The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (NGDB) has been around since the 1960s. The band lineup has changed over the years, but their amazing music and unique sound remains the same. Today the NGDB is Jeff Hanna (guitars/vocals), Jimmie Fadden (drums/harmonica/vocals), Bob Carpenter (keyboardist/songwriter/vocalist, who joined in 1980), and three new members: fiddle specialist Ross Holmes, singer-songwriter and bass player Jim Photoglo (who wrote one of the Dirt Band’s biggest hits, “Fishin’ in the Dark”), and Jeff’s son, Jaime Hanna (guitars/vocals).
They’ve just put out a new album called Dirt Does Dylan - “a romp through some of the gems in Dylan’s catalog” and Jeff Hanna sat down with us to talk about it, recording songs with music legends, touring with his son and a lot more.
How it Started
He became interested in playing music when he was fourteen. “My friend had an acoustic guitar and I thought that was cool. So we went to some pawn shop to find one. Soon after, we moved to California. My first day of high school I met a guy named Bruce Kunkel and we hit it off right away and became best friends. He was into folk music and acoustic guitar playing as well.”
Bruce showed Jeff a few tricks on the guitar and taught him some chords. “It was probably something by The Kingston Trio “Greenback Dollar” or “Tom Dooley” – that was a revelation, learning where the G, C and D went. That was way better than guitar lessons for me. If I were a kid now picking up an instrument, I’d go to YouTube. There’s so much stuff. You can pick your genre and there’s all kinds of video help and the teachers are brilliant. I learn something every day by just watching folks online posting how to play a riff.”
Jeff and Bruce soon began performing, “backing up folk singers and kind of got the nerve to learn a few songs and play high school assemblies.” It was towards the end of high school, that they ended up in a jug band called the Illegitimate Jug Band, which served as a kind of blueprint for what the NGDB would become. Bruce was an original member of the band as well. “The jug band was what the Dirt Band did for the first three years of our career. We made four albums that were essentially jug band albums – the record companies just cranked them out back then. When John (McEuen) joined us a few months after we got started, he brought his five-string banjo, so we would sprinkle in a little bluegrass in there. We were never a straight bluegrass band, but we did record a lot of bluegrass music, which we all love.”
The Gateway Drug to Folk Music
Live Music Always Wins
“As complicated as streaming music is, because they don’t pay us enough, as a consumer it’s brilliant. We can be sitting around, crack a bottle of wine and do a deep dive on say one of my favorites, Little Feet. They’re out there doing a Waiting for Columbus anniversary tour right now, this great live album they did in the ‘70s. They came to Nashville and I got to see them play a couple of times. I have the Bandsintown app and somebody will be coming through and will sell the concert out and I’m like ‘who are they’, which is great because that’s the quality of incredible music. And live music always wins. There’s no substitute for it and I’m glad we’re finding it manageable to get out and play again and go to shows.
A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
“Ken Burns is such a great filmmaker. There’s a guy named Dayton Duncan, who works very closely with Ken. He’s a writer, and when you hear (narrator/actor) Peter Coyote speaking, a lot of that was written by Dayton. Recording with the Cash family, Roy Acuff and Earl Scruggs was thrilling and scary. When you’re playing with your heroes it can be overwhelming. Thankfully, those three “Circle” (“Will the Circle Be Unbroken”) records we made all came off great. When you’re in a room with folks with that level of talent, like Doc Watson or Earl Scruggs or Mother Maybelle Carter … a rising tide lifts all boats, the level gets raised immediately. It’s like yep, here we go, hang on!”
How It’s Going
With so many amazing songs to choose from, it’s pretty easy for the band to come up with a set list. “There are always core songs we know we can’t get out of the building without playing, but it varies. We’ve got the new record, so we’ll be playing a good slice of those tunes. Sometimes we play to the room as well. If we’re playing a gig like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, we may lean a big harder on the acoustic rootsier stuff. If we’re playing a gig like the one we’ve got coming up in Grand Junction – Country Jam – we’ll lean a little harder on the country hits. There’s a through line with our career that started in folk music and through the bluegrass stuff, the singer/songwriter stuff and the mainstream country – we tend to lean toward the traditional side of that as well. It kind of depends on who we’re playing to. Our favorite example is playing theaters, because if it’s an evening with our band, we try to take the audience’s pulse after a few tunes and see where we go from there.”
Performing is something Jeff and the band love to do. “I’m not really trained to do anything else. Live music is a feeling you just can’t duplicate. It’s like nothing else, going out there and hitting the stage and playing your songs. The energy … if you’ve had a rough travel day, week, month, when you get on stage all that stuff just falls away. The energy the audience brings, the crowd always gives us a shot of adrenaline and good vibes. That’s the part I like the best. It’s a cliché really – they pay us for the other twenty-two hours of the day. Those two hours on stage are a gift.”
Catch Jeff and the NGDB live in Colorado this year: