The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s legions of fans can thank co-producers George Massenburg and Jon Randall Stewart for capturing their classic sound on the group’s latest album, Speed of Life.
“To be perfectly honest, between George and J.R., they really wanted to get the five-string banjo and the harp [harmonica] up there again in the mix,” singer-guitarist Jeff Hanna told CMT.com. “I think it was a great idea. I refer to those as our adrenalin instruments. They always give a huge shot of energy.”
Not that the Dirt Band has ever veered too far from the basic elements that inadvertently made them pioneers of a musical style now known as Americana. When they formed in Southern California in 1966, they envisioned themselves as a jug band. They were already five albums into their career before achieving mainstream success with the 1970 album, Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy. The eclectic project included the breakout single, a cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles,” that last month was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame. Later in the ’70s, they came to Nashville and made history with the first of three Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums, a series that featured Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis and many other legends.
There have been many turns in the road during the band’s 43-year career, and while some members have left and returned through the years, the key players haven’t changed all that much. In fact, Speed of Life features three members who worked together on the Uncle Charlie album — Hanna, multi-instrumentalist John McEuen and drummer-harmonica player Jimmie Fadden. The current lineup is filled out by keyboardist Bob Carpenter, who will forever be the “new guy” even though he’s been in the band for more than 30 years.
Speed of Life marks the Dirt Band’s first project with Massenburg, a legend in his own right, who has worked on recordings with Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Billy Joel, Randy Newman, the Dixie Chicks, Journey, Little Feat and Kenny Loggins, to name a few.
“When you get this kind of opportunity, you just do it,” Hanna said of working with Massenburg and Stewart. “You don’t think about it. Plus, these guys are both fans of our band and are really cheerleaders and supporters of what we do and what we’ve done. They really wanted to make a record that was a throwback more to what we did in the ’70s. We were all about that.”
Asked what makes Massenburg so valuable in the studio, Hanna said, “Part of it is that he invented half the recording gear. His compressors and his preamps are in every major studio in the world and in a lot of home studios. He’s a mad scientist. He’s a real musical guy, too. He’s got a great song sense. Knowing when you’re in the pocket and when you’ve gone into the ditch, he knows that difference really well.
“Jon Randall brings a ton to the mix, too, as a writer and a great connoisseur of songwriting. He’s a great singer. He sang harmony on a few tracks and played some guitar. We had to kind of pry him out of his chair to get him to come out and play guitar and mandolin on a few tracks.”
One of the new songs that’s drawing attention is “The Resurrection,” written by Matraca Berg and Alice Randall. Berg, who is Hanna’s wife, has a list of song credits that includes Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine.” The lyrics of “The Resurrection” deal with a person who’s battling mixed emotions after returning to a small town that once was called home.
“The song itself is so topical right now,” Hanna said. “There’s so many little towns in America that are struggling. … It’s a hopeful tune, but it’s also bittersweet. The song is really like a mini-movie. Alice and Matraca did an amazing job on it.”
The new album also includes cover versions of two familiar songs from the ’60s and ’70s — Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country” and Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You.”
“’Going Up the Country’ was Jimmie Fadden’s idea,” Hanna said. “He’s been talking about recording that song for several years. I think the constraints of not doing a ’radio record’ this time out allowed us to really broaden the scope of what tunes might fit and might not fit a record. Jimmie and Al Wilson, the guy from Canned Heat who wrote the song, were buddies. We all kind of came up in that folk music circuit in Los Angeles, so we played with Canned Heat all the time. We always loved the song and figured we could add more of our jug band/country-blues thing to it.”
Massenburg suggested the Stealer’s Wheel song while the musicians were packing up their instruments at the end of a session.
“The version that’s on the album fades in because we were just learning the song,” Hanna explained. “We had just gotten the groove down. We recorded it a couple of times after that, but our favorite one was the one that didn’t start with a count. It’s faded in. It’s probably the most spontaneous thing on the album.”
Hanna, who moved to Nashville in 1985, has found success outside the Dirt Band as a co-writer of Rascal Flatts’ No. 1 hit, “Bless the Broken Road.” The other band members continue to work on other projects, too, with Fadden residing in Florida and Carpenter in Los Angeles. McEuen recently moved to New York City.
“We’re having more fun than we ever have,” Hanna said. “A lot of it, I think, is that this new album has really given us a shot in the arm. New music is the lifeblood for anybody who’s out there playing live. As great as it is to go out and have a song like ’Mr. Bojangles’ or ’Fishin’ in the Dark’ to play every night, it’s really exciting to have new songs that you believe in.”
The Dirt Band still tours regularly, although none of the concert bills are quite as oddly matched as some of the ones they experienced in the late ’60s. Asked about the most bizarre combination, he quickly replied.
“I think it was back-to-back days where we played on a bill with the Doors — and the next day, we played on a bill with Jack Benny,” he said. “But we were playing with Bill Cosby one day, and the next day, it was Aerosmith, and the next day it was ZZ Top, and the next day it was with the Earl Scruggs Revue. We’ve pretty much done everything twice.”