There are few bands in the pantheon of Americana music that have been together for 50 years. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is one of them. Since starting out in 1967, the Dirt Band has championed roots music, blending country, folk, blues, bluegrass, and pop into a singular style. Their 1972 album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, brought traditional country music from the older generations to younger listeners. Without them, we would not have the vibrant Americana scene we have today.
In celebration of their legacy and 50th anniversary, the Dirt Band will take the stage tonight (Monday, Sept. 14) at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. The sold-out show will feature guest performances by artists who helped shape the band over the course of their career, including Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine, Jackson Browne, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and former band member Jimmy Ibbotson, among others.
The show will kick off the band’s 50th Anniversary Tour, but the remaining shows won’t start until October. If you don’t have a ticket to tonight’s show, you’ll be able to catch it on PBS during the network’s pledge drive in March.
I spoke with founding member Jeff Hanna about the Ryman show, what the band plans for the future and how he views today’s diverse country music landscape.
What does performing at the Ryman mean to the band?
“This is the first time we’ve played there together as a band. We’ve all played there individually, but we’ve never played there as a band. I’ve played there half a dozen times. Standing on that stage is pretty amazing, I have to say.”
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How did you choose the guest artists for the show?
“This particular combination of folks have had such an impact on us over the years, and we’ve all done stuff together. Jerry Jeff Walker wrote “Mr. Bojangles”, which was a pivotal song in our career. We’re very grateful and proud to be associated with that tune. Jerry Jeff has meant a lot to us over the years. It’s great because we haven’t done a gig with him in like 25-30 years. John Prine, we’ve known him since the early ’70s and [have] done lots of shows over the years. Jackson Browne was actually with our band in the very, very early days, those kind of embryonic days of the Dirt Band. Jackson was in our jug band back in ’66. We recorded a half a dozen of his tunes on our first three records. He was the guy we knew who wrote songs. These artists just happen to be our friends and the fact that they want to show up and help celebrate our legacy is really amazing and humbling.”
Do you think country music is circular and traditional sounds are returning?
“Yeah, I do. Now, the Americana scene is more reflective of what we were doing back in the early ’60s and ’70s and even early ’80s for that matter. In the ’80s, on mainstream country radio you could hear artists like Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett, Ricky Skaggs, Roseanne Cash — you know, a lot of people who are considered pillars of the Americana scene these days.
What I like about the Americana scene is that it’s wide open. The fact that artists like Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton are having an impact, clearly because they’re selling albums…clearly the powers that be in mainstream country are paying attention to that. But given the rigid system that radio is, whether or not these guys will get played a lot remains to be seen. I would love it.”
Is Nitty Gritty Dirt Band working on any new music?
“We’ve got some new stuff. We’re going to hunker back in the studio this winter. Our last album came out a few years ago, it’s called Speed of Life. It was similar to how we made records back in the 70s. We’ve all got tunes stashed away, so we’re ready.”
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band will continue their 50th Anniversary tour on Oct. 6 at the Suffolk Peanut Festival in Suffolk, Va. For a list of tour dates, click here.