First Published: May 2016 in High Notes Magazine
Remastered by NoteWorthy Music: July 13, 2020
A Circle Unbroken: The Dirt Band Turns 50
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band L-R: Jeff Hanna, John McEuen, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter

The first time I saw Jeff Hanna and John McEuen live it was on the midway of the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia. It was August, 1972, and they were state-fair hot. They, along with the rest of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, were scheduled to appear that night with the Jackson 5. It was a time when they often shared bills with top acts of rock and, on this night, Motown. Michael was a couple of days short of his fourteenth birthday – already an aging prodigy; Hanna and McEuen barely a decade older; The Nitty Gritty Dirt band a decade younger.

The Dirt Band’s fifth album in fewer years, the 1970 Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, had produced three big singles, including Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” If you were listening to pop/rock radio in the early 70s you just now heard Jeff Hanna sing “I knew a man, Bojangles, and … he’d dance for you” in your head, accentuated by John McEuen’s perfect mandolin dressing. These young longhairs were playing country/Cajun/pop music on banjos, washboards, accordions and mandolins, and they had pop-radio hits. 

Groovy is as groovy does.

Taking Notes 

Meanwhile on the midway, this very duo was joyously chucking baseballs at bottom-heavy, canvas kitty dolls, trying to win more stuffed animals. Maybe because they were in my mind and on the day’s agenda, I recognized the long and short of them on sight, from thirty paces behind. 

They were rocketing balls on young arms, while exploding in laughter that projected onto the midway from its carnie epicenter. The Twilight Zone-esque twist was that absolutely no one but me seemed to know who they were. Everyone was watching them; no one knew whom they were watching. Slick as slick could be, I slid in beside them and ordered up a round of balls. 

Careful not to draw attention to others who might horn in on my private audience, I told them I knew who they were, loved their work and was there to see them first and foremost. “Dude,” said Hanna, “that is nice of you to say, but we dig the Motown scene and Michael is … well … Michael Jackson, man. Take note, my friend.” 

I took note.

Jeff Hanna

Jeff Hanna

The Voice

Jeff Hanna has one of the most distinctive voices in music – singing or talking. “Our band started in 1966 in southern California,” Hanna, who was 19 in ’66, says during a forty-five-minute phone interview. “We all hung out at McCabe’s, a guitar store in Long Beach. What we had in common was a diverse love of music and the desire to be in a band. I had a jug band in high school. I ran that idea by everybody and we started doing a little research and digging into it. It was me and Les Thompson and Jimmie Fadden, of course, some others in the early days, and John McEuen. 

I would have been just one of 10,000 pickers wanting to be the first person to play banjo on a record with Earl Scruggs if it hadn’t been for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Jeff Hanna’s vocals… ~ John McEuen

“We knew John and played with him some,” Hanna continues, “but he wasn’t in the band for the first couple of months.” Among the list of “others,” was Jackson Browne, who was in the band for a minute before he decided to pursue the singer/songwriter gig. “That worked out for him and we got McEuen,” Jeff says. “We were pleased to get John because he was such an amazing musician … and still is, of course. John and Les had a bluegrass band about the same time I had the jug band and it just seemed to make sense to sort of merge all of those elements.” 

Years later, Hanna says, Browne told Fretboard Journal that when McEuen replaced him is when the Dirt Band began to kick into high gear. “He said that is when we became what we should become. And I thought that was a really accurate and a sweet way to say it. And, of course, we all revere Jackson.”

Jeff says they would sit around McCabe’s and slow the speed of an LP because they were trying to learn, say, “Black Mountain Rag” one note at a time. “We didn’t grow up with that music on the West Coast,” he said, “but we were drawn to it. We were huge fans of Earl Scruggs and Doc [Watson] and Merle Travis and wanted to play their music … with our own take on it. We didn’t grow up with it, but these East Coast acts would all come through Southern California. We would get to see the Doors and Dylan and Flatt and Scruggs — up close and personal — as teenagers; that really informed what we did.

“Living in L.A. was very fortuitous for us; it certainly increased our love of the music. Even though none of us were raised in the South or Appalachia, bluegrass really took hold of us … and the music that came out of those mountains and hollers — like Doc’s music as well.”

John McEuen

John McEuen

The deal is, in John McEuen, we have a world-class bluegrass musician and the rest of us, kinda like, try to keep up. ~ Jeff Hanna

By and By

The big NGDB buzz by the time Hanna schooled me on Motown sounds under Sedalia sun was their 1972 release of Will the Circle Be Unbroken.The iconic record — destined to be a GRAMMY Hall of Fame Album winner — was the result of these long-haired, peace-loving, Southern Cali, jug band/pop stars having big enough hits and cojones to ask the likes of Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, “Mother” Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson and more to make a record with them.

Thirty years later, Acuff gave it up that he initially doubted the sincerity of these young pop stars wanting to record classic country music. He didn’t doubt them after the recording sessions. None of the regulars in the back of McCabe’s in 1966 could have known where their interest in traditional music and traditional musicians — while staying true to their particular take on a growing country rock sound — was to lead. 

Earlier, Les Thompson told me two things stood out from the first Circle sessions for him. First, because Bill Monroe declined to play — reportedly suspicious of how the Dirt Band’s popular radio play fit in with bluegrass and traditional country. That left Les the designated mandolin player. His charge? To stand toe to toe with iconic players, all while knowing there was little money available to keep the tape running through multiple takes. Second, in hindsight, he wished NGDB had been in existence longer than five years and knew more of those songs before going into the studio with the folks who sported taglines like “The King of Country Music.”

Second Verse

Hanna says the band resisted the idea of a second Will the Circle be Unbroken for so long because of one reason: “My answer was simple: ‘We did it.’ I mean people would bring it up and we would just immediately dismiss the idea. Like why would you want to make a sequel to something that was so significant.” 

Then country royalty hand-delivered the reason. While the Dirt Band was on tour in Europe with Johnny Cash and June Carter, Carter came into their dressing room one afternoon and said: “You know, ‘Mom’ [Maybelle Carter] really liked you guys — she called you ‘them dirty boys,’ — and if you ever want to do another Circle record, John and I would really love to be a part of it. 

“That was enough,” Hanna said. “That knocked us off of that set-in-stone idea. It was: ‘Circle doesn’t have to be a singular project. It could be a continuing thing.’”

Hmmm. Like a circle. 

Johnny and June were on Volume 2, seventeen years after the original — along with Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, Levon Helm, The Whites, Ricky Skaggs, John Prine, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas and more. Returnees from the first Circle were Jimmy Martin, Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements and Roy Acuff. The album went gold and won two 1990 GRAMMYS: Best Bluegrass Recording for “The Valley Road,” with Bruce Hornsby and (gasp!) a piano, and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. It was also album of the year at the CMA Awards. 

Volume 3, another commercial success — peaking at thirteen on the charts — coincided with the 2002, 30th-anniversary re-release of the original. This volume saw the line-up become broader, still, with Del McCoury, Iris Dement, Sam Bush, Dwight Yoakam, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty and others appearing. 

McEuen delighted in telling me that he got Petty on the record by going down the hall where he was recording and asking him if he would like to sing with Willie Nelson. “Sure. I’d like to sing with Willie Nelson,” Petty answered. McEuen hooked him up.

The Long Run

This spring, I drove 1,100 miles, round trip from my cabin in Ridgway, Colorado, to Scottsdale, Arizona, to catch the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band play a standing-room-only room. I saw a show, shot some photos and had some face time with John McEuen, Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden and Bob Crawford — the current line-up of the Dirt Band — and drove back. I made the trip in 38 hours door to door. It was a ridiculous thing to do. I was already pushing the deadline for the issue. I had promised myself and my partners that I was committed to a weekend holed up in my cabin writing – on time to make a deadline for a change.

Jimmie Fadden

Jimmie Fadden

I had talked by phone to McEuen and Thompson, was scheduled to talk to Hanna and had a personal relationship with their music and careers. I could do the story. But, no, I had to go to the show. 

I am glad I did. These boys made it clear they are not interested in phoning in a “We used to be somebody” show – which is what I feared my story would become without experiencing them in 2016 — perhaps the last of my four or five times. The drive was worth it. The show was not a smattering of hits, “Now go buy a T-shirt and CD … and write a cushy promo piece.” Not at all.

And In the End

As I crisscrossed the room and the fully engaged crowd — taking notes and photos — I suddenly knew why I was there. I knew through my research there were differences of opinions within the band. The history I was gathering came from differing perspectives, and, therefore, conducive to different recollections. But it was the music. I was there for the music. It is what matters. I could hear it in the spot-on riffs and harmonies, and I could see it joyously painted on faces that smiled knowingly and connected as Hanna and McEuen leaned into each other and into songs they knew, not by rote, but by way of a lifelong love affair with the Muse in all her faces.

Hanna said it this way while speaking of the kaleidoscope of influences, sounds and genres the Dirt Band has delivered for fifty years — including that night in Scottsdale: “We try to make it a tasty gumbo, you know, with a lot of flavors coming together just right.” 

It’s tasty gumbo, still.

A cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Dale McCurry

Dale McCurry

Writer and Editor

Following years as a reporter and editor of a handful of weekly newspapers, Dale McCurry was co-founder and publisher, writer and managing editor of High Notes Magazine on the Western Slope of Colorado and The Wires and the Wood in his native Ozarks. Today, he co-wears those hats for NoteWorthy Music as well.

Enjoy more High Notes

You may also like Dale McCurry’s Circles in the Dirt.

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