Nitty Gritty Dirt Band brings Bob Dylan concert to Lexington
There is a moment on the newest album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a sampler of Bob Dylan covers aptly titled “Dirt Does Dylan,” where the years simply recede.
On “The Mighty Quinn,” the opening chorus is sung by all six members with an effortless but rustic fortitude. What comes to mind isn’t so much a new shade of a Dylan classic, but a welcoming shadow of the Dirt Band’s own majestic past — specifically, a throwback to the cross-generational country-roots sound summoned on the group’s seminal album, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
“The front of ‘The Mighty Quinn’ is the six of us sitting around one microphone singing the first chorus,” said Jeff Hanna, guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and co-founding Dirt Band member. “Then we did an edit and cut it into the full band. It jumps right at you when the drums and bass kick in. That was really fun.
“Conceptually, we kept thinking about the records that we loved. The Band had such a huge impact on us. When we were making that ‘Uncle Charlie’ album (the breakout 1969 Dirt Band album “Uncle Charlie and his Dog Teddy”), The Band were like our Beatles. Then you sort of roll that into the ‘Circle’ sessions where we all sat, literally, in a circle. Sometimes it required a little separation because you don’t want the amps bleeding into the drums or vice versa. But there was that organic feeling. Even if that technically was not what was going on, that was always the goal.”
The first “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” was released 50 years ago this month, a milestone work that teamed the then-current Dirt Band members, all in their mid-20s at the time, with an all-star lineup of country-roots legends championed from the previous generation that included, among many others, Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs and Roy Acuff. Two similarly designed sequel albums were issued in 1989 and 2002.
Much like “Dirt Does Dylan,” the records serve as a chapter within a career-long exploration that began for the Dirt Band in 1966. The journey has taken the Southern California troupe from its jug band beginnings to its early ’70s tenure as a new generation roots music ensemble to a late ’70s run-in with pop stardom on to an ’80s acceptance by country music fans through to its current status as a respected torchbearer of Americana music.
“We started talking about the Dylan record in the middle of 2019, before any of us could have seen this cloud (COVID-19) that was on the horizon,” Hanna said. “Someone in our management company suggested, ‘Have you guys ever considered doing a single source songwriter record?’ Of course, Dylan’s name was the first to come up. It was like, ‘Well, yeah. This is in our DNA.’ For me and Fadden (Dirt Band drummer/harmonica ace Jimmie Fadden, the only other founding member still on board), we grew up in the exactly the same musical environment, which was the folk scene in Southern California in the mid ’60s when we were both still in high school. I went to see Dylan play across town. He played a high school in Long Beach called Wilson High. It was like four bucks to get in. That was an epiphany seeing him live. It had a really, really huge impact.”
“Dirt Does Dylan” is also the first album to feature the Dirt Band’s current six-member lineup. The roster is split evenly between long-timers (Hanna, Fadden and keyboardist Bob Carpenter, who joined in the late ’70s) and a trio of comparatively new recruits that include fiddler/mandolinist Ross Holmes, bassist Jim Photoglo and Hanna’s son Jaime Hanna on guitar.
“It’s a big sense of pride, obviously, standing onstage next to my son. The fun factor is really high, and these guys really enjoy themselves. You’ve got to be reminded of that sometimes. It can be a slog when you’re doing one nighter after one nighter.
“Jaime and Ross really have brought a lot of youthful energy, enthusiasm and vigor to our band that has been very inspiring. It just feels really good. There’s lots more smiling and laughing going on now. When a band has been together this long, it’s nice to have that shot in the arm.”
But as work on “Dirt Does Dylan” commenced in 2020 in the midst of the COVID lockdown, two key Dirt Band inspirations took leave of the world.
One was Texas songsmith Jerry Jeff Walker, whose cherished composition “Mr. Bojangles” became a career defining hit for the Dirt Band in 1970.
“It was a total accident to even find that tune,” Hanna said. “I heard part of it in the car driving home from a rehearsal when we were working out tunes for the ‘Uncle Charlie’ record. I came in the next day and said, ‘Man, I think I found the final piece of the puzzle.’ I was describing it, saying how the song was about this old man and his dog. Jimmy Ibbotson (long-serving multi-instrumentalist who exited the Dirt Band in 2005) said, ‘I know that tune.’ Turns out he had a 45 record of it that was all scratched up in the trunk of his car behind a spare tire or something, so we learned it from that.
“Man, the use of the mandolin and the accordion together in the right context just tugs at your heartstrings in the best kind of way. There’s nothing corny about what we did on ‘Bojangles,’ but because there was no internet back then to look things up, we listened to the scratched-up record and missed a couple of the words. It still became an unexpected hit for our band.”
The other artist the Dirt Band, and everyone, did adieu to in 2020 was John Prine, the masterful songwriter who was one of the first headline casualties of COVID. Aside from being touring partners and longtime friends of Hanna and his bandmates, Prine re-recorded his 1973 tune “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” with the Dirt Band for the second “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album.
“Any room you walked in, if John was in it, he was having the best time. And I don’t mean lampshade-on-your-head best time. He was just enjoying himself. He always had this big grin. John had cancer a couple of times, but the guy was like, ‘Yeah man, I’m lucky. I still get to do this.’ That a life lesson for all of us.”
Such are the snapshots from the adventures of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Now 75, sharing the stage with his son along with musicians of varying decades on camaraderie, Hanna views his career in understandably historical terms. But he also cherishes the fact its final chapter hasn’t been outlined, much less written.
“It has been, and continues to be, a great run. And the friendships we made? They’re just incredible. It’s been rewarding, but more than that, we’ve worked with the stuff that feeds your soul. That’s the best part of it, you know?”
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 18
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: $39.50-$59.50 through ticketmaster.com.