Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Pays Tribute to Bob Dylan

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band pays homage to the music of Bob Dylan on their latest album. (Photo by Jeff Fasano)

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has been making music together since 1966. The group has had pop hits, including their cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” (1970), and number one records on the U.S. country charts, such as “Fishin’ in the Dark” (1984). NGDB has been nominated for numerous Country Music Association awards, including Instrumental Group of the Year and Vocal Group of the Year, and they won Album of the Year. The band has also won several Grammy Awards for their instrumental and vocal performances.

The group has had many roster changes over the years and even changed its name to just the Dirt Band for a five-year period from 1976–1981. Founding members singer-guitarist Jeff Hanna and drummer Jimmie Fadden have never left the combo. The current lineup also features keyboardist Bob Carpenter, who has been with the band since 1977. Younger members include Jeff’s son Jaime on guitar, Ross Holmes on fiddle and mandolin, and bassist Jim Photoglo.

NGDB just released its 26th album, Dirt Does Dylan (May 20, 2022). “This is the first time we have ever made a whole record devoted to a single source or songwriter,” Hanna said over the telephone from his Nashville home. “When we started out talking about the concept, Dylan came up immediately. He’s been part of our DNA before our band actually existed.” Although the band’s demographics are split between two generations, there was no division on the choice of Dylan.

Hanna noted that Dylan works in a variety of musical styles from folk to country to blues to rock to jazz. This diversity allowed the band to be versatile in its selections. The group covered the serious protest song “The Times They Are a-Changin’” with Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle, Jason Isbell, and the War and Treaty. The band also picked the folkish “Girl from the North Country,” the light ditty “Country Pie,” the spiritual “I Shall Be Released,” and others that did not seem to share a common theme with the exception of when they were written.

“The material comes from the 1960s and ’70s,” Hanna explained, “but Dylan’s great songwriting genius didn’t stop at the ’80s.” He implied that a sequel to the Dylan album may come about in the future. As to what songs made the cut this time, Hanna said that they originally started out with a plethora of titles, then winnowed the list down by playing the tunes and determining which ones clicked with the group.

NGDB originally began making the record in Nashville on March 4, 2020. They spent a few days in the studio, went out on the road for a short tour, and planned to come back later in the month and continue. But then the pandemic hit. The live gigs were cancelled, the recording studio was locked down, and everything closed. “You know what they say,” Hanna said with a grimace in his voice, “the music business was the first to shut down and the last to reopen.” The band didn’t play live again until August 2021. On Dirt Does Dylan, the band used several of the original vocal tracks and added background vocals and instrumentation to flesh them out.

NGDB has a busy itinerary scheduled for this summer, including two July gigs in Iowa: July 14 at the Rhythm City Casino Resort in Davenport and July 15 at the Winneshiek County Fair in Decorah. Hanna said the group will play songs from the new album along with the rest of their repertoire, including with Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” which the band has performed live for many years.

Hanna noted that he had never shared the stage with Dylan, even though they once played the same gig: the first Farm Aid (1985) show in Champaign, Illinois. Singer-songwriter John Denver asked NGDB to be his backup band for the show. Hanna professed to have had a wonderful time at the event, which brought together a wide assortment of artists as different as country artist Merle Haggard, Los Angeles punks X, folk-rock diva Joni Mitchell, and “King of the Road” Roger Miller. This diversity is reminiscent of NGDB’s seminal triple album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972).

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the multi-record set, which was recorded and released during a period of American life when country and rock music fans were polarized from each other. There was also a generation gap between parents and their children. The radical dynamics existed in large part because of social and political issues, including the Vietnam War, hippie counterculture, and racial injustice. For Will the Circle Be Unbroken, NGDB invited great traditional country players such as Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements, Merle Travis, and Jimmy Martin to play. The results are credited with bringing a new audience to old-time country music’s many pleasures and exposing the common ground between the youth and their elders.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken was a big success. Critics consider it partially responsible for the renaissance in country rock music during the early ’70s that helped heal the wounds of the turbulent decade before. “The average age of the band was 24. We were a bunch of kids in deep awe of these older musicians,” Hanna said. “Time goes so fast, but we had no idea what an impact the record would have. I still have people come up and tell me how that record brought them closer to their father or a friend who would otherwise be a stranger.”

Two subsequent albums were released, Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Two (1989) and Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III (2002). They received positive receptions (including Grammy Awards), but the original one was the groundbreaking effort.

Expect to hear music from all three of these albums and more from NGDB’s six-plus-decade career during their live shows. “Our aim is to have fun on stage and spread that feeling to the crowd,” Hanna said. Despite the serious impact the group has had on contemporary country rock music, he knows the band’s main role is to entertain.