Skip Navigation Website Accessibility



Jeff Hanna (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) - Friend of the DFC

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
Growing up, Jeff’s “house was filled with music. My folks both sang - they were gifted, neither were professionals, no one played an instrument, but there was always music around. As a kid when I lived in Denver I visited the Denver Folklore Center. I lived in the metro Denver area twice when I was in middle school, we lived in Littleton, and we moved back in the early ‘70s for fifteen years to the foothills in Evergreen.”

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
Jeff was heavily influenced by his brother’s taste in music. “My older brother, Mike, would bring home records by The Kingston Trio, they’re the gateway drug to the folk music realm, and Peter, Paul and Mary, a Joan Baez album - that was really life changing for me, because she had this band (The Greenbriar Boys) back her up on some songs. They were a great bluegrass band from the northeast. John Herald was their lead singer and he was terrific. That was the first record I ever bought on Vanguard Records. They advertised the rest of their catalog on the album – you pulled out the sleeve of the vinyl and there’s like fifteen other albums you could get. That’s the first time I saw a Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt record. This is where it went from the mainstream commercial folk music to the much deeper rootsier side of folk music. That was a paradigm shift for my musical tastes.” 

Live Music Always Wins
Today, Jeff’s musical tastes are “all over the map. Some old, some new. One day it might be the Allman Brothers, the next, Earl Scruggs. I’m a huge Sarah Jarosz fan – I love that group I’m With Her she has with Aoife O'Donovan and Sarah Watkins (Nickel Creek). There’s so much incredible music out there right now. Brittney Spencer, Allison Russell. I’m a big Brandi Carlile fan, have been for a while. Chris Stapleton, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle. I could spend a week or two listening to all of them without coming up for air.” 

“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
Jeff and the NGDB are featured in the Ken Burns’ movie “Country Music” alongside music legends like the Cash family, Roy Acuff and Earl Scruggs, and he has nothing but good things to say about the experience.

“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
The band is currently on tour supporting their new album. “This is the first time I’ve toured with my son, Jaime. When he was a kid he would come out and sit in with us, then later on when he started his music career, he played with a great band called The Mavericks. And then he had a record deal with his cousin (Jonathan McEuen, son of John McEuen of the NGDB) called Hanna-McEuen. Then he went to work with country singer, Gary Allan, for twelve years. In 2018, he along with fiddle player, Ross Holmes (he played with Mumford & Sons and Bruce Hornsby) started up with our band. And we also have Jim Photoglo who started playing with us in 2016. The six of us had not made a record until the new one that just came out.”

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:
June 23rd at Pueblo Memorial Hall, Pueblo, CO
June 24th at Country Jam 2022 in Grand Junction, CO
August 6th at Mishawaka Amphitheater in Bellvue, CO

See all their tour dates and listen to songs from their new album Dirt Does Dylan HERE.