Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Jeff Hanna on Colorado Roots and New Blood

Jeff Hanna, right, and the current lineup of the Dirt Band.
Jeff Hanna, right, and the current lineup of the Dirt Band.
Photo by Glen Rose
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The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which plays the Paramount Theatre on October 19 with Leo Kottke, is still considered a Colorado band, even though none of its current members live in the state. But singer, guitarist and Colorado Music Hall of Fame inductee Jeff Hanna thinks that’s appropriate.

“We consider Colorado our spiritual home,” he says. “And we have for years.”

That makes sense. Like Kottke, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was long managed by Colorado promoting icon Chuck Morris, making the Paramount gig a reunion of sorts. Moreover, Hanna actually lived in the Denver suburbs as a kid before returning to the metro area after a California earthquake left him and his bandmates feeling rattled — and he stuck around until the mid-1980s, when he relocated to Nashville amid the group’s transition from country-rock royalty (as epitomized by 1972’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a landmark melding of genres and generations that spawned two sequels) to straight-up country stars.

Over the years, a slew of notable musicians have drifted in and out of the Dirt Band lineup, including Jackson Browne, ex-Eagles member Bernie Leadon and longtimer John McEuen, whose most recent departure happened last year. But Hanna and drummer Jimmie Fadden have remained in the saddle for the half-century-plus history of the group.

Not that Hanna is averse to change. In 2018, membership has shifted again to include a couple of key contributors — notably, his son, Jaime Hanna, who’s had a stellar career of his own (including a duo with Jonathan McEuen, John’s boy).

In the following Q&A, Hanna discusses the group’s history, fresh material, the current state of the music industry and how vital the Nitty Gritty Dirty Band feels to him in 2018.
Clearly, the circle is still intact.

Jeff Hanna sharing the spotlight with Alison Krauss and Vince Gill at the Dirt Band's fiftieth anniversary celebration in 2016.
Jeff Hanna sharing the spotlight with Alison Krauss and Vince Gill at the Dirt Band's fiftieth anniversary celebration in 2016.

Westword: You guys started as a band way back in 1966. When did you first come to Colorado? And was Chuck Morris the impetus for you coming?

Jeff Hanna: No, actually, we met Chuck in Colorado. A little background: I lived in Colorado when I was a young teenager. My dad was in the aerospace business and he got a job at Martin Marietta aircraft in Denver. I was in middle school — junior high, we called it back then — and I lived in Littleton. I went to Grant Junior High and then Euclid Junior High. I think it was eighth and ninth grade.

I fell in love with Colorado. We moved there from Arizona, which was great, but I preferred the mountains to the desert. I loved the place. Unfortunately, my dad got transferred again at the beginning of high school, and we moved to Long Beach, California — but I'm glad we did, because I wouldn't have been in the band otherwise.

The way our band started, it was me and my best friend from high school, a guy named Bruce Kunkel, we had a jug band. And when I got into my very brief college career, we just sort of revamped that jug band. So the six of us got together and did that, and eventually we changed gears and became a country-rock band in the late '60s.

Before long, we started gigging in Colorado. I told everybody, "You're going to love this place. It's so great." So we played at a club downtown called Marvelous Marv's. Later it became Ebbets Field, which was one of Chuck's places. After playing in the winter of '70, I think, the guys all started going, "This is pretty great. Let's get out of L.A." Then there was a big earthquake, and we were like, "That's a sign."

We all packed up and moved to Colorado. We spread out all over. A couple of the guys moved to the Western Slope, to this place called Aspen that used to be a little hippie ski town (laughs). It was very different then. It's still beautiful, but now, it's above my pay grade. And the rest of us scattered throughout the foothills. I lived in Arvada for a minute, and then all the Eastern Slope guys ended up in Evergreen.

I think we met Chuck before we'd actually moved. We played Tulagi's in Boulder, which is how we befriended him. That was really great, really cool.

When was the period you personally lived in Colorado after returning?

I lived there from '71 to '85, so a total of sixteen years in Colorado for me, counting junior high.

Were you in Evergreen for most of the time after coming back? Or did you move around a bit?

I was in Evergreen for six or seven years, and then I moved up to Aspen, actually, and lived there from late '77 to '85, when I moved to Nashville, which is where I live now.

A vintage shot of Jimmie Fadden, left, and Jeff Hanna, second from right, posing with two of their heroes, Johnny Cash and Gene Autry.
A vintage shot of Jimmie Fadden, left, and Jeff Hanna, second from right, posing with two of their heroes, Johnny Cash and Gene Autry.

Even though you've been in Nashville for a long time, it sounds like you still have warm memories of Colorado.

Absolutely. It's funny: Most people consider us a Colorado band, which is fine with me. But none of the guys in this particular lineup live there anymore, even though a lot of us lived there for a long time. Bob Carpenter, who's our keyboard player, has lived in Los Angeles for quite a while now. But when I met him, he was living in Aspen and playing in a band up there called Starwood. And Jimmie Fadden, he moved from Aspen to Florida about a year after I got there. He's moved back and forth between Florida and Nashville over the past couple of decades. And the other three guys in the band are all Nashville guys — although my son, Jaime, one of those new guys, was born in Wheat Ridge. He's a Colorado guy, too, and spent a lot of his life in Colorado.

What is the current lineup of the band?

Going back two years ago, a buddy of ours named Jim Photoglo started touring with us, playing bass and singing harmony vocals and playing acoustic guitar as well. He's a great musician. Jim's from Los Angeles, but I met him back in Nashville in the mid-'80s, and we recorded a song that he wrote, "Fishin' in the Dark," so we have a deep connection with him. And we've been friends for a very long time.

Back when we did the 50th anniversary tour, back in '16 and '17, Jim came out as a support musician. We wanted to add electric bass: Bob Carpenter had been playing keyboard bass for years, but we thought, let's free up that other hand and expand things a little bit musically. That was fun. So Jim came along two years ago, and John McEuen left last fall. That created this kind of vacancy. So at the beginning of the year, I was talking to Jaime, and he said our buddy Ross Holmes, who's a really great fiddle player, is off the road right now.

John's exit from the band was a bit of a surprise to us. We actually read about it in a press release. If I had been paying attention, I'd have noticed he was playing shows the same days we were in 2018 (laughs). I was like, "D'oh!" — Homer Simpson voice. And we had some dates booked in January, so Jaime said, "Give Ross a call." Ross was playing in Bruce Hornsby's band, the Noisemakers, for the past two years. I'm a big Bruce Hornsby fan. He's an old buddy of ours as well. So Ross was available. He came on the road with us and there was instant chemistry within the band. He plays great and everybody in the band loved him and the crowd loved him.

Jeff Hanna posing with Joe Walsh and John Oates at the Colorado Hall of Fame concert in 2017.
Jeff Hanna posing with Joe Walsh and John Oates at the Colorado Hall of Fame concert in 2017.

At the same time, Jaime had been playing with a great country singer named Gary Allen. He's been in Gary's band for the past ten-plus years, singing when they were on tour. But Jaime said, "This might be the time to make a move." And Jaime had sat in with us several times over the years and actually toured with us briefly, back in 2000. So we added Jaime a couple of months later, after Ross. Since May, that's been the lineup — six guys. And it's so much fun. We're having the best time we've had in decades. We call them puppies.

With father and son in the same band, I can understand that there might be some tension for some families. But it doesn't sound like it's the case with yours.

It's totally the opposite. We're grinning the whole time because we're so happy to be playing together. I have friends like Earl Scruggs and Del McCoury and guys I know, great musicians, who've had their kids in the band, and I totally get it. Experiencing it firsthand is even better than just hearing it. And Jaime's a great guy. He's not a kid, he's in his forties, and Ross is in his mid-thirties. So they're not babies, but they are compared to me (laughs). Jaime was in a band called The Mavericks, which is a cool act, and he and his cousin Jonathan, who's John McEuen's son, had a record deal in the early part of the 2000s on Dreamworks Records here in Nashville. That got chewed up in a record company merger, so they went their separate ways — but Jaime is a great singer and a really fine guitarist, too, which I'm happy about. It's great to be up there with another electric guitar player who can really play.

You and Jimmie Fadden have been the constants in the Dirt Band over the years. Why has the Dirt Band been your musical home for so long? What keeps you loyal to the band?

That's a loaded question (laughs). Well, I love this band, and as I pointed out, I've been doing this for my whole life. I was a teenager when we started. There have been several guys who came and went through our ranks over the years. But essentially there's only been three or four big changes: John McEuen, Jimmy Ibbotson and Les Thompson, and then the guys from the jug band in the early days: Bruce Kunkel, Ralph Barr, Chris Darrow. Since 1980, we've only had a couple significant personnel changes in the band up until now.

We've been lucky. We've always been able to make records. And almost from day one, even before we had a recording career, people seemed to like what we did live. And playing live is our thing, even going back to the jug band days, knocking on doors at clubs back in Southern California. It was about the rush you get from the crowd. The applause you get is addictive. It's a magical thing that happens between the artist and the audience out there — a really cool thing. Over the years, even with changes in musical direction, our fans have stuck with us and we're really grateful for that.

Jeff Hanna, left, with a slimmed-down version of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band during their early 1990s stint on MCA.EXPAND
Jeff Hanna, left, with a slimmed-down version of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band during their early 1990s stint on MCA.
MCA Nashville

As far as me still being in the band, people have asked about solo records. But we really get to do a lot within the framework of the band — and you might add that Jimmie and I are kind of lazy when it comes to doing our own thing (laughs). Both of us do step outside the band. I do a lot of singer-songwriter festivals and stuff, and Jimmie has a little blues trio called Suitcase Full of Blues down in Sarasota. We both play some when the band's not playing. But he and I, especially, have had a real common vision about what this band is about, even when we've changed gears musically — when we've said, "Hey, let's try that. That'll be fun." And if it wasn't, we went back to what we were doing. Plus, there's Bob Carpenter, who we've known since the '70s and who started playing full-time in our band back in about 1980. He was the new kid until recently, even though he's been doing this for 38 years, give or take. That's a long run as well. Bob came in at sort of the tail end of our pop career and has played on all of the country records and two of the three Will the Circle Be Unbroken records as well. He's a great keyboard player, singer and writer.

You've seen so many changes in the music industry over the years. Now it seems we're back in a period where for a lot of bands, playing live is the most important thing, and the recording part of it is not as big a source of revenue. Are you okay with that? And does it play into the strengths of the band?

I think it does. I think it does play to our strengths. The business model has definitely changed. It's evolved because of streaming more than anything. The Internet changed the whole playing field as far as revenue goes. You can make a record, and they can be cheap, but they still cost some dough to make. The way it used to be through our pop career, and through our country career as well, is you make a record, you hope you get a song on the radio and you might see some money to sort of subsidize the touring, essentially. Now you make records because you want to play something new. And your audience, especially if you have a core audience — and we're grateful and lucky to be able to say that — wants to hear something new.

Pretty much everybody tours now. if you want to make a living, that's how you do it. But if you were interviewing me fifteen years ago, during the old version of the music industry, I would have said, "We'd rather tour anyway than just make records." I don't want to say records are a necessary evil, because it is fun recording and creating new stuff. But the acid test is always how those new songs go over live. And even now, I think new music is a good transfusion for the band.

We love getting out there and playing for people. That's why we do this. And it helps us make a living, too.

Jeff Hanna on his own.
Jeff Hanna on his own.

Are you working up new material right now?

Right now, we're digging deeper into the songbook, because we've recorded a lot of music. Yes, to answer your question, we're working on some new stuff to record in the fall and the winter. But as far as the live show, it's constantly evolving, especially this year. We're going back and doing stuff we haven't done for a lot of years, going deeper into the deep cuts category.

Of course, there are certain tunes that you've got to play or they're not going to let you out of the building. But the oldest tune we play is a song called "Buy for Me the Rain," which we recorded way back in 1967. We hadn't done that for decades, and we started working it up for the 2016 show.

We did a PBS show that I think got broadcast quite a bit in the Rocky Mountain region. It was a celebration of our fiftieth anniversary and we filmed it at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and we had some great friends come by who had a direct impact on our careers — people we'd either recorded with, or we'd recorded their songs, or in some cases they'd actually been in the band for a while. Jimmy Ibbotson, our buddy, who'd been in the band for several years and still lives in Colorado, he came back to do some music with us that night. Jackson Browne, who was there at the very beginning of the band, during the pre-recording jug band version of our band, he helped us blow out the candles on the birthday cake. Vince Gill, who we've recorded a lot with. Alison Krauss, same deal. Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Rodney Crowell — we had great success with a couple of Rodney's songs over the years, so it was cool for him to be there. It was just a really cool night, and PBS filmed the whole thing and we made a DVD and a CD combo of that as well. That's kind of our current record, which is a retrospective of the Dirt Band and friends.

Given the new lineup, are you excited to see where the band goes in the future?

Absolutely. Again, what Ross and Jaime bring musically to the band — they're both great singers, so now we have six great singers in the band, which I don't think we've ever had before. It's really cool: The vocal stuff is stout. It's about as strong a vocal lineup as we've ever had. And musically, Ross and Jaime have a very different approach from me or Bob or Jimmie or Jim. It's just a different set of notes. So I think anytime you pour something fresh into the mix, especially for a band that's been doing it for this long, you can only get positive results. And Jaime and Ross are big jam band fans as well, so that's been fun. If we want to stretch a bit, we can. It's like, "Go ahead. Take another solo."

And we do.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
7:30 p.m. Friday, October 19, Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Place.

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