Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

When the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performed during Nashville's Americana Music conference a few weeks ago, the legendary group packed a full house in the biggest venue the festival had available for them to play. The enthusiastic crowd, made up of moms and dads who had grown up on Dirt Band music and college frat boys just discovering it, jammed the room as soon as the doors opened, stayed through a sound check that might have sent less die-hard fans packing, and danced and sang along to 'Mr. Bojangles' and "Long Hard Road" as the concert wound its way into the wee hours of the morning.

That kind of dedication is what the band has inspired and continues to witness, even now into its fifth decade as a recording and touring act. Perhaps best known for the landmark 1972 album, 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken,' Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bobby Carpenter and John McEuen have just released 'Speed of Life,' the first NGDB album in five years, co-produced by George Massenberg and Jon Randall. Though Massenberg might at first glance seem an unlikely pick as a producer for the band, having worked with Billy Joel, Kenny Loggins and Toto, he has also worked with roots artists including Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Dixie Chicks. Randall is the prolific songwriter who penned the Brad Paisley-Alison Krauss hit 'Whiskey Lullaby.' He also co-wrote Gary Allan's 'She's So California' with Jaime Hanna (the son of Jeff Hanna).

"We all sat down with George and Jon, and George told us, 'I want to capture everything live, to get the passion and energy you get when you're performing,'"Jeff tells The Boot in an exclusive interview. "We thought this was a novel approach; we had done some of the 'Circle' projects that way but not any of our regular albums. Plus George is a Grammy-award-winning and legendary engineer and inventor, there's a ton of gear in every studio that has his name on it, and he's an extremely musical guy with a keen ear for sound -- so who were we to argue with him? And Jon is a great picker and singer and brought all his musicality with him."

Despite their trust in the producers, Jeff admits, "It was totally nerve-wracking and scary to record this way. It was challenging and got us out of our comfort zone because we hadn't done it in a long time. And they were right, you can feel the energy, you can hear us having fun. Together they pulled some great music out of us." John agrees, saying, "They had a different perspective of what they thought the band could do. I would say they took what we do best and focused it in a unified direction."

The project opens with Jimmie's hot harmonica introducing 'Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble to Me,' and the energy never lets up. The music takes a few twists and turns with covers of Canned Heat's 'Going up the Country," and 'Stuck in the Middle with You," originally recorded by Stealers Wheel, the duo of songwriters Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan. Country fans may recognize it from Juice Newton's cover or from Keith Urban's original U.S. band, The Ranch. Covering 'Stuck in the Middle' was Massenberg's idea originally, not the band's, but the producer suggested they "put that Dirt Band touch on it."

John had his own misgivings about 'Going up the Country,' recalling, "My initial reaction was 'why are we doing this old song?' But it worked. Jimmie [who handles lead vocals] is up there doing what he does and [it brought] a little of the jug-band sound to it. That's a Dirt Band tradition, finding an untouched old chestnut and reworking it."

As far as the new songs, the band examines mid-America's small towns in 'The Resurrection' and pays tribute to their bluegrass pal in the tune 'Jimmy Martin.' They visit pure country with 'Brand New Heartache,' then get a little funky with 'Somethin' Dangerous.' There's also a trip to Louisiana's bayou country on 'Good to Be Alive' and a more serious tone to the title cut, which John says is tailor-made for Jeff. "It's also a perfect overview of the group at this time in its life, and it has such a strong viewpoint, which is something that has been missing from Dirt Band music. It helps reflect a certain statement on life as it is in this point and time, no matter what age you are. That song could have been on our 'Uncle Charlie [and His Dog Teddy]' album, or something we recorded during our country years in the '80s, but I think it definitely fits even better now."

"One of the things we wanted to do was have this record feel like an album, rather than a collection of singles," Jeff explains. "I think people are trying to get back to that concept, recording 12 songs that hang together rather than individual chunks." "It's a much better cohesive effort than has been done by the band in 10 years or 15 years," John points out. "I think it will make our old fans really happy, and any newer fans like the direction we've taken."

'Speed of Life' is available now.