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Fishin' in the Dark: Chattin' With The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Jeff Hanna

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A Coversation with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Jeff Hanna

Mike Ragogna: Jeff, let's talk about the latest news regarding your classic, "Fishin' In The Dark."

Jeff Hanna: Yeah, it's funny. Back in the '80s, they played our songs a lot on country radio and that was our biggest hit. It was the #1 single back in 1987, and then with the dawn of the digital age, it was a slow process getting our record companies to put our music up on iTunes because it was stuff that we cut some time ago. It was especially hard for the stuff that we recorded in the '70s and '80s. Slowly but surely, the stuff started to leak out on the Internet a couple of years back, and apparently, people keep responding to the song because we now have a gold digital single, which we think is really cool. We have half a million downloads for the song, which we think is great for a bunch of old geezers like us.

MR: Congratulations, that's great news. I know years back, there was talk of a box set. Any chance that will still happen?

JH: Well, I hope that still happens sometime. This is kind of a milestone year for us because it is our 45th year as a band, so it would be nice to get something like that out. The problem, as you know, is that we recorded with a couple different record companies. Most of the music that was recorded from the late '60s through 1983 was on EMI, and then the music that was recorded from the early '80s through the '90s was on Warner Brothers Records, and that's where most of the country hits came from. But most of our fans are just Dirt Band fans, so we would love to be able to get everybody to play nice so we're able to gather all of those tunes in one place and get them out. In the meantime, we've got a number of Greatest Hits albums out there and they cover a lot of bases. We continue to make albums, we have a new one called Speed Of Life on Sugar Hill Records, and we got a lot of great press on it.

MR: Are all of the members back for this album?

JH: Well, most of us. Jimmy Ibbotson left the band in 2004. So, for the last seven years, we've been playing as a quartet with John McEuen, Bob Carpenter, who has been with us for about 30 years, Jimmie Fadden, and me. Jimmy and I have been playing together since the start. John left for a while then came back, which we're really glad about.

MR: Great. Is there an emphasis track on your latest album?

JH: No, actually, there are several. There are two that I really like--one is called "The Resurrection," and it's a song I really like that was co-written by my wife Matraca Berg. She's a great songwriter. The other is called "Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble To Me," which was written by Shawn Camp and Mark D. Sanders. Another very cool tune. Both are songs that we've been featuring in our set for our live show for the last year and a half or so.

MR: Let's educate everyone on the origins of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. How did you guys get together?

JH: Well, it started in 1966 in Long Beach, California, and we began as a jug or roots band. Of course, they didn't have a term called "roots" back then, but I do think it's a great term because it covers a lot of bases and I totally get what it means. We were a bunch of folk puppies, basically. We were playing music that was mostly written in the '20s and '30s with all acoustic instruments, a washtub bass, and a washboard. We did that whole thing for about three years. Then, in 1969, we sort of reinvented the band as a country-rock band. That was something that worked really well for us because we grew up cutting our teeth on The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Buck Owens. Then, of course, there was the bluegrass influence from Flatt and Scruggs and The Greenbriar Boys, and a bunch of other acts that we were really big fans of back when we were teenagers, so the shift that we made way back in '69 really formed what we do now, you know? But, as a point of reference, country-rock in 1969 has nothing to do with country-rock today. I think now it bears a lesser resemblance to Buck Owens and the Buckaroos and more of a resemblance to some hybrid between AC/DC and I don't know what. (laughs) You see a lot more Marshall stacks on the road in country music these days, which is fine, but what we were doing was geared more towards the sound of The Everly Brothers and those groups. We were combining that sound with a rock sensibility.

MR: These days, your music would be more under the label of Americana than country-rock, wouldn't you agree?

JH: Well, absolutely, and I think that's why Americana is a really good fit for us these days because it kind of renamed what we do. I think it covers a much wider base. You would probably refer to us more as alternative country with bands like Wilco and Son Volt. Those bands' sounds are very similar to how we were back in the day. We still had the bluegrass feel, too. We had the 5-string banjo, the fiddle, and Jimmie Fadden's stellar harmonica playing. We kind of carried over some of the jug band roots, instrumentally at least, into what we were doing as a country-rock band, so it just kind of became this "Dirt Band" music, essentially. What's been great for us is that, believe it or not, there have been fans that have followed us from our jug band days all the way through now, which is crazy to us because we did make a hard left turn when we put the washboard and kazoos away. (laughs)

MR: Would Steve Martin count himself as one of those fans?

JH: You know, I think he would. He and John McEuen when to High School together, actually, and they traded a lot of tricks. John taught Steve a lot about playing the banjo and I think Steve taught John a lot about telling a joke. They were buddies all through school, then, later on, John's brother Bill--who was our manager for a long time--was also Steve's manager, so there was an association through the late '60s and early '70s. Steve was actually our opening act for a long time. Then, he returned the favor and had us as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live a few years later, which was great. I think it was during the third season, which was awesome because it was one of the classic line-ups. I think that there were a lot of great line-ups, but it was the first bunch sans Chevy Chase. The cast was John Belushi, Bill Murray, who was the new kid at the time, Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin, the amazing Gilda Radner...it was great. We had a lot of fun, and the rhythm section and myself came up with what was called "The Toot Uncommons," which was us as the band on the "King Tut" record--that's a little known fact. It was me on guitar and a couple of guys who were playing with us at the time--Merel Bregante and Richard Hathaway on bass and drums--and we did all the background work with Steve. It was really just an afternoon session that we cut in Colorado, and it was only supposed to be a demo. Then, when Bill took it to LA to record it with the A-list session guys, Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker, who were the guys running Warner Brothers at the time, said "No, that's the record," so there we were. I've got a gold single of "King Tut" hanging on my wall. (laughs)

MR: It's funny because I know it was meant as a comedy song, but it's one of the cooler songs that I think of from that era. "Got a condo made o' stone-a."

JH: I don't want to digress too much, but I read an article in Guitar Player magazine once that had an interview with Wyclef Jean that said he learned how to play the guitar by listening to "King Tut." I ran into him at a Johnny Cash tribute show up in New York, and I went up to him and introduced myself and told him that I was the one that played that guitar. He was very complimentary. (laughs)

MR: That's very cool. So, let's fill everyone in on the history of your biggest early hit, "Mr. Bojangles."

JH: Well, we were assembling songs for the album that became Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy--that was actually the first alternative country album that we recorded. We started recording it in late 1969, and I think it came out in early 1970. I was driving back from one of our rehearsals while we were putting tunes together for the record down in Long Beach, and I heard this song on late night radio with no back announcing and I really loved the tune. As it turns out, it was Jerry Jeff Walker. I went into rehearsals the next day and just started raving about this song that I thought we had to do. I kept hearing it in my head because it was mandolin and accordion, which I thought would be perfect for our band. Then, Jimmy Ibbotson, who was playing with us at the time, said that he thought he knew what song I was talking about and he ran out of the room into the parking lot and started digging in the trunk of his car. He pulled out this 45 rpm single from under the spare tire--scratched to pieces by the way--of Jerry Jeff singing "Mr. Bojangles." Somebody had given him that record before he left Indiana and it had been under the spare tire the whole time. So, we took it out and put in on our funky little record player that had pennies on the needle to hold the arm down, and listened to it. It was pretty funky, and we actually messed up a couple of the lyrics because we couldn't hear it that well.

MR: Which lyrics?

JH: Well one of the lines in the original song is "Then he spoke right out," and we sang "When the smoke ran out." (laughs) You know, it was just silly stuff. But I think Jerry Jeff forgave us because he made a lot of money on the single. (laughs) Later, he became a friend of ours. We actually got to play a lot with him later. He was always a musical hero of mine.

MR: It would have been interesting to have a Bojangles summit of all you guys, Jerry Jeff, and Sammy Davis, Jr., everyone with definitive versions of that song.

JH: Yeah. (laughs) That would have been something else. Sammy did have a big hit with the song, but we had a bigger one. It was a Top 10 pop single, which was pretty cool. More importantly, what Sammy did was that he turned the song into a piece of performance art during his concerts. He even gave us a little shout out, which was really great. One final note about that song is that in 2010, our recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for significant recordings. We're really proud of that.

MR: Congratulations. I'm curious, what was it like when you first heard your recording of that song on the radio?

JH: Well, we never get tired of hearing ourselves on the radio. (laughs) But that song was kind of interesting because it kind of snuck out there as a single. Going way back to album radio in the early '70s, a station in Shreveport, Indiana, started playing the song and the phones started lighting up. A bunch of people started requesting it. At the time, we had another single out called "Some Of Shelly's Blues" that was struggling, and our label just kept an eye on all of it to see how things developed, and after several weeks, they came to us and told us that "...Bojangles" was our hit. I thought, "Really? A four and a half minute waltz about a old man and his dog?" I mean, we were thrilled because we loved the song, but we never thought it would be a hit. So, yeah, it was amazing to hear that song on the radio. We got a big kick out of it.

MR: So, "Some of Shelly's Blues" was out there first, then after a while, they said it was time to get "Mr. Bojangles" out there?

JH: Yep, that's right. Then we re-released the song later and it did much better. But I will also say this about "...Bojangles." Jerry Jeff Walker is great, and we are honored to be so closely related to the song. It was a game changer for us, and we still play it. The interesting thing is that although it was a pop hit in 1971, it totally fits what we do now. Going through the transition of country and circling back to Americana/roots music, it still fits perfectly with what we do. We could not stop playing it. People would throw things at us. (laughs)

MR: I think I've said this to you when we worked together years ago, but I believe that The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has contributed largely to "Americana," although it's The Band that gets the credit.

JH: Well, I appreciate that. Anytime we are put into the same sentence, paragraph, or page with The Band, who are totally our heroes, we love it. They had a huge influence on what we do. So, thank you.

MR: You guys also associated with some of the greatest songwriters of the time. For instance, you guys did a cover of Kenny Loggins' "House At Pooh Corner."

JH: Yeah, we did. Kenny Loggins was a buddy of ours, and this was before Loggins & Messina. Jimmy, who played with us for years, and this woman named Porcia Lebert, who was our publicist at the time, said that I had to hear this kid. Kenny was a couple years younger than us, but when you're 20 and someone else is only 18, they seem a lot younger, right? (laughs) So, he came over to John's house one afternoon and John took out his little reel to reel tape recorder and we recorded some of the songs he played for us so that we could listen to them later and see what we might be interested in recording. On our first album, we did a song of his called "Yukon Railroad," and then later, we recorded "House At Pooh Corner," which later went on to become a big hit for Loggins & Messina. We also did a song of his called "Prodigal's Return." I think we did about three or four songs of his on that album. So, Kenny, at that time, was just a force waiting to happen. When he and Jim Messina got together, it was a pretty amazing thing. They were a great live band, by the way. I loved those guys.

MR: Now, we've talked about your first album and you have several other great ones that followed, especially Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Can we discus that album? It's historically significant and very influential.

JH: Thank you. We're very grateful for what we've had in terms of a career. It's always great when someone else says that or lists us as one of their influences.

MR: Well, Will The Circle Be Unbroken was not just a footnote in musical history, it was a major event.

JH: Well, it turned out to be a major event. At the time, "Mr. Bojangles" was a hit on the radio and we came to Nashville and played at Vanderbilt University. And, at that show, Earl Scruggs and his family were in attendance, which was amazing for us. John, of course, was especially excited as a five-string banjo player to have Earl in the audience. Earl and his family couldn't have been nicer. His wife, Louise, was fabulous. She also happens to be a great and very influential woman in country music history. So, we struck up a conversation and talked about perhaps doing a little recording together. In the meantime, Bill McEuen who still traveled with us a lot, went home and thought about it and came up with the concept for Will The Circle Be Unbroken. He didn't have the name yet, but he came up with that later as well. He basically dispatched John to a show in Colorado where Earl was playing and I rode along. After the show, we all went over to Earl's hotel room and John asked him if he wanted to do some recording with us because he had already mentioned it, and Earl said that he would love to. So, that was one down. (laughs)

Then, about a month later, Doc Watson played in Colorado at the same little club in Boulder, and John showed up and talked to Doc and told him that we were recording with Earl Scrugss and asked if he would like to make a record with Earl, and so Earl kind of became the magnet for this project. Bill tells all of us in the band that we're going to make a project out of this new album, and it won't be just an album with these other guys playing on it. He asked us who we wanted to play on the album. Of course, Doc was high on the list, and we also wanted Merle Travis who had played with us back in the jug band days. Then, when we came to Nashville for some meetings and met with Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose Music, who was the head of the publishing company, Earl said that he thought he could get Mother Maybelle Carter interested along with some others. A lot of these people weren't really actively recording at that point. As it happens in the music business, they had been shoved off to the side a little bit, and so, Maybelle was just tickled to come in and do some recording and we were thrilled. She was just this angelic presence in the studio, it was great. We also had Jimmy Martin, which was an incredible surprise. I was much less familiar with his music than John and Bill were, but he just blew us away. He was great. He started off the record with a Grand Ole Opry song, and Jimmy actually came in and played on volumes two and three that we did of the Circle records. Earl suggested Junior Huskey to play upright bass, he also said he knew of a great fiddle player, who turned out to be Vassar Clements so that rounded out the band. Then, we got to go into the studio and make this record with all of our heroes.

Lo and behold, people really responded to it. It crossed this cultural and generational gap, you know? Here we were in the middle of the war in Vietnam and there was a lot of polarization in the nation, and it really helped in a lot of ways to bridge those gaps. That's how music works. It had a healing and bonding affect with people, and we got letters from people years later saying that they hadn't talked to their parents in years, and when they sat down and started listening to this record together, they started talking again.

MR: Beautiful.

JH: I'm just happy that we were there, you know? Bill had a brilliant idea. Obviously, I think that the band was in a really good place because when we did the Circle record, it was music that we'd been playing since we were teenagers, it wasn't just us deciding to randomly make a bluegrass album. We'd already been there, and when these great bluegrass musicians heard us play, they knew that it wasn't just a kind of vacation from our day jobs. We really cared about the music. Just getting to be in the room with all of them was incredible, and Vasser Clements actually toured with us for a while later on. That was great.

MR: Relating to your reference about generations uniting under Will The Circle Be Unbroken, what are your thoughts about the current political polarization we have in the U.S. now?

JH: Well, I hate to see the polarization, and I think the biggest thing that happened recently was that moment after 9/11 where everyone sort of took a breath and remembered that we're all in this together. It was a really beautiful thing. But after that, so many things changed in our society, and now, people don't have civil conversations anymore, they just kind of get up into each other's faces and start screaming, you know? It's like the talking heads on TV are all screaming at us, whether it's on Fox News or MSNBC. It's tough, you know? I'm there with Jon Stewart, that's where I am. (laughs)

MR: I also feel that after the 9/11 tragedy, our nation was so completely bombarded with threat levels and extra security and the like that it caused us to go a little buggy.

JH: Yeah, absolutely. We all got buggy. I don't blame anyone for getting buggy, and I don't blame people for their feelings. I just wish there was a little more civility, you know? We're all neighbors here.

MR: Exactly. Now, you guys have such a lengthy and interesting career that it's hard to fit it all into this one interview, so let's just shotgun through to some key moments. After you guys left EMI/Capital, you went to Warner Brothers.

JH: Yes, that's right.

MR: How did that deal come about?

JH: Well, about 10 years after recording the Circle record in 1971, we came to Nashville and kind of took a look around and realized that the music we were playing fit what was going on in country music during that decade more than anything. We had, sort of, stepped off the rock music bus. What was going on in Nashville was that Steve Earle was on the radio with some country hits, along with Rosanne Cash, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Ricky Skaggs, and Dwight Yoakam later on in that decade. All of these artists were mainstream country at the time, and the music that they played then is the same music they're doing now. It just happened to be a moment in country that fit what we were doing, we didn't really change much. I think because of Will The Circle Be Unbroken, we weren't treated with any sort of suspicion as far as our credibility. It was a really fun period for us, and our musical compadres were people that, to this day, I still go out and buy their albums. As a matter of fact, Foster & Lloyd, who were also pals of mine and were on the radio at the time, just came out with their first new record in several years. Anyway, in the early '80s, we had a couple more pop hits before coming over to country radio, one being "American Dream," which was a duet with Linda Ronstadt, and the other being "Make A Little Magic" with Nicolette Larson. Both of those songs, as it turns out, got a little peripheral country radio airplay. They were actually our first songs played on country radio. Then, we were like, "Yeah! Do you think they like us?" I guess they did.

MR: And then there's your latest album, Speed Of Life.

JH: We did this album about a year and a half ago and, it was produced by George Massenberg who is a legendary engineer and producer. In fact, he invented probably about half of the gear that you'll find in a modern studio. He's quite the mad scientist, and an amazing guy. He and another friend of ours by the name of John Randall Stewart approached us about doing a new record in this new studio that George had built in Nashville, but the caveat to this deal was that everything had to be recorded live, everything goes down at once, and this was not an all acoustic album, it was a blend of electric and acoustic stuff. But because of the way that George had designed this room, he wanted bleed from all of the instruments into each other, he wanted it to sound like a bunch of guys got together in a room playing where each track is not isolated. And that's a magic thing, especially with his room design.

MR: Nice. Did that recording experience set the bar for what's to come project-wise?

JH: I don't know. I think that there's something to be said for every way to make a record. I will say this, though, it was a lot harder doing it that way. But we ultimately ended up with a record that had more heart and soul it in than when you go in and record with a drum or guitar loop. You can make a great record that way and add stuff later, but that was really a fun way for us to cut this one. Obviously, the Circle record was recorded much in that fashion though it was all acoustic. For this one, we had to deal with drums and amps and everything, but once we got into the groove, which took a minute because we're used to being able to come back and fix everything, we were fine. Most of the vocals and performances on this album are essentially live. It really just sounds great. George is such a genius. I think Stereo Review picked it as one of their beta records--in other words, when you get a new hi-fi system, listen to this record. (laughs) It sounded that good. We're very proud of that, but that's all George's doing.

MR: Jeff, do you have any advice for new artists?

JH: Stay true to yourself, you know? The great thing about the music business right now is that there is no music business. The old model is fading and morphing, so much that anybody can make a record. You got a garage band? You can make a record, and that's a good thing. You can just put yourself up on the Internet and start building your fan base from there. I do think that now, more than ever, it matters that you're able to go out and play well live. I think that that is essential. Just, you know, do it because you love it and not because you want to be rich and famous. If that's meant to happen, it'll happen, but if that's the goal it's not gonna happen. (laughs) That's my little philosophical overview. Most of the people that I know that have had really successful careers got into this because they love singing and writing songs.

MR: Right. Making music does not equal making money.

JH: That's right, and I gotta say that I am very grateful to have been able to play music for a living most of my adult life. But it's hard work, too. I think the main thing is if you love doing, find a bunch of people who also love doing it and start a band or if you just want to go out there and bang on your guitar, go out there and do it. I think the door is wide open right now.

MR: I agree, Well, Jeff, thank you so much for spending time with us today.

JH: Thank you so much, Mike. Good talking with you, man.

Tracks:
1. Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble To Me
2. Brand New Heartache
3. The Resurrection
4. Somethin' Dangerous
5. Going Up The Country
6. Jimmy Martin
7. Lost In The Pines
8. Speed Of Life
9. Amazing Love
10. Stuck In The Middle
11. Earthquake
12. Tryin' To Try
13. Good To Be Alive

Transcribed by Evan Tyrone Martin