Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Discuss New LP of Bob Dylan Covers: Interview
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is a quintessential American group. Formed in 1966 in Long Beach, Calif., the country-rock band — equally as influential in folk-rock's transition to country-rock as the Byrds — has released two dozen studio albums and collaborated with a never-ending list of greats during its long career. They're now tackling another epitome of American music: Bob Dylan's catalog. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 24th LP, Dirt Does Dylan, which features 10 Dylan covers, is out today.
It's been more than a decade since the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's last album, 2009's Speed of Life, but when the idea of a single-sourced LP came up, Dylan seemed like an obvious choice. "He's been in our collective DNA for so long," singer, guitarist and founding member Jeff Hanna tells UCR. He can still vividly recall the first time he saw Dylan perform at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach on Dec. 5, 1964.
"I took my high school girlfriend and a couple of my buddies. We were just enthralled," Hanna recalls. It was just a few months before Dylan famously went electric. "It was just him and a Gibson guitar and a harmonica in a rack around his neck, all by himself on that stage. It was phenomenal, really transcendent."
Hanna had already been hooked on Dylan for two years by that point, having bought Dylan's eponymous 1962 debut. He and the other early members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — Bruce Kunkel, Ralph Barr, Les Thompson, Jimmie Fadden and, at one point, Jackson Browne — had all been fascinated with folk music. Hanna spent hours in his bedroom learning the guitar part to 1963's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," which shows up on Dirt Does Dylan. "It was kind of a right of passage among me and my friends to learn that little pattern that he plays," says Hanna.
"Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" was an obvious choice for Dirt Does Dylan, but narrowing down the list to just 10 songs was a difficult process, Hanna admits. Their first turn at trimming got the final to 80 songs, which were then whittled down to 40 by the time the band arrived at the studio. From there, they began playing through the songs to see which worked and which didn't.
"The stuff that we could play and sing with authority is what kind of ended up there," Hanna says.
Watch the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Video for 'Country Pie'
The final track listing ended up including songs from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), The Times They Are a-Changin' (1964), Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Nashville Skyline (1969), Self Portrait (1970) and Planet Waves (1974), plus a version of "I Shall Be Released." (A complete track listing can be seen below.)
Through it all, Hanna admits, he did his best not to sing in the style of Dylan, though it occasionally came through anyway. "I slipped in a couple parts," he says. "And I'm not going to tell you where."
Watch the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Perform 'I Shall Be Released' With Larkin Poe
There was plenty of Dylan to go around, so Hanna called up some friends to contribute to the album, including Jason Isbell, Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle, Larkin Poe and the War and Treaty, who appear on a rendition of "The Times They Are a-Changin,'" which was released as a charity single for Feeding America.
There's also a cover of "Forever Young," a song Dylan wrote with one of his sons in mind. For the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's version, Hanna traded vocal lines with his son, Jaime Hanna, who joined the band in 2018. But, as Dylan often does with his work, the band reinterprets "Forever Young." Instead of the usual ballad form in which the song is often performed, Hanna took inspiration from the second version Dylan included on Planet Waves - a much more up-tempo recording.
"Then we got in the studio and we were all talking about it, and everybody said, 'This is really great, but he didn't do the bridge. He didn't do the refrain. He did it on the ballad, but he didn't do it on the [up-]tempo version," Hanna recalls. So, they figured out how to incorporate the bridge, "rearranged it, made it fit our take on it."
Watch the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Music Video for 'Forever Young'
Hanna met with Dylan over the years but prefers to concentrate on the body of work. There's too much mystery in Dylan the man, he says. "He's got that Charlie Chaplin impish grin, you know?" Hanna says. "He's got that court jester thing, and he's never gonna let that [go.]"
The Nitty Gritty Band are now on the road performing songs from Dirt Does Dylan, along with many of their favorites from the past decades. For Hanna, the album has been an opportunity to come full circle with much of the music that shaped his formative years. But it's also proof that Dylan's music is just as rousing and effective today as it was six decades ago, he says.
"He covers so much ground," Hanna notes. "Do I think he knew what he was talking about or knew that it would have the impact 60 years later, almost, when he wrote "The Times They Are a-Changing'? I don't think so. It's the unintentional genius, I think, of his work, that's so profound. ... I'm grateful for every note and every word."
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, 'Dirt Does Dylan' Track Listing
1. "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You"
2. "Girl From the North Country"
3. "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry"
4. "Country Pie"
5. "I Shall Be Released" (feat. Larkin Poe)
6. "She Belongs to Me"
7. "Forever Young"
8. "The Times They Are a-Changin'" (feat. Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle, Jason Isbell and The War and Treaty)
9. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right"
10. "Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)"