Almost sixty years ago, a teenaged Jeff Hanna went to see Bob Dylan in the Wilson High School auditorium in his hometown of Long Beach, California. He had already struggled to master the fingerpicked guitar intro to Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and seeing the show locked in his commitment to pursuing music with his heart and soul.
Before long he had formed the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a jug band that he says played their first paying gig on May 13, 1966. All these years later, the group is still together, an Americana music institution, and their latest album is Dirt Does Dylan, a 10-song collection of Dylan compositions. it represents another return to roots for the Dirt Band, which has gone through countless transitions in their 56-year-old history. The current band includes two founding members in Hanna and drummer/harmonica player Jimmie Fadden.
“We’re the lifers,” says Hanna. “We started out as a jug band, with me on washboard and Jimmie on washtub bass and jug. We were really snobbish about not wanting to play folk rock. A lot of it was blues based.”
Over the next few years, the group transition to what Hanna calls “California country rock.”
“We were one of the bands that came out of the Byrds and Buffalo
Springfield and that very happening scene,” he says.
The group made a huge cultural impact with the in1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which featured collaborations with bluegrass and country great including Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Mother Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin and Vassar Clements. The album became a hit, introduced these traditional music legends to a new younger audience and firmly established the Dirt Band as cultural ambassadors. It ended up being the first in a series of three collaborative Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums.
Now, Dirt Does Dylan brings the NGDB full circle, back to one of their original inspirations. The group – which was joined by guests including Larkin Poe, Jason Isbell, The War & Treaty, Steve Earle and
Roseanne Cash – now includes Hanna’s son Jaime on guitar and vocals.
Tell me about your decision to record a whole album of Bob Dylan songs.
JEFF HANNA: The Dylan thing wasn’t too difficult. It seems like everyone I know at some point has done sort of covers projects and we’ve never done that. We’ve always included outside material on our projects, and I define cover not as a song someone else wrote, but a song that’s been recorded and/or been made famous by someone else, a reinterpretation of a song that’s already known. A lot of Dirt Band material came from within the band, and Jamie’s a really good writer as well, but we started talking about doing this and it seemed like a great way to focus on the band and not the material, with songs we loved already.
How did you pick the songs when there are so many incredible Dylan compositions to choose from?
You’re dealing with hundreds of songs from probably the greatest ever, songs that go to any musical place you want to go. He’s been everywhere, man, as the song says. We are a roots rock, country rock, mountain Cajun blues thing. That’s still who we are. There are variations form song to song and different lead singers, but we’re trying to maintain a thread.
The list started at 80 songs, which we kept whittling down until we went into the studio with 30-something and started playing the tunes, which was the acid test: how it felt to us. There’s no questioning the songs. They’re all great and this record has a vast combo platter of songs that are all over the Dylan map. We could do three volumes of this without blinking. What struck us is thig thing about first impressions; there was something about these 10 that really struck us. Having songs that lend themselves to harmony is always good to us, because we have as many as six guys singing on a song. For instance, “Quinn the Eskimo” and “I Shall Be Released” have big, compelling choruses we can sing along on.
Do you think these Dylan songs have they achieved the iconic, standards status that the true folk songs you recorded on Will the Circle Be Unbroken had?
Oh absolutely. You can draw direct line from Hank Williams or Carter Family songs to Dylan’s material. It’s all part of the pantheon of the great American songbook, and we’re not talking about Gershwin here. He’s a different kind of writer, coming from the world of folk music. Even the stuff Dylan wrote last year is still coming from folk music.
Did you go back and listen to the original versions as you prepared your own takes on them?
In some cases. What we would do is try to find what we consider the correct lyrics. Some of them are fairy strict, like “The Times They Are A Changing,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” “Mighty Quinn,” which we’ve been playing in soundchecks since the 70’s, has other verses, as does “I Shall Be Released,” so we had to decide which ones to sing. We would listen enough to learn the stuff. Sometimes we’d change some chords, eliminate a verse, grab an alternate verse. We tried not to go back and check out everyone’s versions, which would have muddied it for us. You’re already covering an icon, so you don’t want to copy a copy.
Doing “Don’t Think Twice” was a huge circling back to my youth. I think I my read on it quotes Ramblin’ Jack Elliot more than Dylan, because his version was huge to me. I got back to relearning that little fingerpicking riff, which was amazing, because learning that guitar line was like a rite of passage when I was starting out. After we recorded ours, I felt free to go back and listen to others do the song, and there are a few versions of it that I’m really fond of, by the Indigo Girls and Susan Tedeschi.
Your son Jaime has been singing in the Dirt Band for a few years now. How has the experience been?
It’s great. Jaime and Ross Holmes, who plays fiddle and mandolin, kind of dropped into our band out of the sky at the same time, and they’re really inspiring musicians. The stuff they come up is really brilliant. Ross has played with us since 2018, joining when John McEuen left the band. Jaime became a member a couple of months after. Years earlier, I really wanted to play music with my son but he was busy; he played with the Mavericks, then Gary Allen and others. We had a family meeting – me and my wife and him and his wife – and we talked about it. I said, “Playing in a band with your father could be great or it could be horrible” and obviously we decided to move forward and give it a try. I thought it was important to talk it out first.
We plugged him in and people loved it right from the jump. Jaime brought yet another vocal element in our band and we had that instant blood harmony vocal thing going on, which is a real thing. I love to just sit back and watch the audience respond the first time he opens his mouth and sings every night. We played all through 2018, 2019, then started talking about making a record and that was the beginning of talking about recording these Dylan songs. Then everything froze because of COVID and when we came back, we really benefitted from having had a year and a half of playing shows under our belt. As a unit we improved every show, and we’re having a lot of fun out there.