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Nitty Gritty Dirt band celebrate 50 years making music together

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 Nashville’s Nitty Gritty Dirt Band have been an country music institution for the past 50 years with the same core members— an achievement by anybody’s measure.
 The band, including Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter, John McEuen, return to Lethbridge to play the Enmax Centre, Oct. 7.
 They never expected to be still playing together 50 years later.

“No, I think to be honest. I think when a bunch of guys especially when we were teenagers when we got started, I The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band play the Enmax Centre, Oct. 7. Photo by Richard Amerydon’t think we expected being together for 10 years would have been quite a goal for us, but 50 is pretty incredible, so we’re sort of shocked and surprised and grateful to have been able to do this for so long,” chuckled Nitty Gritty Dirt band singer/multi-instrumentalist  Jeff Hanna.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were at the forefront of the cosmic cowboy’ movement, playing “country music for  rock audiences” in that they were basically hippies playing country music.  

“We kind of eased into it because even though  we’ve always been fans of country music. I became a fan of Hank Williams and later on Buck Owens and Merle Haggard when I was just a kid. But we were in Southern California in the late ’60s  and we started playing what was kind of a new form of music country music which a lot of folks referred to as California country rock music with bands like Poco and Flying Burrito Brothers are great examples and later on the Eagles of course. So we all came up in that scene and they were all friends of ours and we were played the same clubs and bars. So we kind of eased into it because that was country music for a rock audience then later on in the early ’80s, maybe ’82 or ’84 we started releasing our records to mainstream country music. And at that point mainstream country was really a lot more like what we were doing in the ’70s in California so that made sense,” he said.

 “We never had any real issues playing for hard core country audiences, the whole sort of  ‘what are those hippies doing with that steel guitar. What’s that fiddle doing in that long hair’s hands.’ Things have changed. So I think initially it was a little awkward some times, but not anymore.” Hanna said.

Hanna credited their core of dedicated fans for the band’s longevity.
“Yeah. Certainly we’ve been fortunate to have really loyal fans and along the way pick up new fans. One of the things that seems to happen with our band is sort of in the tradition of the Grateful Dead. We’ll get generations. We have the first generation of fans turn on their kids to our music. And they play our music to their kids so we’ll have three generations lot of time when we’re playing shows. So that really helps. A Dirt Band show can feel like some kind of an an event for our fans, and we‘re grateful for that,” he said.

“We’ve made records all throughout our careers. We’ve been lucky. That’s been a big part of what we do, and again, some of it has been blind luck. There’s a lot of the bands who started when we did aren’t together anymore. So it’s not lost on us how lucky we are to be able to do this. And we’ve all been healthy and we get along well. There’s no one thing, it takes talent it takes hard work but there‘s also that kind  intangible as it were that makes it all click. But 50 years, that’s crazy,” he continued.

“When were playing live there’s kind of a shorthand, we can sort of make eye contact with each other and let’s stretch this tune out a little bit or do something different here. There’s a certain rhythm to what we do that having played this long. It’s second nature to us. And that’s great. You can’t get that when stepping on stage with someone new each night,” he said.

“That’ s certainly part of it. I think it’s important to recognize our strengths and each other’s strengths, and be reminded of that because you can take it for granted sometimes when you’ve been playing together with the same guys for decades.  But that’s one of the great things about playing live, is having folks go, ‘man Bob Carpenter is sure a great singer or, gosh, John can play anything with a string on it.’ It’s good to hear that. It’s good to be reminded of that. That’s part of the beauty, I think, of playing with your friends.

Songwriting varies in the band
“Sometimes we write together, sometimes we don’t. We all write. Jimmy McFadden and I and Bob Carpenter have all at various times co-written. Sometimes Jimmy writes all by himself sometimes Bob does, sometimes we write with folks that aren’t in the band. So we kind of shake it up. None of us live in the same town anymore, so it is a little tougher to get together to compose material, so sometimes were doing it by e-mail, and it’s a little a different dynamic than when we were all living in the same house back in the ’60s,” he said.

“Songwriting is all about having something to say and depending on if everybody in the room agrees on what the point of view is, that’s definitely a plus. I think the beauty of co-writing is that you keep the ball moving. If you get stuck for a minute, whomever you’re co-writer is can sometimes pick it up and if they run out of gas then you  can jump back in. It’s a tag team. I love to co-write songs by the way, I think that’s way more fun than sitting down and trying to write by yourself. But than again, we’ve done all of the above,” he said.

They have released a few different projects to mark their 50 year career. Including a new anthology out at the end of September
“We’ve got a couple of things. A new package coming out at the end of September that is 39 tracks. (Anthology 2) There are some hits on there but also more like some deeper tracks, music from ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken,’ and three volumes of that. Some album cuts our fans seem to really love and some stuff we love too. It’s sort of an anthology package,” he said.

 They have also released a greatest hits package called “Fishin’ in the Dark,” which includes their many best known hits, like ‘Fishin’ In the Dark,’  ‘Cadillac Ranch’  and ‘Face On the Cutting Room Floor’ and of course ‘Mr. Bojangles’ and a lot of the country hits like ‘Long Hard Road’ and ‘High Horse.’

“Then there’s a live album we recorded at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville that came out about a year ago called ‘Circling Back’ that features a bunch of our friends . I think they're playing it on CMT Canada. It’s a 50th anniversary concert featuring a bunch of guest artists, great guest artists, friends of ours like like Jackson Browne, who was part of the band in their early days as well as Allison Krauss and Vince Gill to name a few. And that’s a DVD as well,” he said.

Jackson Browne played with the band  in their early days before embarking on a successful solo career including numerous hits like ‘Running on Empty,” “Lawyers in Love,” and “She’s Got to Be Somebody’s Baby.”

“The circling back concert is the first time we actually recorded with Jackson Browne. We had done some playing with him informally, but he left the band before we started making records. He was in the band for the first three or for months or so back in ’66. We did 10 or 15 shows together left to pursue a songwriting career and that’s when John McEuen joined the band and not long after John joined we got our first record deal,” he related.

 “The core of the band me and Jimmy McFadden and John have been playing since 1966 and then Bob Carpenter, who is  the new kid has been around for 37 years. So he’s got tenure,” he laughed.

They are known for making cover songs their own including  Jerry Jeff Walker’s ‘Mr. Bojangles.’ He noted his favourite cover is Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch.”
 “I think in terms of what we’ve covered, certainly ‘Cadillac Ranch’ is a big one. I heard that on a Bruce Springsteen album when it first came out. We just thought that was great fit and we started playing it  live and people really responded to it,” he said.

“I think the whole key to doing a great cover is one — people can really tell when you’re having a great time playing someone else’s music and if you’re lucky like in the case of ‘Cadillac Ranch,’ people sort of allow you to make it your own for at least those three minutes, he continued, noting other musicians have also made hits out of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band songs.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band play the Enmax Centre, Oct. 7. Photo by Richard Amery
“As far as people covering  our music, probably the biggest example of that is ‘Bless this Broken Road,” which was a hit for Rascal Flatts. It’s a tune that I co-wrote with a couple of friends of mine here in Nashville — Marcus Hummon and Bobby Boyd. And our band recorded that first on an album called ‘Acoustic’ back in 1994 I believe it  was and  about 10 years later Rascal Flatts cut it and it became a really substantial , huge country hit. And it won Marcus and Bobby and I a Grammy for songwriting that year. So I love that, but I also love it when Bob Carpenter sings it during our shows too,” he said.

They are planning on recording new music in the near future.
“Oh man, we’ll get out there and play some more. Hopefully we’ll get in the studio and do some recording. We haven’t made a new record in a couple years except for this this live album. We’re itching to lay down some new tracks and of course we’ll be out there touring again next year. As far as Canada goes, I think that this will be the first time we’ve played up there in a very long time, and hope folks will come and see us. We’re super excited about that,” Hanna said.

 They have a lot of fun planned for Lethbridge.
“Well if I told you it wouldn’t be a surprise right. No I’m kidding. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. You’ll hear ‘Fishin’ in the Dark’ and ‘Cadillac Ranch’ and ‘Mr. Bojangles.’ But we try to touch on pretty much every era in the band’s history going all the way back to our first single called for “Buy Me For The Rain,” that came out in 1967. We just started recently doing that one again and people really seem to love it. So we’re happy to do that. We just try to shake it up and keep in interesting for ourselves for the audience I know, as a fan, when I go to hear somebody play, I’m hoping that  they’re gonna play X,Y and Z as far as the hits go, but I’m also hoping they might get to one of those album cuts that I really loved. So it’s challenging when you’ve made 40 albums. But we do our best,” he said.

“But our main goal is for folks to The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band play the Enmax Centre, Oct. 7. Photo by Richard Ameryhave a good time. And that’s one of the thing that I think our band is really good at,” he said.
The last time they played Southern Alberta was a big outdoor country music festival  in Fort Macleod about five years ago with Ian Tyson.

“ Oh yeah, I love Ian Tyson, he’s one of my favourite artists,” he said.
“Oh man, let me start with my favourite Ian Tyson song. There’s a lot of you know. ‘Four Strong Winds,’ ‘Someday Soon, ’Sylvia wrote that actually.

 I’ll go ahead and date myself. When I was a kid, Ian and Sylvia  were like my favourite act. They were my were my Beatles. I just wore their records out.” he said.

 “So man, there’s tons of great stuff that they’ve written. I like  a lot of their early stuff, like,I said Four Strong Winds,”  “That’s What You Get for Loving Me.’  He’s always been a  huge influence. I mean what a great singer —an incredible singer and a really fine guitarist as well. I think one of my favourite Canadian artists of all time. Ian and Sylvia both.”

 The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band love playing Canada
“We’ve played Canada a lot. We went through a period where it seemed like we went up to Canada  twice a year every year. And did a lot of touring. But it got to the point where we felt we might be just wearing it out a little bit. Let’s give it a break. So this year especially because we‘re at the tail end of this fiftieth anniversary celebration, we really wanted to put together and extensive tour for Canada. So we’re super excited to be coming up there in October. Canadians fans have always been really great and really loyal and enthusiastic and just incredible,” he said.

“We’re really stoked to be hitting the road and playing in your neck of the woods next month. It’s always been a great time for us playing up there, The Dirt Band always got big smiles on our faces when we play up there,” he said.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt band play the Enmax Centre, Oct. 7, 2017 at 7 p.m.. Tickets are $65 and $75.

A version of this story appears in the Sept. 27,2017 edition of the Lethbridge Sun Times/Shopper

— By Richard Amery, L.A. Beat Editor

Last Updated ( Thursday, 28 September 2017 10:26 )  
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