Jeff Hanna Is Proud That Nitty Girtty Dirt Band’s Circle Remains Unbroken
If Jeff Hanna sounds like he’s done and seen it all—it’s probably because he has. As a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for 43 years, Hanna has played the 1984 Olympics, won GRAMMY awards, and has graced stages from the states to Japan. As part of the NGDB, Hanna has had songs atop the country and pop charts.
But after all those years, there is still no slowing down. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released their latest album, Speed of Life, on Sept. 22. Hanna took some time out to sit down with The 9513 and talk about the band’s success over the years, and the new album.
PIERCE GREENBERG: For those who don’t know, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band started in the late 60’s. Can you describe what those early days were like?
JEFF HANNA: Well, we started as a jug band—which is kind of a loose combination of old-timey, ragtime, blues, a little country, hillbilly music, a little bluegrass in there. Really we were all individual guys who played guitar and sang and did different stuff. But I had a jug band in high school called the Illegitamit Jug Band and when I graduated, another one of my friends—Bruce Kunkel, who was in that band in high school—we started hanging out at a guitar store in Long Beach, California, called McCabe’s.
So, we met a bunch of different guys in there who all thought that would be fun and a great way to just kind of hang out. The jug band music is really fun—that’s basically what it’s all about. So, that’s how we got started. We recorded a song that a friend of ours, Steve Noonan, wrote called “Buy For Me The Rain,” that went to the top of the charts in California (which is where we lived at the time). That song had nothing to do with jug band music—that was more of a folk-rock tune.
But there we were, a bunch of teenagers with a big hit on the radio, and we pretty much thought that was how it was gonna go for a while and it didn’t. But, you know, everything changes. In 1969 we morphed into a country rock band, which also used a lot of our roots from earlier with the bluegrass and the acoustic music that we started playing.
And we were hanging out at a club called the Troubadour in Los Angeles, with a lot of folks like the guys that would become the Eagles—Bernie Leadon, Glenn Frey and Don Henley. So yeah, our whole thing started in Southern California with a sort of singer-songwritery hippiegrass. Not to mention the stuff that was going on back then back there. (Laughing)
PG: So how did you really make that transition to a country music band?
JH: Well, it was pretty easy actually because the music that we played on this album called Uncle Charley, that had “Mr. Bojangles” on it and “Some of Shelley’s Blues,” a lot of tunes that stylistically were very similar to what we did on this new album. So, it wasn’t much of a transition for us at all when country music became part of the picture back in ’82 or ’83 when we came to Nashville and started recording our records here for a while.
Country radio generously embraced our band and we got a lot of airplay for about a decade, but the music wasn’t that different from what we were doing in the early 1970’s.
PG: In 1972, you released the first of the Will the Circle Be Unbroken volumes and that was seen by many as connecting the California scene with the middle America country scene, by bringing in names like Maybelle Carter, etc. So what kind of affect did that album have on the band’s career?
JH: I think it had more to do with our legacy than it did our career. I think that that album, which has become this landmark project that I don’t think any of us thought it would, we just wanted to get in the studio with our heroes and make music. People like Mother Maybelle Carter that you mentioned and Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs and Roy Acuff and Merle Travis. It was a great bunch of folks. Just to get to meet them was enough, but to get to go make a record with them was even better.
I’m always hearing from people how that was the first bluegrass album they ever bought and how that introduced them to that kind of music. I think that on our permanent record, that matters more than whatever career impact it had. As far as our career went, it didn’t change things much. It was less about career movement. It didn’t matter the way a hit record matters, as far as people showing up at your concerts and that kind of thing. But I think now it matters more than it did then. We’re really glad that we got to do that and that we got to do another couple too.
PG: Moving on, kind of in chronological order here, the mid-1980’s were kind of your mainstream prime. From 1984-1988, you had fourteen consecutive top-10 singles. What were those times like for the band? Did you consider those the “glory years” so to say?
JH: Well, you know, they’re all the glory years. They were certainly the hit record years. We’d had hits in pop music before—“Buy for Me the Rain” in 1970, “Mr. Bojangles” in 1971 and “American Dream” and “Make a Little Magic” in 1980. But if you noticed, there were big gaps in those years.
What changed around 1983, 1984, when country radio started playing our music is that we had these hits that were consecutive. We weren’t used to that. We thought that was kinda fun. It was great. We also connected with a new audience of folks that were strictly country music fans and didn’t know what we had done in country-rock and some of the earlier rock stuff.
PG: In the 44 or 45 years since…
JH: It’s 43 actually. It started in 1966, and there’s this perpetuating number that’s been going around. We have to fix that. But who’s counting? (Laughing)
PG: In the 43 years since the band’s been together, you guys have done some pretty cool stuff. You’ve played the Olympics, played the inaugural Farm Aid, numerous Tonight Show/late night show appearances, and the list goes on. Is there any moment or event that really sticks out?
JH: I think, personally, for me, the things that mattered the most were the one-on-one musical experiences—being able to be in the studio with Johnny Cash and June Carter and Mother Maybelle Carter and Doc Watson and Roy Acuff. On the flip side of that, Linda Ronstadt, Nicolette Larson, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson. And just the folks that are amazing musicians that we got to play with over the years—Sam Bush, Vassar Clements, Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Connor, Bruce Hornsby. It’s really been fun.
All the other things—they are in the bio as kind of career defining moments—those are really great and we are really proud of that stuff but I think it’s the human contact that really means the most to all of us.
PG: On another note, I feel like a lot of people might not realize that you wrote the song “God Bless The Broken Road,” the big Rascal Flatts hit, in 1994 and it was released on an album by NGDB back then. What was it like watching that song blow up ten years later?
JH: Well, it was interesting. I co-wrote that, by the way, with Marcus Hummon and Bobby Boyd. When we recorded that in 1994, I had just gotten married for not the first time. I had just gotten back from my honeymoon and Marcus and I got together and just started talking about the concept of how you don’t always get it right the first time and there are reasons for everything. “Broken Road” kind of grew out of that.
So when we recorded that, it was a very personal statement for all of us. We recorded that on an album called Acoustic—which sold just OK but our fans all have it. And we’ve played the song pretty much every night since then. We do a very stripped down acoustic guitar and harmonica and vocals version of it.
But as the song started circulating, we realized that it had a broader message and more people than we thought were really impacted by what it said. People started calling us and they wanted it sung at their wedding. And we thought, “Well, gosh, maybe this song’s a hit!”
So, the years went by and various artists had it on hold and it would make it to that final day and they wouldn’t record it or they would record it and it didn’t make it to the record—which happens a lot with music, especially here in Nashville. Lo and behold, Rascal Flatts, when they finally decided to put it out—because they had been looking at it for at least a couple of different projects—they made it their second single on their Feels Like Today album. We were relieved. We were grateful because they are so hot. Those guys have been really good to us and we appreciate that a lot. And it’s kind of given us another hit to play in our show now, too, which is really fun. We try to explain the fact that we’re not covering Rascal Flatts on this one. But they do a great version.
PG: There’s been a few entries and departures from the band over the years, but not a lot. What has been the secret to keeping the core together for so long?
JH: Just to explain something, on some various sites you’ll see guys that play with us—a lot of whom were sidemen. As far as official members of the band, from 1972 to now, there have been six guys total. And three of us—me and John McEuen and Jimmie Fadden—have played together since ’66. Bob Carpenter, who’s forever going to be the new kid, started playing with us in 1976. If I sound a little proud of the fact that we’re mostly the original guys, I am. Bob and I and Jimmie and John were there—collectively or individually—for all the hits we made.
I think the thing that matters is not trying to take yourselves too seriously. Our band has never put out an album that sold 10 million records. The chances for your band imploding goes up the more popular you get. Our successes have had these peaks and valleys but they’ve never been extreme. We’ve always had a great fan base and we’ve had some really great things happen to us. It’s always been a nice, solid, even career pretty much since the early ‘70’s.
And we keep each other laughing. We’re just like a bunch of brothers so we’re punching each other out and cracking each other up at the same time.
PG: That kind of leads in to present-day with the next question. How do you guys seem to recreate your sound as the years go by? It seems like the creative juices have never really stopped flowing, especially with this new album, Speed of Life.
JH: Thanks, I appreciate that. I think because we’ve made two records in the past decade so we take our time. That gives us plenty of time to start assembling the material for a record. All four of us write, and as you mentioned earlier, we’ve all had various success as writers outside of our band. When we put together a Dirt Band album, we look for the best collection of songs we can find—whether we wrote them or not. We like to kind of strike a balance between the original stuff and the outside material that we can own ourselves—take a song and make it our own.
We got this offer from George Massenburg and Jon Randall to go in the studio and make a record. JR has been one of my best friends for the last eight or nine years and George Massenburg, I’ve been a huge fan of his work, he’s a legendary engineer and a brilliant record producer. Those two guys together, we just couldn’t pass up that opportunity.
The only thing they insisted on is that they wanted to cut everything live. So, they wanted us really going for it on every track. Obviously, there’s some editing and we did a little fixing on some vocals and instrumental overdubs after the fact. But essentially, what you got on this record was that energy you get in a live show where the music has passion all the way through.
PG: Musically, what can fans expect from Speed of Life?
JH: Well I think it’s the best batch of tunes we’ve had on a record in years. I think the consistency of the material is really great, all the way through the record. I think that there’s some familiar aspects to it. Some of the songs hearken back to some of the jug band stuff. There’s some California country-rock in there. It’s like most Dirt Band albums—it’s a combo platter. There’s a common thread that runs through it which makes it “us,” but I think folks will be pleasantly surprised.
PG: Going back to our discussion before with all the Circle albums, we talked about them exposing older artists to a new generation and I sense a little bit of that here too, especially with the track “Jimmy Martin.” After all, he did play on all three Circle volumes. He passed away a few years ago. Could you talk about Jimmy Martin the man and the song?
JH: Well, “Jimmy Martin” was written by Phil Madeira and Jimmy Lee Sloas—a couple of our friends. That’s a song Jon Randall brought into the project. He said “I heard this song, guys, and it might be kind of weird. I don’t know how it’s gonna hit ya.” Because we were really close to Jimmy and always had a blast playing music with him.
So, when we heard it, we thought it was a really cool approach. It’s kind of a mini-biography of his career and his life. I think he really would’ve liked it. In our eyes, it’s certainly a tribute to the king of bluegrass.
PG: Another great song on there is “The Resurrection,” co-written by your wife Matraca Berg. Is that song kind of an overriding theme on this album? I guess just by the title, it kind of sounds like that.
JH: That’s interesting. Actually we toyed with that as a title for the record but we thought it might have an overtly religious connotation, when in fact the song isn’t about that. It’s about a town trying to come back. Speed of Life seemed more appropriate in terms of the overview of the material. There’s a line in there that we also looked at as an album title which is “Dreams die hard around here.” It’s gonna take a lot to get us to stop making music. Our band certainly feels reinvigorated, rejuvenated these days. It’s always great to have new music to play. It makes it really worthwhile for us.
It’s great to go out and play those songs for the fans that they know already—and as a music fan, I always want to hear my favorites when I show up at a concert. So far, I think we’re playing four of these tunes every night in our concerts and the response has been really positive. I love that song, “The Resurrection,” even if Matraca hadn’t written it. She wrote that with Alice Randall who’s another great writer.
PG: Speaking of which, you and Matraca both have your own songwriting credits, but have you ever tried writing anything together?
JH: We’ve written a few. That’s kind of how we got together—we wrote songs first. Then, as this personal relationship developed, the songwriting kind of fell away. But we still write a song a year together, whether we have to or not. She was just inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and she’s won CMA Awards and been nominated for GRAMMYs. I’d still be a huge fan of hers if I had never met her. It’s great—I’m really a lucky guy being married to her.
PG: How has the country music scene changed over the years?
JH: Well, a lot of what was mainstream country when we were having our biggest success between ’83 and ’89—a lot of the artists from that era are now considered Americana artists: Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam to some degree, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris. These were all acts that were right there on the charts with us during that period.
As far as our world goes, the emergence of Americana as a genre has been really interesting and really healthy. As far as mainstream country goes, it’s this evolution—it’s always changing. The sound of country music back in the 1960’s changed drastically in the 70’s and then it changed again in 80’s and 90’s and now into the 21st century, there’s always something new coming up. There’s plenty of talent out there: Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Taylor Swift. I’m a Taylor Swift fan—I think she’s a great songwriter and a really talented girl. The Dixie Chicks, I wish they were still in the format.
But there’s plenty for people to find. As a music fan, I don’t like categories very much and I think that if you were to interview your typical pop music fan, country music fan, hip-hop music fan, you’d find that they all own CD’s from different genres. It’s all over the place, it’s all out there and it’s a good thing.
PG: Yeah, I was going to ask you a little about the whole Americana thing. I was at the festival this past weekend and—
JH: Did you have a good time?
PG: It was great. I caught a little bit of your set on Friday night.
JH: (Laughing) Our breakfast show? We went on really late. Trust me—that was way past my bed time.
PG: Well, like you already said, you guys kind of already identify more with Americana. And at the show, which didn’t start til around 12:30 at night, that venue was packed.
JH: There was a good crowd and a lot of them were young kids—like college-age folks—which I found really interesting and great.
PG: Peter Cooper, a writer for The Tennessean, wrote: “The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band formed in 1966, an odd fact given that band member Jeff Hanna looks to be 30.” What’s the secret to looking so young?
JH: Well, that’s a stretch. It’s one thing—choose your parents well. It’s all genetics. I could say that I’m a health nut, but I’m not.
PG: Well, last question here. Do you think there’s a place for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in the Country Music Hall of Fame someday?
JH: Wow. That’s a tough question. We would be greatly honored—let me say that. We’ve seen some friends of ours be inducted into the Hall of Fame that I’ve thought “Well, gosh, who knows?” It’s hard to say. I can probably make a list of about 50 people that I think ought to still get in there before we ever would. So, who knows? That would be great.
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