All Acoustic Instruments and Kitchen Utensils: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band History With Jeff Hanna

With half a century of music and friendship, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band continues forward with Circlin' Back.
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Circlin' Back: Celebrating 50 Years

It’s nearing the end of an hour-long conversation when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna announces that he’s due for a shower before sound check. What’s intended to be a conversation about the group’s Circlin’ Back: Celebrating 50 Years CD/DVD package becomes a long trip through the outfit’s rich and sometimes tumultuous history. One might say that there have been various Nitty Gritty Dirt Bands and not just because of shifting personnel. What started as a jug band became a slightly more pop-oriented endeavor, then a stalwart supporter of country music traditions that appealed to a rock audience, then a mainstay country act that drew on a rock crowd. Today, one can easily view Hanna and his bandmates as standard bearers in the wide open ranges of Americana.

Though there are hit songs and influential albums, the real legacy of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is probably in the unexpected ways it has smashed boundaries while celebrating tradition and embraced tradition while recognizing that music must change in order to stay alive. The evidence is there across Celebrating 50 Years, which finds the group joined by friends such as Jackson Browne, Jerry Jeff Walker, Vince Gill, Sam Bush, John Prine, Alison Krauss and former member Jimmy Ibbotson.

The repertoire reflects the confluence of American music that Nitty Gritty has practiced for all these decades. Recorded at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville before an enthusiastic crowd, these recordings show a vital, thriving group of music veterans in full command of their craft. Joining Hanna in the current lineup are multi-instrumentalists John McEuen and Jimmie Fadden, there from the earliest moments, as well as longtime member Bob Carpenter. The project was filmed in late 2015, just on the cusp of the half century celebration.

The intention, Hanna recalls, was that the band wanted to commemorate their history and bring along the friends who’d been pivotal to Nitty Gritty’s success.

Walker wrote what is probably the group’s most recognizable tune, “Mr. Bojangles”, while Browne was actually there at the start. He contributes a version of his own “These Days”, said to have been written when he was 17, as well as “Truthful Parson Brown”, which dates to the 1920s. “There are people who don’t realize that Jackson was in the band,” Hanna says, casting his mind back to those early days.

The seeds for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were planted while Hanna and his friend Bruce Kunkel were still in high school and first pursuing their musical dreams. “We had the classic Mighty Wind kind of folk duo,” he recalls. He became familiar with some other players, including Steve Noonan, who wrote what would become the first Nitty Gritty single, “Buy For Me the Rain”. “When we met, I said, ‘You write great songs. He said, ‘You should meet my friend Jackson.’ He’s 15 and he writes better songs than I do. He was a really cool cat and always like this 30-year-old guy, an old soul, as they say. He had a sense of imagery and melody that was so beyond his years,” Hanna adds.

Though Kunkel and Hanna remained friends, high school graduation sent them scattering, momentarily, in different directions. Kunkel went away to a four-year college while Hanna enrolled at Long Beach City College, still finding time to play guitar and hook up with founding Dirt Band members Ralph Barr and Les Thompson. Kunkel would cut class to join them at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Long Beach.

“They had this back room where you could just sit around a table and pull really nice guitars off the wall,” Hanna recalls. The friends would jam on tunes from Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt and as those sessions progressed to talk of putting a band together, nearly everyone agreed that they didn’t want drums, bass or electric guitars involved. Hanna suggested jug band music as he’d already had a high school jug band. Jimmie Fadden soon joined the ranks, playing harmonica and washtub bass, just as the newly-formed group began taking to the stage for open mic nights at The Paradox in Tustin, California. Browne, who namechecks the place in the tune “Barricades of Heaven” from his 1996 record Looking East, heard the music and asked to join. “We said, ‘Yeah, that’d be great,'” Hanna recalls. “Plus, he was a chick magnet.”

Within a few months, Browne was on his way to other pastures, making the way for Thompson’s friend John McEuen to find his way to the stage. Though many think of the 1960s as a time for British Invasion music and psychedelic experiments, jug bands were another part of the musical landscape: As the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was finding its legs, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions was busy become the Grateful Dead. John Lennon and Paul McCartney had cut their teeth on the English equivalent of jug band music, skiffle before The Beatles. “It was a common thing,” Hanna says.

Common or uncommon, it was working. “We had a great following when we got signed,” he adds. “We were really lucky that. People were lining up around the block to hear this bunch of hipster kids playing this archaic music that was written in the ’20s and ’30s. All acoustic instruments and kitchen utensils.”

The buzz soon attracted the attention of Liberty Records, who came courting with a record contract. It was, Hanna recalls, an uncomfortable pairing. “They immediately wanted to change what we did. Typical,” he says. “They asked, ‘Do you have any folk rock music?’ We said, ‘We’re a jug band.'” The label pushed, suggesting that jug band music wasn’t ready for radio. “We said, ‘What about the Lovin’ Spoonful?’ They said, ‘You’re not the Lovin’ Spoonful.'”

There were some other, not uncommon, blows dealt to the young players. “We’d show up to the studio and the Wrecking Crew would be there with charts,” the singer recalls. What jug band music did get recorded always featured additional instrumentation. “Those cats were great but it never did sound like we did by ourselves.”

Still, some good did come of all the work. The aforementioned “Buy For Me the Rain”, which leads off the 1967 self-titled record became popular almost overnight on both coasts. The success proved intoxicating. “We were already cocky teenagers, so we just said, ‘That was easy.'”

Easy, but not permanent. Trouble was soon afoot and in place that neither the group nor its label could have anticipated. The problem came in the form of the single’s B-side, a take on the Rev. Gary Davis’ “Candy Man”. “In 1967 there was a big bunch of stations in the South and Midwest owned by this one guy,” Hanna recalls, “one his program directors came home one night and his 14-year-old daughter was playing ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’. He went ballistic the next day, wrote a letter to the owner, and said, ‘This trash is polluting the youth of America.'”

The casualties of the program director’s rage included the classic track from the Stones, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ “Devil in a Blue Dress”, “Strawberry Fields” and “Candy Man”. The offensive line? “I’d do anything in this god almighty world to have the candy man home.”

“That,” Hanna says, citing the program director’s logic, “was blaspheming”.

As quickly as the song rose it also fell as 150 stations dropped it from rotation. “To this day, if someone knows that single, it’s usually someone from New York, Boston or up and down the West Coast.”

“The only upside to it being banned was that Time and Newsweek wrote an article about it and mentioned us in the same space as the Beatles and the Stones,” Hanna says. “We thought that was damn cool.”

There were two more records for Liberty, including 1968’s Rare Junk, the first with Chris Darrow, who stepped in for Kunkel. Darrow had come from Kaleidoscope, which also featured further Browne collaborator David Lindley. “Kaleidoscope was like an early world music band, they had influences from bluegrass to raga to Turkish music,” says Hanna. “The guys in Led Zeppelin loved that band.” Darrow played a variety of instruments, including mandolin and immediately integrated into the band.

The storm surrounding the group seemed to quiet but it did not last. They were soon tapped to appear in the Lee Marvin/Clint Eastwood vehicle Paint Your Wagon. “It took us out of the teeming heart of Los Angeles and put us in the tranquil forest of Oregon,” Hanna says. For three months, no less. “We were a bunch of young guys. ‘You wanna go hiking?’ ‘No! We want a beer!'”

Whatever the internal tensions were, they became increasingly apparent when everyone returned to Los Angeles. Dates with Poco did little to lift internal spirits. “It was so exciting and yet depressing to hear these guys that were really excited about what they were doing. We’d go on after them and were anything but excited about what we were doing,” recalls Hanna.

The in-concert platter Alive was tracked during that time, but Nitty Gritty folded by the time the sound of the crowd dimmed in everyone’s ears. Hanna teamed with Darrow for the country rock outfit The Corvettes and brought Monkee Mike Nesmith in to produce. Also joining them were guitarist Bernie Leadon (the Eagles) as well as drummer John Ware and bassist John London. The Corvettes weren’t racing up the charts and soon everyone was backing Linda Ronstadt.

“That was an amazing experience because I’d been friends with Linda since 1967, always admired her music and, like every kid in America, had a crush on her,” Hanna says. “It was great singing with her. Imagine honing your chops as a harmony singer in her band.”

The Ronstadt dates continued for half a year but on a night off at the Long Beach club the Golden Bear, Hanna bumped into McEuen. Both on hand to see Poco, the pair began chatting about putting the Dirt Band back together. As the plans were coming together, Darrow decided he wanted to stay with Ronstadt’s group. Hanna and McEuen were keen to bring in a singing drummer, having witnessed the appeal of Poco’s George Grantham and the Band’s Levon Helm.

Enter Jimmy Ibbotson.

Ibbotson had just graduated from college and made his way to California in search of stardom. “That wasn’t quite working out for him,” Hanna says, “so the timing was perfect.” He did a brief audition on drums and was hired on the spot. But it was later, Hanna recalls when the two spent a few days playing guitar and singing together that they had a deeper bond. “We were like brothers from another mother,” he says. “I think that’s when the Dirt Band really became the Dirt Band.”

There were some details left to work out, though. The group renegotiated its deal with Liberty, with the understanding that manager Bill McEuen would also serve as producer. Soon, everyone began preparing to record the album Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy, which featured not only songs from Randy Newman and Kenny Loggins but the tune that would become forever synonymous with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles”.

The song is now, of course, firmly embedded in the minds and ears of music lovers around the world but at the dawn of the 1970s, it was little more than a somewhat obscure tune by an obscure singer and writer who’d released his own version in 1968 to little notice. Driving home from a rehearsal at a warehouse owned by Les Thompson’s jukebox distributing father, Hanna found himself tuning into a freeform FM station just in time to hear the very tail of the song. He didn’t need to hear it all to be overwhelmed by the tune’s emotional heft.

Then, it was gone.

“The DJ didn’t back announce it,” he recalls. “They went straight into Jimi Hendrix or something else.” When he arrived at the warehouse the next day he began describing the tune to his bandmates. Soon Ibbotson was exclaiming that he knew exactly the song his friend was describing. “He runs out to his Dodge Dart, pops the trunk, under the wheel well, spare tire, in a little puddle of rusty water is a 45 of ‘Mr. Bojangles,'” Hanna recalls. “A woman in Newcastle, Indiana had given him that record and said something prophetic like, ‘You may need this someday.’ Seriously.”

They scrambled to find a turntable the could play the abused record on, putting coins on the arm to weigh the needle down and began picking out the tune, Ibbotson transcribing the lyrics. They worked fast, even missing a couple of lines, then went on to record it. “We were heavily influenced by The Band on that one,” Hanna says. “I was huge fan of how they used the accordion and mandolin, things like ‘Rag Mama Rag’. We thought we had found this art piece. It was a beautiful four-minute waltz about an old guy and a dog. We weren’t thinking that the kids were gonna dig it.”

It comes late in the running order on the album, well after Nesmith’s “Shelly’s Blues” and somewhere around the Loggins tune “House at Pooh Corner.” It was a fairly inauspicious placement for the song, which was passed over in favor of “Shelly’s Blues” as the first single. That song struggled in the charts, meeting a mostly indifferent audience while a radio station in Shreveport, Louisiana began playing “Bojangles” as a deep cut late at night. It became something of a guarantee that the phone lines would light up when it played with people calling to put a name to what they’d just heard. Soon, regional promoters were phoning Los Angeles, wondering when the song would be available as a single.

“We thought our career was over. Not only did we have one song that was not quite hitting but now we had another song we’d thought was too good for radio,” Hanna says. “We were so damn wrong.”

It climbed into the Top 10 and remained on the charts for more than half a year and at the core of the group’s repertoire. Hanna remains grateful to the song and its writer and adds that Walker often credits the hit with changing the direction of his life and career.

“John McEuen told me that Jerry Jeff said it was the success of that song with our kind of band that prompted him to move to Austin from the Northeast,” the singer says.

Austin in the early 1970s…

Austin in the early 1970s was becoming its own hotbed of musical activity. Willie Nelson would eventually leave Nashville for the Texas city and his arrival helped usher in a new age of music there as did venues such as the Armadillo World Headquarters. The venue, which closed in 1980, became a draw not only with audiences but performers as well, with legend going that some acts would turn down gigs in larger rooms in favor of the cache the Armadillo carried.

Housed in a defunct National Guard armory, the room welcomed hippies and rednecks alike. “They would come there and become best friends,” Hanna recalls. “And you could drink a lot of Lone Star or Shiner Bock for one dollar. It was like someone said, ‘Let’s take a Texas dance hall tradition and meld it with [San Francisco’s] the Family Dog and the Fillmore.”

The road became a familiar place for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and, riding high on the success of a major chart single, the group made its next album, All The Good Times, then another one that would change American music forever. Released in late 1972 Will The Circle Be Unbroken brought Hanna and the others together with seasoned players such as Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, “Mother” Maybelle Carter and Vassar Clements. Featuring new renditions of classic Americana pieces “Tennessee Stud”, “I Saw the Light” and others, the album shined the light on country and bluegrass without irony or the trappings of pop music.

“Part of it was, honestly, knowing that we’d get to hang out with those players,” recalls Hanna. “Earl brought Maybelle in. He asked if we’d like to record with her and we couldn’t say yes fast enough. But we knew Merle Travis and had opened for him in Los Angeles during the jug band days.”

It didn’t hurt that some of the players were parents to children who were listening to the Dirt Band. During road work for Uncle Charlie the group stopped for a show at Vanderbilt University, which Scruggs attended as his sons were Nitty Gritty fans. They’d played their father the rendition of “Randy Lynn Rag”, which appeared on the same album that brought “Mr. Bojangles” into the spotlight. “We played it every night and after Earl heard us he told John [McEuen], ‘You played that the way I intended it to be played.’ John almost fainted.”

Scruggs offered to record a tune or two when time allowed but manager Bill McEuen hatched a different idea: Get the Dirt Band and its heroes in the same room for a full-on album. He and John McEuen approached United Artists with the idea and although the label was skeptical, the pair was soon presented with a budget. The music was tracked in Nashville, which kept costs down as most of the elder players already lived there. Though the Scruggs family was generous and eager to do what they could, Roy Acuff was reluctant.

“We took a meeting with him and he didn’t get it. The hippie divide was still there with him,” says Hanna. “But he came in the studio while we were recording with Merle Travis and said, ‘Well, that ain’t nothing but country. I’ll be here tomorrow.'” In all, the recording took six days for more than 30 songs, all done live. “If we screwed up, we had to start over, so there’s a sense of spontaneity throughout the whole thing.”

Bill McEuen ran a separate tape recorder which captured conversations that took place between tracking, editing it together seamlessly with the performances. “We got Doc Watson and Merle Travis meeting for the first time and Doc telling Merle that he’d named his son after him,” Hanna points out. He adds, “I can step back and really be a fan of that record. It’s a masterpiece, in my opinion. It was a wonderful ride to be on.”

The record presented the legendary players to a rock audience, but more than that it probably also helped generate wider interest in bluegrass. Hanna points out that there were pockets of bluegrass festivals around the country in the early 1970s but it remained very much a niche music. Nitty Gritty would sometimes land on those bills, surprising audiences. “They would expect a bluegrass band and we never were a bluegrass band,” the singer says. “We were a band that played bluegrass. On the other hand, the Earl Scruggs Revue, which he put together with his boys and Josh Graves and Vassar Clements, was also a country rock bluegrass hybrid as well. We actually played a lot of gigs with those guys. It was really at the front end of what became newgrass.”

Hanna says is that he encounters numerous musicians each year who cite it as an influence. “When I met Bruce Springsteen he said it was an eye-opener for him. We just wanted to make a really good record and honor the music that these folks represented,” he says. “We also wanted to explain, through that recording, how important that music was to us.”

He adds, “The real impact of the record didn’t reach us until we started getting letters that said, ‘My dad and I didn’t talk for years but we listened to this record together and have started a dialogue again.’ There were two gaps to bridge that I think that record made some serious inroads on: The cultural gap of hippies and rednecks, this was during the Vietnam War, and also the generation gap. So, to have people bonding and to bring families together, that’s unbelievable.”

The group continued writing and recording for the rest of the decade, briefly becoming The Dirt Band and undergoing a series of lineup changes and a few modifications to its sound. Celebrating 50 Years features a guest appearance from Rodney Crowell who wrote what became the title tune for 1979’s An American Dream. The album saw the band straddling the line once more between the rock and country worlds with a song about escaping to the Caribbean.

“Rodney calls his version the world’s greatest demo,” cracks Hanna. The song appeared on the acclaimed songwriter’s 1978 album Ain’t Living Long Like This, which featured a number of songs that went on to become hits for other artists, including “Elvira” written by Dallas Frazier and later covered by the Oak Ridge Boys as was Crowell’s own “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight”.

One of the final touches with the tune became the addition of a female voice. Hanna and producer Bob Edwards reached out to Nicolette Larson, who’d sung on Crowell’s album, but she declined. Edwards suggested Ronstadt who was at the peak of her success. Hanna wasn’t sure that she’d lend her talents to the tune but she quickly agreed, delivering the final performance in one shot. It placed the band back on the charts with its biggest hit since “Bojangles”, embraced by both country and Top 40 stations. The following year, the group released the album and single Make a Little Magic (featuring Nicolette Larson) and watched as the single climbed into both charts.

“We saw what was going on in the country world and said, ‘Hmmm, I think they kind of like us,'” Hanna says. 1980 marked the year that the band fully embraced Nashville and its identity as a country act, with hits such as “Dance Little Jean”, “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)”, and “Fishin’ in the Dark”.

It was, in some ways, the band’s biggest decade. Other acts from the 1960s entered the ’80s out of touch with trends and their audience, but Hanna says that his group landed in the right place at the right time. “I think our sound suited where country was right then,” he notes, “radio was playing bands like Alabama and Alabama’s sound was really similar to what we were doing in 1969-1970. Of course, having done Will The Circle Be Unbroken gave us a back stage pass for country as well. They let us in the door, which we’re super grateful for.”

Hanna and his bandmates continue forging forward, making more music and, along the way, history with others coming through the door and celebrating the rich streams of American music.