At the height of the California counterculture, while Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters were up in La Honda orchestrating acid tests and partying with Hell's Angels, an inauspicious jug band came into being in a quiet little guitar shop in Long Beach. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, as the not-so-wild bunch of like-minded musicians eventually called themselves, famously fanned the flames of the larger-scale country-rock movement that would catch fire all around them as the 1960s gave way to the '70s.
The obvious bandleader from the onset was multi-instrumentalist and singer Jeff Hanna, who had recently dropped out of college to become a full-time music maker and storyteller. He remains the heart and soul of the influential ensemble to this day, although Hanna is far too humble to boast about his role in the band's more than 50-year saga. He helped direct the group along with a rotating cast of characters that included Jimmie Fadden, Jackson Browne, Bernie Leadon, and John McEuen. "I was just looking for a way out of getting a job," Hanna tells the City Paper.
Hanna recalls feeling encouraged that, in the early days, the Dirt Band experienced a few medium-sized mainstream hits with singles culled from such disparate sources as Kenny Loggins ("House at Pooh Corner"), Jerry Jeff Walker ("Mr. Bojangles"), and Michael Nesmith ("Some of Shelly's Blues"). All the while, Hanna would find himself somehow sharing stages with the likes of Jerry Garcia, Jefferson Airplane, and the Doors. In fact, one of the more surreal situations Hanna remembers was one in which the Dirt Band went deep during an onstage moment with jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie. "We were the opening act for Bill Cosby, of all people, for a show at Carnegie Hall, when we got a knock on the dressing room door and it was Mr. Cosby saying he had someone with him who wanted to meet us. Before you know it, we were out there improvising, awkwardly I'm sure, with one of the greats."
By the time the first installment of its highly impactful series, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, arrived in 1972, the Dirt Band had secured a reputation as a musical force to be reckoned with, and a progressive act that didn't mind giving credit where credit was due. According to Hanna, the simple celebratory project that they initially envisioned for that album grew into an elaborate and sprawling three-record set by the time the final sessions were finished. That monumental release introduced a younger generation of listeners to the Dirt Band as well as to the stars of traditional American music who had inspired them in the first place, including Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, the Carter Family, and Vassar Clements. As Hanna explains, "we were blown away that everyone we approached wanted to be involved, except for Bill Monroe, who was probably afraid that his fans would turn on him or something."
The original collection and the two follow-up volumes (featuring latter-day Americana heroes like Chris Hillman, Sam Bush, John Prine, and Levon Helm) have, for many fans, collectively come to define the essence of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: A collaborative and ever-evolving performing unit that cares deeply about where it came from and doesn't give a damn how the rest of the world chooses to classify it.
It is worth mentioning that the Dirt Band scored a few more radio hits well into the '80s with its studio recordings of tunes like "An American Dream," "Make a Little Magic," and the wildly popular "Fishin' in the Dark." Even so, and in spite of the many other accomplishments and industry accolades that have fallen upon him over the course of the last five decades, Hanna is proud of his Grammy-winning outfit for being able to rally around the strengths of whomever is in the fold at any given time.
He genuinely seems to be most excited right now about the current live show that brings the latest version of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band back to the Lowcountry. "It's also not lost on us how lucky we are to still get to do this for a living, and that people continue to dig what we do," he says.
For his part, Hanna also remains optimistic about the present and future state of what Gram Parsons once called cosmic American music. "Whenever I hear folks like Margo Price and Kelsey Waldon, I can't help but think that even better things than we did are yet to come."