The age-old adage that says, “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” could easily apply to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s new recording, “Welcome to Woody Creek,” by making a few substitutions – the word ‘heart’ with ‘music,’ and ‘fonder’ with ‘better.’ The ‘absence’ in this case was John McEuen, who left the band in 1987 to pursue some solo projects, but rejoined his perennial pickers in 2001.
According to guitarist/vocalist Jeff Hanna, McEuen’s return rejuvenated the group. Essentially, it was the first step towards creating Welcome to Woody Creek.
“John returning coincided with us doing the 30th anniversary reissue of the first ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ album,” he explains. “We had a little bit of a chance to work together outside of the studio, and he joined up in the summer of 2001, and we starting touring again, which was great… Then, Capitol Records Nashville asked us if we wanted to do a Circle III album because we had done the second album back in ’89, and we said ‘sure that would be fun, especially with John back playing with us.”
“We did that, which was a special project, not just a Dirt Band album because (of) various other pickers and singers joining us,” he continues. “But, having done that record, which was a return to our roots as it were, inspired us to make a record that was just us, but to do it in a looser fashion.”
With the five veteran Dirt Band members together again, “Welcome to Woody Creek” (Dualtone) represents the band’s first full-length studio effort since 1998.
“We had a nice backlog of songs because we hadn’t been in the studio to make a new record since 1998 and hadn’t done one with John since 1987,” says Hanna. “We had a bunch of tunes that just kind of fell out of the sky. We had piles of these songs, and the ones that sounded the best with us playing and singing are the ones we recorded.”
Before The Eagles, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band blazed musical trails with their hook-heavy melodies and harmony rich country-rock. Joining Hanna and McEuen in NGDB are multi-instrumentalists Jimmy Ibbotson, Bob Carpenter and Jimmie Fadden.
The band’s sound has constantly evolved with each decade. From psychedelic rock in the late ’60s to their first Top Ten pop hit, “Mr. Bojangles” in the ’70s to the middle-of-the road country throughout the ’80s, with number 1 singles on the country music charts such as “Fishin’ in the Dark” and “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream),” there’s little that the NGDB haven’t accomplished in a recording career that spans almost 5 decades and more than 30 albums.
Twenty years ago, they even made headlines as the first American rock band to tour the Soviet Union.
The acoustic-driven “Welcome to Woody Creek” marks a return to the band’s roots. Upon a first listen, the masterful musicianship and the tender three-part harmonies that NGDB fans have come to appreciate throughout the years spills from the speakers in a joyous exclamation to produce one the year’s most honest, heartfelt discs.
So, how does a group that has been playing together for 38 years keep things fresh?
Hanna believes it comes down to the fact that when he and his four musical hombres get together to make music, something magical happens.
“There is an intuitive thing that happens with us when we play together,” he says. “Somebody pointed out that the five of us make a noise together that nobody else does…It’s a simple way to look at it, but it works for me.”
That said, there were times when Hanna and his mates were ready to call it quits, but the allure of rediscovering this unique ‘noise’ has always kept them together.
“It’s a lot easier to break up then stay together,” Hanna says. “It’s weird. There have been times when we felt like throwing in the towel, and then something good would come into our lives, and it would change our minds. I think also that the loyalty of our fans has kept us on the road and in the studio all these year…we enjoy playing together. The touring gets a little old at times, but I shouldn’t whine. It beats the heck out of a real job.”
To record their latest disc, which Hanna describes as “light-hearted and breezy” the band of musical brothers returned to a familiar place – Ibbotson’s mountainside retreat – in Woody Creek, Col.
“Ibby,” as the band members affectionately call him, calls his home studio Unami, after a tribe of peace loving Lenape Indians, Utes and Eastern Arapahoe that used to spend summers in the area.
The band describes the charm of this area in the album’s liner notes: “Woody Creek runs into the roaring fork of the Colorado eight miles down from Aspen. It’s more like Aspen was in our early days…Aspen is a playground. Woody Creek is where the old timers drink and eat and live. Because of the hospitality of Woody Creek citizens, it still feels like home to us.”
Recording in this peaceful, rural retreat inspired these ‘old timers’ to record a pleasing record of down home, country-roots music. “We were shooting for that…trying to get something that kind of harkened back to the music that we made in the seventies when we first started playing country rock,” Hanna says. “When there was a little more spontaneity in our approach and a little less profession involved.”