Next month, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band will kick off an exciting year with a performance at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. On Sept. 14, the band will take to the stage with an amazing array of special guests — including Sam Bush, Vince Gill, Jackson Browne and former member Jimmy Ibbotson. Founding member Jeff Hanna told Billboard that it’s hard to believe the band has been making music for half a century.
“It’s exciting and overwhelming,” he said. “When we got together we wondered if we would be together after 10 years as a band. That’s kind of a long run, actually. But 50 years is a run. As we’ve crept up on this date, we are very grateful that we have had the fans that we’ve had and to have played for the fans that we have over the years.”
Starting their golden anniversary year with the Ryman Auditorium show is something Hanna said should be a night to remember. “To kick things off at the Ryman and to have all these amazing artists that are our pals showing up to play music with us and to celebrate the occasion is overwhelming and actually very humbling,” he said.
The show will be the unofficial kick-off to Americana Fest, which he admits is a movement that he is excited to be a part of. “We feel that Americana as an umbrella is a really wonderful club to be in. They’ve been very generous to us, as well. Most of the records that I own would be described as that.”
The show will be taped for a PBS special and is scheduled to air in March of 2016. After that, the band plans to keep the celebration going with a 50th Anniversary tour, which Hanna exclusively announced to Billboard.
“We’ll be on the road having a big time. We’ve got a lot of plans that we are really excited about doing — some big event shows. I doubt that we’ll be able to bring everyone from The Ryman out on the road with us, but we’ve got a lot of music to celebrate and stories to tell. That’s going to be really fun for us,” Hanna said.
He continued, explaining that the band has never stopped performing. “We’ve played shows every year of the past fifty. We’ve never taken a year off and hung out on the French Rivera,” he said, in reference to the Rolling Stones‘ legendary Exile on Main St recording. “In 1988, we had an album called Workin’ Band, and that’s a pretty apt title. We love to tour and play for our fans. It sounds like a cliché when you hear someone say, ‘If it wasn’t for the fans, we’d have nothing,’ but it’s true. Having those fans that have stuck with us all the years is a pretty great way to make a living.”
Over the years, the band has made quite a bit of history in rock, as well as country. Hanna reflected on some of their greatest moments.
The Early Years (1966-1969):
“When we were kids, my parents had to co-sign the first record deal. We weren’t eighteen years old yet. We made four albums in two years … We had to record some material that we weren’t happy about. But, that was the studio system in L.A. during the late ’60s. So, our band stayed together from 1966 through the end of 1968 and then we took a little hiatus and did different things. I played for Linda Ronstadt. That was so great for me as far as my personal musical development. Then, we reconvened in the middle of ’69 and had changed what we were doing, because we were a jug band when we started. We played music that wasn’t very commercial, but people loved us live.”
1970’s Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy album, their commercial breakthrough:
“We brought Jimmy Ibbotson and did Uncle Charlie. It was John McEuen, Les Thompson, Jimmie Fadden and me. We rehearsed for several months in Les’ dad’s jukebox factory in Long Beach and put the album together. That to me is one of our prouder moments as a band. We had ‘Mr. Bojangles’ on it and that was the first top 10 pop single we ever had — which we intended as an album track. We didn’t really think it was that commercial. That album led to so many other things, like the Will The Circle Be Unbroken album — so it was significant in a lot of ways.”
1980’s “An American Dream,” which was their biggest hit in ten years — and also helped them gain acceptance in the country field.
“That was the first time we had recorded one of Rodney Crowell‘s songs. It just sounded like a great fit. One of the things we always aspired to was record songs that sounded like something we wrote — even if we didn’t. We recorded it in Aspen and went to L.A., where we usually mixed our records. Bob Edwards and I had produced the record, and we started talking about how great it would be to have a female voice on it. Rodney had Emmylou on his, so we talked about Nicolette Larson. She didn’t really know us, so then Bob asked about Linda. I told him that she was kind of busy — on the cover of Time Magazine, and was the pre-eminent rock female vocalist of the time. I called her up, and luckily she was in town. I asked if she wanted to go have dinner…. then I said ‘But, before that, we were going to be in the studio… and would she sing on this song with us?’ She asked what the song was, and I told her. She said she loved the song. An hour and a half later, she was in the studio, and nailed it — in two takes. I don’t remember if we had her name on the single, but everyone knew who it was. That really helped us to kick down the radio door.”
Recording Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 2 in 1989 — and the country legend who suggested the band do a sequel record.
“People would ask us about doing a second one, but we kind of resisted because the original was such a free-standing project that we didn’t want to mess with it. By this point, we were kind of in the mainstream of country music. At the same time, there were acts out there like John Prine, Bruce Hornsby and New Grass Revival that made us think what a wealth of talent there was out there to do it. But, we still resisted, until Johnny Cash and June Carter came in our dressing room one night in Europe and June said ‘John and I were thinking that if you boys ever did another Circle record, we’d love to be on it. A giant light bulb went off, and that was definitely the tipping point. After all, what do you say to Johnny and June?”