Jeff Hanna on Why The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Took on Bob Dylan

Teenage Jeff Hanna paid $4.50 to see Bob Dylan perform at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California on Dec. 5, 1964. Armed only with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica rack, Dylan, who had only released his third album at the time, The Times They Are a-Changin‘, played through his then smaller reserve of music, forever changing Hanna’s life.

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“When I saw him in ’64, all the songs were brand new,” Hanna tells American Songwriter. “They were all part of the repertoire. He didn’t have a band. He was at the tail end of it, of the acoustic Dylan era.”

Long after Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in March of 1965 and his Bringing It All Back Home, Hanna’s son Jaime would have a similar experience to his father more than 20 years later seeing Dylan play for the first time at Red Rocks with Tom Petty in 1986. 

The running bond with Dylan’s work continued through Hanna and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s live shows and sessions, spilling into 1989 Volume Two of the band’s seventh album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, originally released in 1972, with “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” featuring former The Byrds members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman on 12-string guitar and vocals.

Nearly 50 years since the release of the first Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Dylan is still one of Hanna’s musical muses, and just like the band’s 1972 release—chock full of country-western and bluegrass collaborators like “Mother” Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Earl and Randy Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Norman Blake, Jimmy Martin and more—on Dirt Does Dylan, the band’s 24th album, interprets 10 of Dylan’s definitive tracks along with special guests Steve Earle, Jason Isbell, The War & Treaty, Ray Kennedy and Rosanne Cash.

“He always had a point of view even if he was singing something kind of whimsical like ‘Country Pie’ [1969], and his sense of humor on ‘Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35’ [1966] is pretty great,” says Hanna. “In terms of covering his tunes, he has a very singular point of view, which feels like a solo artist to me, so that was another determining factor. He hasn’t had a ton of songs that have big choruses. ’Mighty Quinn’ does and ‘I Shall Be Released,’ but a lot of them are just a simple refrain at the end of a verse like ‘The Times They Are A-Changin,’ so we loved finding a groove that fit or suited our style.”

And much like the initial release Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Dirt Does Dylan may be the first volume of Dylan covers since it only covers his catalog from the 1960s through the ’70s. “Our admiration for his material did not stop there,” says Hanna. “These were just songs that just we just really loved. Some folks might say ‘why not do a deeper dive? Well, we could, if we do another record.”

Hanna added, “These songs were in our DNA. These are songs I just loved as a kid and going back to see him in high school and he’s playing ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ and ‘The Times, They are a-Changin’ back then.”

Produced and recorded by Ray Kennedy at Room & Board Studio in Nashville, Dirt Does Dylan pays tribute to the iconic singer and songwriter through songs spanning his 60-plus year career. Initially listing 100 Dylan songs they wanted to record, the band chopped it down to 40 before landing on the final 10, diving into Dylan’s more definitive tracks like “I Shall Be Released,” featuring Larkin Poe, and “The Times They Are a-Changin” with Cash, Earle, Isbell, and War & Treaty.

This time around The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was rounded out with Hanna’s son, guitarist Jaime Hanna and newer members Cadillac Sky fiddler Ross Holmes and bassist Jim Photoglo, who also wrote (along with Wendy Waldman) The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1987 hit “Fishin’ in the Dark.”

Hanna sings with his son through most Dylan classics including openers “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” and “Girl from the North Country” as well as “She Belongs to Me,” ”Forever Young,” ”Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” The pair also join bandmates Holmes, Photoglo and Jimmie Fadden on closing “Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn),” pulled from Dylan’s 1967 Basement Tapes sessions and later recorded by Manfred Mann, becoming their 1968 hit “Mighty Quinn.”

Working with Jaime—who worked on Hanna-McEuen along with first cousin Jonathan McEuen and has written for and played with The Mavericks and dozens of other artists and bands—has been a highlight for Hanna on Dirt Does Dylan.

“Maybe because Jamie wasn’t a little kid when he started playing, it works,” shares Hanna of working with his son. “I think there can be pressure, that parental relationship, musically, because you have a lot of dynamics in play. You’ve got the family thing and then you’ve got the music and they can get tangled up, and it can become very complicated.”

When the band had a vacancy in 2018 and needed someone to play fiddle and mandolin, Jamie suggested his neighbor, Ross Holmes, who played Bruce Hornsby and Mumford and Sons. Holmes later suggested getting Jaime in on the band. “Jaime came out and rode the bus around with us for about a week, just to see if the vibe was there, if we all got along, and it was great,” says Hanna. “He jumped right up. He’s also talented, too. That really helps.”

For Jaime and Jeff and the rest of Nitty Gritty, it comes back to Dylan. Thinking back to the man behind their new album, Hanna volunteers his favorite Dylan album, his 15th, Blood on the Tracks, released in 1975. 

“He’s done so many albums that just bowled me over,” says Hanna. “I even love the last one, ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ [2020]. It’s fantastic. He’s still at the top of his game.”

Photo: Jeff Fasano / IV PR

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