Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Interview: Jeff Hanna Talks 50th Anniversary, Celebratory Ryman Auditorium Show
Fifty years ago, in 1966, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was founded in Long Beach, Calif. Despite their numerous lineup changes throughout the years, they've had a successful half-century-long career -- and have no plans to slow down anytime soon.
Before the launch of their self-titled debut album in 1967, the group -- then still teenagers -- began touring, and they continue to make music and tour the country to this day. They're one of very few musical acts, among all genres, to achieve such longevity.
To celebrate their 50 years of success, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band -- now made up of founding members Jeff Hanna and Jimmie Fadden, plus Bob Carpenter and John McEuen -- are hosting a star-studded concert at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium on Monday (Sept. 14), during which they will share the stage with former members and musical friends, including Jackson Browne, John Prine, Sam Bush, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell and Jerry Douglas, among others. The entire show will be taped by PBS, to air during their annual pledge drive in March.
The Boot sat down with Hanna to talk about the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's epic career, the keys to their success and why retirement still isn't an option.
Did you ever imagine, when you started, that you'd still be making music 50 years later?
I would have thought, "Man, that would be great to be able to do something that you love for your entire adult life." We weren’t adults when we started. But, no, not really. If bands stay together 10 years, they’re pretty fortunate. And then start adding decades to that, and it gets exponentially tougher. We’re all healthy enough to keep doing it, and I’m very grateful for that.
What do you think has made the band still viable after all these years?
It sounds like a cliché, but certainly our fan base has a lot to do with it. If people had stopped showing up for our concerts, that would have impacted us wanting to continue to doing this. Our lifeblood has always been the road; playing live is what really makes it all work for us. We love making records, [but] in a lot of ways, our best material is something we can do live. That’s what we get the most excited about.
I would imagine that the age range of audience members at your concerts goes from quite young to quite old.
It’s pretty broad. I’d say we have about three generations of fans at this point. When we started, some of our fans were older than we were … and then they started bringing their kids, and then their kids started bringing their kids, so it’s been great that it’s a generational thing that gets passed along. We kind of make a joke about it: I like to say, "I want to thank all the parents out there who made their kids listen to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Thank you very much." It’s really helped.
We also have been fortunate that our career has taken these turns. About the time our career could take another shot of energy, something will come along, like “Fishing in the Dark,” which, our band had been together for 20 years -- over 20 years -- when we released that single. There was a change in the age of our audience, and younger fans started showing up in droves. It was nice for us. And our veteran fans all seemed to like it as well.
If bands stay together 10 years, they’re pretty fortunate. And then start adding decades to that, and it gets exponentially tougher. We’re all healthy enough to keep doing it, and I’m very grateful for that.
You're officially launching your 50th anniversary tour with Monday's Ryman Auditorium show. Why is the tour important to you?
It’s a birthday that most people don’t get to have as far as musicians, for starters. We would be crazy not to celebrate it. It’s not something we intended when we started out. Technically, the show we’re doing at the Ryman in September is actually several months early. But since we’re throwing this for PBS, that show will air early next year, so it will coincide with that. And then we’ll be hitting the road. We’ve got a lot of stories to tell and a lot of songs to play, and it should be fun.
Why did you choose the Ryman?
I don’t think the Dirt Band, all of us, have been on stage together at the Ryman before. We’ve done the Opry a zillion times, but it’s been at the new Opry House. But as a fan, the vast majority of shows that I had a great time at in Nashville, having been a listener, have been at the Ryman.
Do you feel added pressure when the performance is being televised?
I’m rattled. This whole thing has got me really excited and happy. Playing with all these other folks, hitting the stage together, it’s going to be fun, but it’s a big undertaking. We’ve got eight or nine guest artists. It will be labor intensive.
We’re just huge fans of PBS. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t love public television.
Will there be a 60th anniversary tour?
I hope so! In terms of doing this, as our life’s work, we really enjoy it. That’s a big one. Getting through 50 years is going to be great, and from there, we’ll just take a look. We don’t have any plans of retirement, that’s for sure. B.B. King, he was working until he passed away. And I see Tony Bennett out there, and Willie Nelson comes to mind, and I think, "Why not?" As long as you stay healthy and pay attention, there’s no reason that you can’t be doing this. We wouldn’t be retiring from this life of drudgery. We get to do this.
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