synth bass but he’s got samples of real bass. We recorded the show and went, geez, we just saved a lot of money. So it’s just four of us making a lot of noise.”

That “noise” is one of the most eclectic mixes in popular music. The band’s discography of hits includes “Mr. Bojangles,” ubiquitous on Top 40 radio in 1971; adult contemporary hits like “Make a Little Magic” and “An American Dream” as the ‘70s turned into the ‘80s; and a long stint at the top of the country charts from 1983 to 1989 with songs like “Fishin’ in the Dark,” “Baby’s Got a Hold On Me” and “Modern Day Romance.”

But it’s probably the band’s troika of Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums that are the band’s best known calling cards. The first, a three-record set released in 1972, introduced a generation of rock-and-rollers to the roots of country music.

“I was a grateful participant in that,” Hanna said. “It was not my idea, it was really [producer] Bill McEuen’s idea, with a lot of input from John and from Earl Scruggs. We were all in the mix on who the guest list was on the record—those were all people who were our idols growing up.

“I was 24 years old when we made that record. I was swooning. I thought I was gonna faint being in a studio with Doc Watson and Mother Maybelle Carter and Earl Scruggs.”

In fact, Jeff Hanna and his bandmates cut their musical teeth on classic bluegrass and country music.

“Oh yeh!” he exclaimed when I asked if he’d always liked country music. “When we started, the concept of us being a jug band was that we wanted a band that played traditional music. We wanted something outside of bluegrass ‘cause we were really digging this music from the ‘20s. But as individuals prior to that, we were all total disciples of Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs; Mississippi John Hurt was one of my heroes, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGehee.

“In terms of country, being from the west coast, every Saturday afternoon there was a TV show called Cal’s Corral, from Cal Worthington Dodge. He had people like the Kentucky Colonels with Clarence White on guitar, a great bluegrass band. That was the first time I ever saw Buck Owens and the Buckaroos on TV; totally blew my mind.

“Aside from records my folks had—Tex Ritter and Gene Autry, the cowboy singers—and the odd Hank Williams song on the radio, I also had an older brother who was a teenager in the ‘50s, and I heard things like Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash that were being played on pop radio back then. But I kinda got there through the back door listening to bluegrass and then going through the modern stuff, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, Merle Travis. My appreciation grew as the limbs of the tree got further out.

“As a kid, if your parents like it, it’s gotta stink. But we didn’t have that element really. I grew up in a house that was Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, that’s what my folks played, and I liked it. We weren’t as inundated with bluegrass and country music as a kid; it was all surf stuff.

“Our band started when we were still teenagers [and] we were kind of rebelling against the pop music of southern California. We didn’t want to be a surf band. And even though we were all closet Beatles and Rolling Stones fans, and we all really loved The Kinks, we didn’t want to do that. We still wanted to remain true to our acoustic roots.”

The band’s breakthrough album, Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, came out in the fall of 1970. Powered by their version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles,” it laid out the diverse model that the group’s best work has followed ever since.

“That’s the benchmark record for the band,” Hanna explained. “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.”

Jeff Hanna’s is the voice heard telling the story of the “down-and-out” street dancer on Uncle Charlie’s signature track. The Dirt Band’s recording of it came about through serendipitous happenstance:

“I heard part of Jerry Jeff’s version on FM radio late one night driving back from rehearsal. 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.

“We apologized to Jerry Jeff and he said, ‘what, are you kidding?’ We bought him a couple of Cadillacs! Of course, we’re really grateful and proud to have the hit. Definitive is arguable because if you go to Texas, we don’t have the definitive version. But if you were a kid in the ‘70s, you certainly remember ours.”

That album was chock full of goodies, including the first recorded version of Kenny Loggins’ “House at Pooh Corner.”

“Jimmy Ibbotson brought us to Kenny Loggins,” Hanna said. “When we started working with Ibby, he said ‘I know this young songwriter who’s got a pile of great songs.’ We recorded four of his songs on Uncle Charlie, and ‘Mississippi Rain’ was written by Danny Lottermoser, who was Kenny’s roommate. I brought the Mike Nesmith stuff in because I’d been working with Linda Ronstadt—the band broke up for the better part of a year and I went to work with her. I started singing ‘Some of Shelley’s Blues’ with her every night. And that was the first thing we worked up when we started the Uncle Charlie record.

“Rave On’ was a great underdone Buddy Holly song. The song was only ten years old when we recorded it. That blows my mind when I think about it!”

Because they’ve covered songs by folks like Loggins, Nesmith, Randy Newman, John Hiatt and Bruce Springsteen, the Dirt Band’s own writers may not have gotten the props they deserve. In fact, all four current bandmembers are potent with the musical pen.

“We’ve all written songs,” Hanna said. “It seems on the records that we’re most proud of, there was an equal measure of interpreting—I’ve always been a big fan of bands that interpreted music, whether it was The Band or people like Linda Ronstadt; a great song is a great song, and if you can make it your own like ‘Bojangles’ or ‘Fishin’ in the Dark’ and some of the Rodney Crowell things we did, if you can make it feel like that suit was tailored to you, then all the better. But the original material is important, and I’m really proud of the hits that the Dirt Band wrote themselves.

“We did every other song in the country hit days; all were number one on the country charts.”

Hanna himself won the 2005 Country Song of the Year Grammy for a song he cowrote called “Bless the Broken Road.” It first appeared on the NGDB’s Acoustic.

“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!”

One little known Jeff Hanna fact is his role in Steve Martin’s hilarious hit single, “King Tut.”

“I was the ‘Toot Uncommons,’” he said with an audible smile. “There were two other guys that were our rhythm section at the time—Merle Briganti and Richard Hathaway—and myself and Steve. It was supposed to be a demo. I played lead guitar, Merle and Steve and I did background vocals, and a friend of ours, Brian Savage, came in and played saxophone on it. We cut this demo in Colorado at Bill’s home studio, and they were supposed to take it out to LA and get the real musicians to play on it. But when they took it to Warner Brothers, they said ‘we’re putting it out just like it is.’

“It was so much fun. I’m sitting in a chair with my electric guitar watching Steve do Steve, with all the gestures, singing. He was way into it. It was a great show. I actually contributed a line to the song: ‘I got a condo made of stone-o.’ That was my line. Steve gave me arranger’s credit on the label.”

As the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band prepared to embark on a two-week run up the east coast that includes Saturday night’s stop in Suffolk, Jeff Hanna was excited about the group’s upcoming album, Speed of Life, due out in May. It’s their first CD in five years.

“I think we got there to a large degree on this one,” he said. “We really wanted to get back to our hippie roots. In typical Dirt Band fashion, it’s all over the map. And it was a blast to make. There’s a couple of old chestnuts and I won’t tell you what they are. And there’s a lot of new stuff from right within the band.”

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

copyright © 2009 Jim Newsom. Used by Permission.