The Folk Revival Festival in Long Beach will host the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band this weekend as they celebrate their 50th Anniversary by headlining the event in the town they established their musical roots back in 1966. On September 30th, they will release a live performance CD and DVD of their monumental performance last Fall at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium with a dozen of their long-time musical companions. Lead singer and founding member of the American roots band, Jeff Hanna, took a moment from touring to give the Weekly a history of their start, the progression of the country music scene, and how the group is continuing their long reign in the Americana genre.
OC Weekly (Kim Conlan): What were your early inspirations?
Jeff Hanna: We started the band when we were teenagers in Long Beach. The music we all bonded on was Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, The Carter Family, folk country blues, and a lot of great guitarists from that era. Our influences as kids were mostly roots music, but also early rock ‘n roll—folks like Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, and Buddy Holly were major influences on us.
How do you label your genre?
If we were brand new, you’d probably refer to us as bluegrass, alt-country hybrid. When I look at younger bands that remind me of us, Old Crowe Medicine Show comes to mind. People also reference that our music played on mainstream country music radio in the ‘80s, but mainstream country radio then really was nothing like it is today. An example of the folks that we were sharing that with were Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earl, Lyle Lovett, and Ricky Skaggs.
What was that early music scene like?
There were guys like Jackson Browne, who played in our band for a little while at the beginning. Tim Buckley was a brilliant singer-songwriter, and a fellow named Steve Noonan. After we had our first single, called “Buy For Me the Rain,” that came out in ’67, we moved from Long Beach up to Hollywood. All of a sudden we were doing shows and touring with bands like The Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, The Jefferson Airplane, and Steppenwolf.
When did the scene change?
In ’69, we re-tooled as a country rock band. A couple of us wanted to have drums, one of the guys wanted to play electric guitar, and another wanted to play electric bass, and sort of put the washboard away. After a seven-month hiatus, we got back together and there was this burgeoning country rock scene going on in Southern California, with bands like Poco, and The Flying Burrito Brothers. At that point The Troubadour had become ground-zero for the singer-songwriter, country-rock scene, with folks like Linda Rondstadt, and the guys that would become The Eagles.
Who has been some of your favorite accompaniment?
In September of last year, we taped a special for PBS, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Friends: The Circle and Back. It was basically our 50th Anniversary celebration. On that show we had Jerry Douglas on dobro, Sam Bush on fiddle and mandolin, and Byron House on bass. They’re three of our dearest friends in Nashville, and we had John Prine, Jackson Browne, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Jimmy Ibbotson. I mean I have to include Johnny Cash and The Carter Family as well, with Mother Maybelle Carter on that first Circle record, and her daughters June, Helen, and Anita Carter.
What do you enjoy about live performance?
The exchange of energy between us and the crowd. I’ve sung “Mr. Bojangles” a lot over the years, and I love that song, but playing it for a crowd of people that are singing every word really makes a difference. It really reinvents the song for you every night. It’s a cliché, but people have said that as individuals, we make a certain sound, but what we do together is unique.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band perform at the Long Beach Folk Revival on September 17, 6:30 p.m. For full festival info, click here.