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.
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.