Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Circles Back to Its Roots

When we chat on an early September morning, Jeff Hanna is keeping cool at his home in Nashville, Tennessee, before he hits the road again with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. First, they’re heading to Shreveport, Louisiana, and then they’ll add more miles to the odometer, bouncing around North America for the rest of the year.

The latest tour sees the group celebrating the release of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Friends – Circlin’ Back: Celebrating 50 Years. The concert album, recorded live at Nashville’s venerable Ryman Auditorium, features Hanna and the other original members: Jimmie Fadden (drums/harmonica/vocals), Bob Carpenter (keyboards/accordion/vocals), and John McEuen (banjo/fiddle/guitar/mandolin). The recording drops September 30, as an individual record or as a CD/DVD combo, on the band’s own NGDB Records.

The Ryman was an obvious host for this nostalgic celebration. “It’s where a lot of the music we loved lived, and still lives today,” says Hanna. “It was a natural choice on several levels. As a Nashvillean, there is nowhere I would rather go to hear or play music.”

One wonders, a half-century on, if climbing those steps — and settling aboard a tour bus — ever gets old. Not really, says the 69-year-old Hanna. “There is something comforting about a tour bus. You have all your stuff on there and you are travelling with your pals.”

As trailblazers in the Americana, country-rock, and roots music traditions, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided there was no better way to mark 50 years together then to make a record and document a special evening, inviting a bunch of their musical compadres and those who’ve played some part in their storied success to the party. As a retsult, Sam Bush, who guests on the classic tune from the American songbook “Nine Pound Hammer,” called the beefed-up version of the band, who appear on this recording, the Nitty Gritty E-Street Band.

“This was just a gathering of our pals to celebrate this milestone,” Hanna explains. “Everyone involved in the show has had a significant impact on our career, and all the songs we chose to play and record are touchstones for us.”

The 18 cuts on this new record are all musical threads of the rich tapestry that comprise the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s catalogue. Many of these tunes also appeared on one of the trio of classic Circle records such as the Grammy-winning Will the Circle Be Unbroken, released in 1972.

Similar to how that album featured a number of their musical friends and heroes, even more of the group’s heroes accompany them this time around. John Prine was on hand to sing and play on a pair of his songs: the classic folk tune “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” and a spirited take on “Paradise.” NGDB chose the latter because it’s one of their all-time favorites. “We’ve been singing that song in soundcheck for 30 years,” Hanna says.

Another song long in the band’s repertoire, that makes an appearance on Circlin’ Back, is Texan troubadour Jerry Jeff Walker’s melancholic tale of “Mr. Bojangles,” one of NGDB’s bigger hits, which rose to Number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts back in 1971. “We hadn’t played with him in 25 or 30 years, so it was great to reunite,” Hanna adds.

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jackson Browne is another artist who Hanna and his bandmates reunited with for the new retrospective record. Browne sang with NGDB in the early years, when they were still a jug band, but he had never recorded with them before now.

“We did one of the old jug band tunes with him — ‘Truthful Parson Brown,’ along with ‘These Days,’ [which was] a song he wrote during his time singing and playing with us in the 1960s.”

“Truthful Parson Brown” is a traditional tune from the 1920s that Browne’s father taught him. On this recording, the song sounds as relevant and fresh as when it was written nearly a century ago.

Jimmy Ibbotson, a member of band for 30 years, who left the group a decade ago, returned to play a couple of tunes with his old friends. Among them were Cajun numbers like: “Fishin’ in the Dark,” songs that were integral parts of the band’s set for years. Other guests on Circlin’ Back include Vince Gill, Byron House, Allison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, and Rodney Crowell.

Fifty years since they first gathered together to play music, these four horseman still sound oh-so-good. Their harmonies ring and instrumentations sing.

When I ask Hanna if he ever imagined the band would stick together for this long, he laughs. “No way,” he says. “The majority of us were teenagers when we started. We thought, ‘This is a band that will be fun for a couple of years.’ The band then went through a few direction changes musically. We started as a jug band, then a few years into it, about the time when the country-rock revolution was happening in California with Poco and the Flying Burrito Brothers, we saw that as a natural evolution for our sound. We were always also fans of Buck Owens and the Everly Brothers … those artists all influenced us in 1969 when we changed direction.

“Until then, we had done four records of mostly jug band music,” he adds. “That was the first time we felt we could do this for a living, but we would have laughed you out of the room if you had said we would be together for 20 years — let alone 40 or 50. Lo and behold, we are all — knock on wood — healthy, and we’ve made it to this milestone. We get along like most families. We are a little dysfunctional, at times we fight, but we are grateful we get to still play together and hang out.”

Hanna says one thing that’s helped the band stay together for 50 years is that they all have musical side projects outside the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Everyone does sessions with other musicians and Jimmie Fadden has a trio (Suitcase Full of Blues) based in Florida with whom he plays regularly. For his part, Hanna does a lot of singer-songwriter guest spots on other people’s records; he also performs as an acoustic duo with his wife from time to time, which he says is fun and different from his “day job.”

No matter what job he’s doing day to day, despite a drifter’s existence for the first half of his life, Hanna is happy to have called Nashville home for the past three decades.

“I moved to Tennessee in 1985,” he recalls. “We made our first Circle record here in the summer of 1971. Then, in the early 1980s, we came back to Nashville and started to make a record aimed at the country market. I’m proud of those records we made in Nashville in the 1980s, even though we eventually returned to our acoustic-based sound.”

On the road, as the band celebrates its first 50 years, there’s no reason why they can’t keep the music going for at least another decade.

“People have been happy to light the birthday candles with us,” Hanna notes. “It’s been a real celebratory year. We are very grateful to have a fan base that has shown up and bought our records for so many years. It’s not lost on us how lucky we are.”

Jack Ingram’s Seven-Year Journey Is Worth the Wait

Life these days is good for Jack Ingram. The Austin, Texas-based songwriter is living on his terms and making the music that stirs his soul. Listeners and fans are thankful his muse has taken him down this path less taken.

On August 26, seven years to the day since the release of his most commercially successful record (Big Dreams & High Hopes) on Big Machine Records — which included the Top 10 hit “Barefoot and Crazy” — Ingram released his first batch of new songs. The result, Midnight Motel, features 11 choice cuts that moved Ingram when he wrote them; these are the types of songs that slowly creep into your soul and stir your emotions.
Every night, after his kids went to bed, Ingram would go into his music room and stay there until three or four in the morning, just working out the songs like he did at the beginning of his career. On the road, he stayed up well past midnight writing in motel rooms.

“I wanted to bring people into that space with me,” he says.

He wrote and recorded the songs for Midnight Motel independently before shopping it around, and found the perfect home on Rounder Records. The disc was cut with Ingram and the musicians recording live off the floor, huddled in the same room, with minimum overdubbing. Produced by fellow Texas singer-songwriter Jon Randall, the sessions also featured an all-star studio band that included guitarist Charlie Sexton (Bob Dylan, Arc Angels), drummer Chad Cromwell (Neil Young, Dire Straits), bassist Robert Kearns, and keyboardist Bukka Allen from Ingram’s longstanding Beat Up Ford Band.

To understand the impetus — and inspiration — behind Midnight Motel, let’s flash back to 2008. Ingram was doing meet-and-greets with Kenny Chesney and touring with Brooks and Dunn. That same year, he was named Best New Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music, despite the fact that he’d already been rocking honky-tonks, theaters, and stadiums for a decade and a half. After toiling the gravel roads and lost highways of America, Ingram finally found the widespread commercial airplay he yearned. This mainstream success explains the long delay between recordings.

“The truth is this,” Ingram says, “in 2009, I had ‘Barefoot and Crazy’ out. It was a huge hit single, but it wasn’t a turntable single: it moved the needle at the radio station and people loved it, but it wasn’t the type of song that made people forget what they had to do and go buy the record. When that happened, I was working so hard to be in the mainstream of country music and to have singles on the radio. When that record came out, that song was my seventh or eighth single and I said, ‘I need to do something different.’”

Midnight Motel is definitely different. While not a concept album, there is a definite theme that ties all the tunes together. The songs speak to Ingram’s life journey, documenting the struggles and strife we all face. The barebones compositions build to the disc’s closer, “All Over Again,” which captures the essence of the record. When I say “barebones,” I don’t mean the tunes are any less catchy or heartfelt; in fact, the opposite is true. These 11 cuts go deep. The songs will swim in your head long after you’ve pressed stop on your music player. Ingram’s well-chosen words, combined with lush instrumentation, show a songwriter at the top of his game — following in the footsteps of some of his idols. Unlike the songs on Big Dreams & High Hopes, these are creative outputs he would be proud to play for his musical heroes.

“After my last record,” he explains, “I came to the conclusion that I have these big heroes like [Kris] Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson — guys I grew up idolizing and listening to. I [thought], ‘I have a bunch of hit singles and they are great, but if I was in a guitar pool in heaven with any of [my] heroes, I wouldn’t play any of these songs for them.’ Not because they are bad, but as far as the world I’m really gravitating towards and the songs I hold in high regard and respect, I wouldn’t play them those singles. That was the moment I knew, my next record was going to be very different and on a different label.”

Rounder Records is the home he discovered for his music. The now-Nashville-based label is the right place for Ingram at this point in his career, fitting well with his current goals and aspirations.
“I don’t mind being on the fringe of country music in the mainstream,” he says. “And I also don’t mind being on the fringe of Americana music, because I write that kind of music. I needed to be at a label where I know they can sell one million records … they’ve done it. But I also know they are okay with selling 20,000 records.
“At some labels,” he continues, “you make great music and it’s like a tree falling in the woods: Does anyone hear it? [But] Rounder has the capability, if something sparks, they can get it to enough people where you can make a dent.”

The choice of record label, and the songs on Midnight Motel, are about being true and authentic to Ingram’s muse, whether or not he makes a ‘dent.’

“So many people in the world think it’s about talent,” Ingram comments. “Not true. It’s more that artists are being authentic and that authenticity is speaking to a large group of people. Whether you are Beyoncé, Neil Young, or Chip Taylor, they are all telling their truths. The amount of people that they appeal to is not about talent … there is a bit of the luck of the draw, but once you’ve got them, you’ve got them, even if you take a departure.”

“[Big Dreams & High Hopes] wasn’t a sell-out. I felt like my foot was on the brake artistically. I wasn’t really doing all I could do as an artist, and that didn’t sit right.”

Midnight Motel shows a songwriter willing to take risks and make the music he needed to make. To boot, he stayed true to his longtime fans. Does that mean he artist “sold-out” when he recorded Big Dreams & High Hopes?

“I don’t think it’s a matter of selling out,” Ingram says. “That’s a hot button word anyway. I believe selling out is when an artist does something they can’t stand and they know it is only for one reason: to actually cash in or cash out. In my career journey to have hit singles on the radio and be a part of that world, in my mind, I could be wrong, but I don’t have to be on the top of the charts consistently or forever, but all of the guys I really respect had moments where they were.

“They didn’t compromise too much,” he continues. “Face it, you need to compromise a little bit. If you listen to the radio, the production is all the same, so if you are going to get on the radio, pop or country in any mainstream format, you are not going to get played if the production changes predominantly from song to song. That’s not how radio works.”

Ingram says, on Big Dreams & High Hopes, he found a sound that fits into radio formats in a way that he could still dig and play for somebody, and go out and take the lumps and bruises one takes on the road. “That sound and that format is not even a quarter of who I really am,” he explains. “So, it wasn’t a sell out. I felt like my foot was on the brake artistically. I wasn’t really doing all I could do as an artist, and that didn’t sit right. I knew to stay in that format and on that label was about consistency and having hits every few months.”

The mainstream success of his last record allowed Ingram the opportunity to take his time with his next record and make music that is 100 percent authentic to who he is as a songwriter. “I’m willing to take those consequences, which means you may get on the radio and you may not. But, because of the success I’ve had, I’m lucky enough to say, I have an audience, ears that want to hear my music and people who believe in my songwriting because of those hits.”

For Ingram, it was always about making music and having his fans follow him no matter what artistic road he chose. That’s what artists do, after all.

“I would rather be an artist,” he says. “I believe you can be a star and an artist. If everything doesn’t go your way, you’ll be one or the other. For me, I’m willing to bet on being an artist before being a star. At some point in your life if you are going to do something for a living, you bet on your own talent. I can live with that. What I can’t live with is not being completely authentic and living with those results, especially if they are not positive.”

Following the Muse With Nothing to Lose Read more