It takes a lot of nerve for an artist to compare their latest album to a bona fide classic released more than two decades ago — unless, of course, you were involved in recording both of them.
Jeff Hanna isn’t comparing the concept or songs of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Welcome to Woody Creek to the group’s 1970 album, Uncle Charlie, but the new recording does create a warm and familiar tone. Part of the reason is that the new album wasn’t recorded in a major city but at bandmate Jimmy Ibbotson’s home studio in Colorado. Woody Creek, Colo., near Aspen, to be exact.
“It’s closer to the vibe that Uncle Charlie had than what we might have recorded the last few years over on Music Row,” Hanna tells CMT.com. “And, in all fairness, there was less pressure. Not having an A&R guy saying, ‘Where’s the single?’ really helped.”
Executives at the Dirt Band’s current label, Dualtone Records, tend to take a “hands off” approach when it comes to directing artists’ work. The band’s approach to recording usually involved a lengthy series of demos and rough mixes before the album is finally delivered to the label.
“This time, we never get past what essentially would have been considered the really good demo,” Hanna says. “Obviously, we tried to fix things that were terrible train wreck moments, but there was a freshness in the music that we felt like we had actually lost on some of our prior recordings.”
Regarding the choice of studios, Hanna says, “We didn’t want to record in L.A. or Nashville or Austin or New York. Even though there are pockets of places in all of those towns where you don’t feel like you’re in the midst of the music business, it’s still close by. At Woody Creek, we’d get up every morning and drink about nine pots of coffee and get to work. We were looking inward to make this record, rather than searching for tunes. Most of the material came from either in the band or not far outside it.”
Hanna and Ibbotson wrote songs for the album, as did the other three band members — Jimmie Fadden, John McEuen and Bob Carpenter. Other contributing writers include Hanna’s wife, Matraca Berg, best known for writing Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine.” The album also features two cover tunes — the Beatles’ “Get Back” and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “She.”
The recording of “She” marks the second time the Dirt Band has covered a song written by Burrito Brothers’ leader Gram Parsons. The Dirt Band, despite its success and accolades, is often overlooked as a key player in the development of the West Coast country-rock scene of the ’70s. Hanna shows no resentment whatsoever, though.
“Gram is sort of a mystical character, especially in the realm of country-rock,” Hanna explains, recalling that the Dirt Band and Parsons often shared the bill at concerts. “We’ve done a lot. It’s a strange way to put it … but because we’ve stayed together instead of breaking up, our band, I think, gets overlooked occasionally because we didn’t throw chairs at each other and break up five years after we started.”
And nobody died of a drug overdose, either, as too many rock ‘n’ roll icons did during the ’70s.
“Yeah,” Hanna laughed. “We always made a point of not going that extra bit.”
Having formed as a jug band in Los Angeles in 1966, the Dirt Band released its debut album a year later to predate Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the Byrds’ 1968 album that featured Parsons. Another famed country-rock band, Poco, released its debut album in 1969.
“I think our version of country-rock had more of an Appalachian feel, even though we were all from the West Coast,” Hanna says. “Poco and the Burritos were steel guitar-driven bands. Our band was more about lead guitar. … We found ourselves wanting to get into accordion and mandolin. If there was an influence for us, it was coming from The Band on the East Coast. Of course, we all sort of came from folk music and bluegrass backgrounds, too, with a heavy dose of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly — like Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry.”
Ultimately, much of the Dirt Band’s legacy will center around the three-volume series Will the Circle Be Unbroken which finds the group exploring the history of American acoustic music with an array of special guests that has included Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Johnny Cash, John Hiatt, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss and many others.
Although McEuen returned to the Dirt Band in 2001 while working on the 30th anniversary reissue of the original Circle album, Welcome to Woody Creek marks the first time in years the multi-instrumentalist has been featured on one of the group’s non-Circle albums. During a 13-year hiatus from the band, McEuen toured and recorded as a solo artist and created music scores for film and television, including projects with Ken Burns, Tommy Lee Jones, Alan Arkin, Steve Martin and the National Geographic Society.
“It’s amazing that bands can stay together at all,” Hanna says. “We’ve always had three guys at least from the original lineup, me and Fadden — and Ibbotson at times and McEuen at times. Bob Carpenter, the new guy, has been playing with us since the mid-’70s. John’s departure was really good for John and for us. We had to tighten our ranks and become a better band in his absence, because he was such a big part of what we did. So we had to get better. He rejoined a better band than he quit. … And we all appreciated each other more when he came back.”
At their concerts these days, though, McEuen is in the unusual position of winning over younger fans who first became aware of the Dirt Band during the ’70s when they scored a string of mainstream country hits. “When ‘Fishin’ in the Dark’ became a hit in the late ’80s, John wasn’t in the band, and that was the band that a whole new generation of fans became familiar with,” Hanna explains.
The Dirt Band now play 50-75 shows a year, a sizable decrease from their touring schedule during the ’70s and ’80s.
“It’s a pretty comfortable number for us,” Hanna says. “We’ve been through the 200-250 dates a year thing over the course of 38 years. … It’s become more seasonal with us. We do the bulk of our dates between June and October. We do some shows during the winter, hunker down and do some recording in the winter, too. It’s still a full-time job.”