There are few bands as influential in modern country and rock music as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Aside from a series of collaborations with storied and legendary performers, the band has carved its path as a country rock touchstone since its inception in 1966. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band will be coming to the Ford Center on Oct. 29 to put on a show encompassing songs from their discography spanning more than 50 years. To welcome the band to Oxford, I sat down over Zoom with Jeff Hanna, a co-founder of the group and a lead vocalist, to ask him some questions about the band’s illustrious history.
Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me today.
Jeff Hanna: Of course.
Looking back on your vast catalog, is there a project you particularly enjoyed working on or enjoy listening to?
Hanna: Y’know, it’s like … choosing who your favorite child is. They all have their own appeal for different reasons. Of course, the “Will the Circle be Unbroken” projects, the first one which came out 50 years ago, has a huge presence in my life and I actually really enjoy listening to it.
Why is that a particular favorite for you?
Hanna: Just working with all our friends, or I guess guests who became our friends. Folks like Earle Scruggs, Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Merle Travis and Jimmy Martin. Just an incredible bunch of folks and we were all so lucky. We were just in our early 20s as we did that record, and getting to go in the studio and just hang out with those icons of American music and just make a record. The conversation you hear between a lot of the tracks on the first “Circle” album really puts you in the middle of the room.
On the topic of collaborations, in the band’s career you’ve actually collaborated with a large number of artists that are household names. Johnny Cash, John Prine and Levon Helm of “The Band”, just to name a few. In all of these years of collaborations, who did you enjoy working with the most?
Hanna: Well, that’s a tough question, y’know? I mean, those three folks right there were amazing. Now, Johnny Cash was kind of part of a “throughline” with Mother Maybelle Carter on the first “Circle” record. Johnny was married to June Carter, Maybelle’s daughter, so that ongoing familial connection was really great.
I mean, he was Johnny Cash, but I gotta tell you, every one of those folks, they were all so down to earth. You walk in a room and you see Johnny Cash and you know he’s there. It was pretty incredible. Levon Helm was one of our all-time favorites. When we listened to that “Music from Big Pink” album that The Band put out in 1968, that was a life-changing event for all of us. We loved that record.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band borrowed one or two tricks from “The Band” as far as shaping our sound around our influences, and those guys were so great at it, and Levon was at the center of it. His drumming and singing were just incredible, and he was just a great guy.
We got to have him collaborate with us on the second “Circle” record, and later in his life we went up to Woodstock and got to play one of his “Levon Helm Midnight Ramble” shows at his studio up there. Outside of the “Circle” records, we’ve had the honor of singing with people like Linda Ronstandt and Nicholette Larson, and of course, my wife, the very talented Matraca Berg. On the “Dylan” record we released, we had Jason Isbell, Rosanne Cash, Michael and Tanya Trotter and Steve Earle.
Wow, that’s quite the list. How do you feel about having had the opportunity to collaborate with so many of these great artists?
Hanna: I pinch myself a lot. I consider myself so lucky. Our band has been so fortunate to rub musical shoulders with these incredible people, and I think that’s the beauty of playing music for a living.
We all cross paths, there’s a lot of great music that gets made in dressing rooms or gets played for the first time on back porches and at pickin’ parties and I think when you bring that out on stage the audience really loves that and finds it really compelling.
So outside of music history and your role in influencing country music, your band has actually played an interesting part in world history. You guys were the first American band to tour the USSR in 1977. I have to ask, what was that experience like? Because, I mean, that’s pretty insane.
Hanna: It was pretty random, right? In ’77, we were the first American rock band to tour the Soviet Union, and that was a big deal for us. It was great, and it was eye-opening, certainly, going from the comfort of our homes in Colorado at the time and the comforts of America to the Soviet Union.
Brezhnev was running the Soviet Union back then, and it was really “hardline” Communist rule. “Hammer and Sickle” and all. The country was pretty shut down, and being able to come in there and make our music and play for folks and expose them to American music.
We played a broad variety of stuff. We had some blues and some R&B along with the country ,rock and roll and the bluegrass and mountain music. We tried to cover as much as we could because here we were, musically representing the U.S.
Most of the people that saw us play across Armenia,Latvia, Soviet Georgia and Russia hadn’t heard our music unless they had heard it over the Voice of America radio station, so it was much more we were like “the band from America” rather than “The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.”
There weren’t a bunch of stations to choose from over there. We were there for about a month, played a big television show, I think around 200 million people watched? Maybe 100 million?
But regardless, as far as state TV went in the USSR, it was pretty much the channel that was on that night. The audiences, we were told going in, would be pretty reserved but they were just the opposite. They were crazed rock and roll fans, and we loved that about it. But we were happy to get home, too. Seeing what it was like living under the weight of that oppression, we were very grateful to come back to the States.
So going back to the more recent “goings on” of the NGDB, you guys recently released a compilation album called “Dirt does Dylan” consisting of a number of covers of songs written by the great Bob Dylan, including “I Shall Be Released,” a song originally written for the aforementioned “Music from Big Pink.” What could you say regarding Dylan’s influence on the band, especially in the early years?
Hanna: For starters, we never really collaborated or hung out with Dylan, but we do have some friends of the band who have done stints in his band, and none of them really hung out with Bob Dylan, either. It kind of keeps with the whole running narrative that, y’know, Bob kind of keeps to himself. The man … his influence is so broad.
As kids, Jimmy Fadden (co-founder of NGDB and good friend of Hanna’s) and I always thought it was a big event when a new Dylan album came out, especially in the earlier acoustic years. When he went electric on Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, we stayed along for the ride. It was Dylan, and we figured, “Oh, if he wants to have a rock band now then great!” and, of course, to back him up in this band he had Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, who we would become fans of a couple years later anyways when they formed “The Band.”
So, yeah, that influence was always there. We decided in late 2019 we wanted to do an album with a single source songwriter, which we hadn’t done before, kind of honoring the music of one singer-songwriter. With Dylan, it made perfect sense because A. we were all into him since our teenage years and B. he covered so many different music styles and the guy’s got hundreds of great songs.
He could be playing gypsy jazz one moment and then a standard like a Sinatra song and then follow it up with straight-up rock and roll. We went in and picked tunes that we felt best suited our band, our dynamic, and it worked out really well. We had such a blast making that Dylan album, and we think most of our fans have definitely felt the love we put into that record. It was the perfect marriage of music with our band on that Dylan record.
Your career now is almost six decades long with a prolific history to back it up, and in that time you’ve toured consistently for its entirety. How do you keep that love for performing music alive?
Hanna: Really the live performance is what does it, and as individuals, we’re all major music fans. On a daily basis, we’re always hearing something that inspires us, whether it’s something from one of the veteran artists that we’ve followed for years or somebody brand new.
I feel that music is a living, breathing organism, so definitely that inspiration. But what really keeps us going is the live performance aspect of it. We love to play. And we see people like our friend Willie Nelson, who is in his 80s, who is just out there kicking butt on stage every night. That’s so inspiring.
But when we do a live show, so much of our energy is the reflective energy and the communal energy that we get from the audience. Having people out there reacting to our music and singing our songs back to us … it’s pretty special. You can’t really quantify it, but that’s like the lifeblood of our band. We love it.
Thank you so much for meeting with me today, sir. It’s been an honor and a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Hanna: Looking forward to coming back to Mississippi to play for y’all.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band will perform at the Ford Center on Saturday, Oct. 29.