Many veteran bands trade on nostalgia, on replication of past glories, and on recycled emotions from younger, more carefree days.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band trades on a mix of reimagined classics and compelling newer works. The group formed in 1966 as a Long Beach, California jug band, scored its first charting single in 1967, and embarked on a self-propelled ride through folk, country, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, bluegrass, and the amalgam now known as “Americana.” The first major hit came in 1971 with the epic “Mr. Bojangles,” which, along with insistent support from banjo master Earl Scruggs, opened doors in Nashville. Behind those doors were Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson, Mother Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, and others who would collaborate on a multi-artist, multi-generational, three-disc 1972 masterpiece: Will the Circle Be Unbroken went triple Platinum, spawned two later volumes, and wound up in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Was this a cutting-edge combo or a group of revivalists? Was the goal rebellion or musical piety? Yes, to all these things. In the 1980s, the Dirt Band reeled off 15 straight Top 10 country hits, including chart-toppers “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream),” “Modern Day Romance,” and “Fishin’ in the Dark (co-written by Jim Photoglo, who would join the band in the second decade of the new century). 1989 brought a second Circle album, this one featuring singer-songwriter talents including John Prine, Rosanne Cash, and John Hiatt and garnering two Grammy awards for the band (it later won another, for a collaboration with Earl Scruggs and other fine folks). Circle II also won the Country Music Association’s Album of the Year prize. Circle III was released in 2003, featuring collaborations with Johnny Cash, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal, and more.
Throughout the group’s lifetime, personnel has changed, with each change resulting in positive steps forward, new ways of playing the old songs, and renewed enthusiasm for writing and recording fresh material. The latest Dirt Band lineup is expanded to six members for the first time since 1968. Today’s group consists of founding member Jeff Hanna, harp master Jimmie Fadden (who joined in 1966), and soulful-voiced Bob Carpenter, who has more than 40 years of service in the ensemble. Those veterans are now joined by singer-songwriter-bass man Jim Photoglo, fiddle and mandolin wizard Ross Holmes, and Hanna’s son, the preternaturally talented singer and guitarist Jaime Hanna.
Blood harmony, thrilling instrumental flights, undeniable stage chemistry ... these things are part of each Dirt Band show, just as they are part of Dirt Does Dylan, the first recording from the reconfigured, six-strong group. Produced by Ray Kennedy and Jeff Hanna, it’s a remarkable ride through some of the most impactful songs of the past century, penned by Bob Dylan and taken for a blue highway spin by a great American band, with help from genius-level contemporary artists like Jason Isbell and The War and Treaty.