"I was levitating,” admits Nitty Gritty Dirt Band leader Jeff Hanna, about sharing the Ryman stage with Jackson Browne, John Prine, Rodney Crowell, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Sam Bush and Jerry Jeff Walker. “It was an out-of-body experience being the beneficiaries of all this love. It’s amazing to think: the band’s been together 50 years. What lasts that long?”
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band endures. Their all-star 50th Anniversary Celebration concert, which kicked off the Americana Music Festival September 14, is turning into a PBS fund-drive windfall special; the three hour show is another bit of music and magic for the little surfer jug band formed in Long Beach, California in 1966.
Rising from the folk movement that embraced blues and bluegrass, fringing the California country rock scene with singer/songwriters Browne, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, the Dirt Band had pop hits a decade apart – and reached out to Nashville’s hardcore community with the generational-bridging Will The Circle Be Unbroken in 1972.
“It was a lot of serendipity,” Hanna says. “We were out touring Uncle Charlie, playing every college campus in America... Earl Scruggs came out to the (Vanderbilt) show with (his wife) Louise and their sons Randy, Gary and Steve. Their sons were fans, and that helped. It was the same with Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin; their kids were all fans – and that brought their parents out.
“Anyway, Earl complimented John (McEuen) on how he played (the banjo), said ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we picked in the studio some time?’ Our ears all perked up. I mean, Earl Scruggs? He invented the Scruggs style of playing banjo. So Earl was the seed out of which Circle was born.”
What people don’t understand now is what – beyond the music and its inclusion in the Grammy Hall of Fame – Circle meant in the moment. When the conservative country music community was confronted with “these long hairs,” Nixon was in charge and hippies were the enemy. The NGDB’s genuine love for authentic roots opened doors in Nashville for an album that featured Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, Norman Blake, Bashful Brother Oswald, Scruggs and a reluctant Roy Acuff. Bill Monroe, then 60, refused.
“We had a meeting with Mr. Acuff,” Hanna recalls, “and he wasn’t that impressed. He didn’t like the way we looked. But he came ‘round at the end of the day – and we played him ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ and ‘Nine Pound Hammer.’ He listened, took it in, then said, ‘Well, that ain’t nothing but country music. I’ll be here tomorrow. Be ready.’
“Six days! We cut 33 tracks live to two-track, which is why it sounds so good. Old school, and fast with those great mics at Woodland Studios, which thankfully, is still here.”
Coming off an unlikely pop hit with Jerry Jeff Walker’s waltz about a man and his dog in a New Orleans drunk tank “Mr. Bojangles,” the Dirt Band’s label was hoping for a hit, not another jumble of roots music – even one recorded at the source with the music’s originators. But the band was undaunted.
“We were in the studio with Merle Travis, who invented Travis picking – and Doc Watson, one of the most gifted guitar players ever. Earl Scruggs who created a whole new way of playing the banjo. Maybelle Carter -- and her Carter Scratch – was something we’d all studied...
“To be there, and have Maybelle ask if she could play autoharp on ‘Wildwood Flower’ ‘cause she’d played it enough on guitar... Or seeing Doc to meet Merle Travis for the first time, who he’d named his son for... How do you replace moments like that?”
The road less travelled created a place in history for the Dirt Band. If it meant ten years before another pop hit with Rodney Crowell’s Viola An American Dream, there were bluegrass festivals to play – and more generational blurring to do.
“Circle and what Earl and the Scruggs Family Review did every night onstage really broke down walls between hippie music and hardcore country and bluegrass,” Hanna explains. “Where there were two distinct worlds, it blurred. Flatt & Scruggs were all totally revered by Jerry (Douglas), Sam (Bush), Bela (Fleck), Tony Rice and Mark (O’Connor), but this was something their generation could relate to.
“It wasn’t a hit single like the record company wanted. But in hindsight, it meant a whole lot more.”
After their pop hits — “American Dream” with Linda Ronstadt and “Make A Little Magic” with Nicolette Larson — found country chart success with no promotion, the then Colorado-based group set their sites on Nashville. Though many of the rock-country acts scorned mainstream country, the five-piece came with their hearts wide open, and found Top 10 success with producer Norbert Putnam (Dan Fogelburg, Jimmy Buffett) and another unlikely story song of a jaded singer playing the wedding of a little girl named Jean’s parents.
Suddenly, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was home. After playing shows and festivals with the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, Steppenwolf and Moby Grape, as well as Lightning Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb and recording songs by a teenage Jackson Browne, they realized the impact they’d had without trying.
“We looked around, and Alabama wasn’t that different from what we were doing in the ‘70s. Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill (who’d been in Pure Prairie League, as well as Rosanne Cash’s backing band) were both making records here – and New Grass Revival was what everyone was talking about.
“Circle gave us a pass. We didn’t get the sideways glances a lot of people coming from pop did. After ‘Dance Little Jean,’ we left Liberty... were signed by Warner Brothers, where Emmylou (Harris) and Rodney were. ‘Long Hard Road’ was our first #1, with Ricky Skaggs playing fiddle and Jerry Douglas on dobro. It felt right.”
A string of #1s and Top 5s followed – including “Modern Day Romance,” “I Love Only You,” “Partners, Brothers & Friends,” “Working Man” and a platinum “vintage” single in today’s downloading world “Fishin’ In The Dark.” Just as importantly, the homecoming ignited thoughts of reprising Circle with a new wave of pickers, legends and upstarts.
“Ibby and I fought it,” Hanna says of his own and since departed singer/songwriter Jimmy Ibbotson’s reticence. “You don’t want to trek across holy ground for the sake of some marketing gag. That was a time, and a sacred thing.
“We were in Zurich on tour with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family, and June came into our dressing room. She was telling us how (her mother) Maybelle called us ‘Them Dirty Boys,’ how much she’d loved making Circle... and then she said, ‘If you all ever make another one, John and I sure would love to come be part of it’...”
Hanna’s voice hangs in the air. Whether the ghost of Maybelle Carter working through her daughter, the vote of confidence from a legend or June’s charm, the resistance dropped. Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2, recorded at Scruggs Sound, merged many aspects of the band’s history and country’s future.
Co-produced with Randy Scruggs, many of the originals – Acuff, Vassar Clements, Martin, Scruggs – returned, as well Jr. Huskey’s son Roy Huskey, Jr and Maybelle Carter’s daughters June, Helen and Anita. Contemporaries from Colorado cohort John Denver, California icons Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn, Chicago songwriter John Prine to Woodstock’s NGDB parallel The Band’s Levon Helm and Kentucky ‘grasser Ricky Skaggs were enlisted. Leaning forward, they asked acclaimed songwriter John Hiatt with progressive country’s Rosanne Cash, pop stalwart Bruce Hornsby and equally roots positive Emmylou Harris.
Circle Two won the Country Music Association’s Album of the Year. It also won Best Country Album and Best Bluegrass Performance – with Hornsby for “The Old Valley Road” — at the 1989 Grammys.
“We were more like the grown-ups that time,” Hanna marvels. “We were in our late ‘30s, and we’d seen so much, but we were looking for so much more. We hit our 20 year anniversary, then did Live Two Five in Canada with T-Bone Burnett producing to celebrate that. Thirty came... then the thirtieth anniversary of the original Circle, which was out of print...
“One thing after another. John McEuen, who’d left the band, came back. He was able to help us get the masters, so we could remaster Circle and get the sound right for digital. And we decided to do Circle Three, because there was more music to capture: Willie (Nelson) with Tom Petty, Alison Krauss , Dwight Yoakam, Taj Mahal, Del McCoury and the McCourys... and Johnny Cash, of course.”
Not to mention, Hanna and McEuen’s sons Jaime and Jonathan, who sang Gary Scruggs’ “The Lowlands;” eventually performing the song on “The Tonight Show.” Just as enduringly, when Hanna looks around, he sees those seeds that Earl Scruggs sowed everywhere he looks.
“When I listen to Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, Old Crow and Jason Isbell, it’s everything we were always trying to do,” Hanna marvels. “We were into Chris Stapleton early on... and Nickel Creek... All these young artists digging the roots, trying to honor them and also honor the time they’re in like we were.
“We were sponges, and it came out in our music. Everything we heard – from Appalachia to Southern blues from Mississippi and Alabama, rock & roll from all over the place, especially Sun Records in Memphis and country from the Opry. It’s all we’ve ever done, and 50 years later, you look around: it’s hard to believe all the music we’ve made, people we’ve played with and yet...”
The eternally youthful Grammy-winning songwriter’s eyes sparkle, “I can’t imagine ever stopping. This is the good stuff. Keeping a band together for 50 years is impossible, and yet, we’re still here. Three quarters of this band was together in 1966, and Bob Carpenter, the ‘new’ guy, has been with us 36 years.
“Other than the Stones, the Beach Boys and the Who, I’m not sure who else there is. But you know, it’s not about that; it’s about loving music – and remembering how much the people who come year after year love it, too.”