An Unbroken Circle of Success • The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Celebrates 50 Years of Musical Creativity

An Exclusive Interview with Founding Member Jeff Hanna

Posted In:   From Issue 835   By: Robert E Martin

03rd November, 2016     0

Legends come in many shapes, varieties, and forms, and the iconic and influential group known as The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band certainly has earned their stripes as a truly legendary musical concoction. Often cited as a catalyst and pioneers that shaped the sound of contemporary Country Rock and American Roots Music, the band is currently celebrating their 50th Anniversary Tour and will be landing on the stage of the historic Temple Theatre on Saturday, November 12th.

With multi-platinum and gold records and strings of top ten hits such as Will the Circle Be Unbroken to Fishin’ In the Dark’ and ‘Mr. Bojangles (which many critics & fans agree represents the definitive translation of that song) the group has also earned multiple Grammy, IBMA, and CMA awards and nominations; and is also the first American band to ever tour the Soviet Union.

In addition to their current tour, the group is marking its 50th Anniversary with the release of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band & Friends – Circlin’ Back: Celebrating 50 Years, which is a live concert album including special guest performances from John Prine, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell that was recorded at the historic Ryman Auditorium and also filmed for a PBS television special that aired last spring. Their groundbreaking Will the Circle Be Unbroken album has been inducted into the U.S. Library of Congress as well as the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Today the group consists of original members Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, John McEuen along with Bob Carpenter; and recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Hanna on the eve of their appearance at Saginaw’s Temple Theatre about a wide range of topics.

Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has enjoyed a long and reputable career and you’re usually referenced under that popular term of ‘Americana’ music, which today is used to broadly classify a particular genre of Folk / Rock that you guys more or less pioneered.  Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of the band?

Jeff Hanna: We started as teenagers in Long Beach, California back in 1966 playing what was then known as ‘Jug Band’ music, only the way we performed it was a hybrid of Blues and Bluegrass. We started with very esoteric roots music that was written back in the 1920s and ‘30s, but took a left turn when Country Rock started to explode in California back in the late sixties.   By way of definition, there were just a handful of bands playing that type of music; and we were one of the first, along with The Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco.

Review: How do you feel your sound has evolved over the years?

Hanna: I think the basis for what we do, especially when we made that transition from Jug Band music to Country Rock distinguished us because we retained some of that Jug Band and Bluegrass dynamic within our sound, insofar as we didn’t feature a pedal steel guitar, which is one of the things that set us apart. We would squeeze a fiddle, banjo, and mandolin into the mix, which partly defines the Jug Band sound; and our vocals are based on The Everly Brothers, as was the sound of a lot of groups, including The Beatles, which were a huge influence on us as well.

In terms of evolution, we started as guys basically covering songs; but by the mid-1970s were writing a lot of material, and we still do. This changes your sound in the sense because you are singing from your own point of view rather than interpreting someone else’s, so we try and get better all the time, even at this late stage of the game, believe it or not.

The human voice is an amazing instrument and no two people sound the same. That’s also why a band like Poco will sound different from a band like Nitty Gritty, and vice-versa. That’s where the uniqueness comes in, because if you’re a guitarist you may be able to play an Eric Clapton song, or a Jimmy Page song, but it won’t sound like those artists. And that’s the great thing about the human race that you can apply to art, because it all comes down to the uniqueness of the individual. Nothing is new anymore, so it’s kind of how you use the language – or musical language – that defines who you are.

Review: What’s the most challenging component involved with keeping a band together for 50 years?

Hanna: One of our key founding members, John McEuen, left the band for 13 years and came back; and I’ve been there forever, along with Jimmie Fadden, who’s been there with me for the whole ride. He plays drums and harmonica and I play guitar and both of us used to play drums and lead guitar; but as with any mixture or blend it comes down to chemistry. Like any family we’re dysfunctional and have our good and bad days, but we try and stay cognizant of what the other members are feeling; and not push each other’s buttons.  Traveling on a tour bus sounds like of glamourous, but there’s always some version of the ‘crud’ out there; and while it sounds like a cliché, our audiences are great and it’s their feedback that keeps us going.

We’ve also got some new stuff coming out next year and this year for our 50th Anniversary Tour we’re promoting a live album we recorded at The Ryman Theatre in Nashville last year that was released on September 30th and is a career retrospective for us. We got together with some really great friends like John Prine and Jackson Browne and Rodney Crowell and staged this grand celebration at The Ryman, so PBS is doing a TV show of that and have a 90-minute DVD with over 20 songs that I’m very proud of.

Review: That must have been quite exciting. Have you ever played at The Ryman before?

Hanna: We played their individually, but never as a band, so this was our first full concert. The sound is part of the beauty of that theatre and the other part is the vibe in those walls. It’s my favorite theatre because people go there to listen to music, so it’s like a church – the Mother Church of Music.

Review: Fifty years is a long time for any career, let alone a musical one. Do you have any particular memories or anecdotes that stand out in your mind that you might like to share?

Hanna: There’s so many we would be here all day, but certainly doing the three ‘Circle’ records in 1971, 1989, and 2002, and getting into the studio to play with folks you admire.  On our first album we were just kids and our average age was 24; the second one was 17 years later as adults; and then in 2002 we were the ‘elder statesmen’ with the third installment.

The 1980s were also a good period for us because Country music embraced our band and we had a nice run from 1982-91 and were all over the country charts; and of course touring has been a consistent part of our career. We’re a veteran act now, so people have a good idea of what we are, and we don’t have to prove anything anymore, which kind of frees us up musically.

Another thing not a lot of people are aware of is that we were actually the first American band to tour the Soviet Union in 1971. We went over there as part of a cultural exchange program through the State Department and toured there for a month. It was an amazing experience. The audiences were receptive and we were told they may not be that demonstrative, but they were rushing the stage like a rock audience!

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band will appear at Saginaw’s Temple Theatre on Saturday, November 12th at 7:30 pm. Reserved seating ranges from $35 - $95 and tickets are available by going to or phoning 989-754-SHOW. The Temple is located at 201 N. Washington in Downtown Saginaw.


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