Fifty years is a long time for any relationship. When a marriage hits the half-century mark, the celebration is called a “golden anniversary.” But when a band makes it through five decades—of living on the road, continuing to release relevant material, keeping up a unified public image and maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships—it’s a small miracle.
As such, Jeff Hanna, singer, guitarist and co-founder of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, doesn’t resist too forcefully when music writers call his L.A.-bred, folk-rock group “legendary.”
“We’re happy to embrace that when anybody wants to tag us with that moniker,” Hanna says with a laugh. Speaking over the phone from his home in Tennessee, the 68-year-old Hanna figures his band may actually have earned the title. And, at any rate, he is “thrilled and proud” to have made it this far. “It is a significant milestone for anything—especially in this business. The highways are littered with debris of bands that didn’t last.”
Hanna started the group with singer-songwriter and guitarist Bruce Kunkel in 1966 in Long Beach. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band began as a very “primitive” acoustic-only folk outfit, Hanna says, recalling how he and his fellow band mates bonded over the work of Americana legends, like Earl Scruggs and Maybelle Carter, as well as surfing. “We were a surfing jug band,” Hanna says. “All of us were surfers.”
And when he says “all of us,” Hanna has a lot of names in mind. Bernie Leadon, a founding member of The Eagles, played with Hanna for a time. And Jackson Browne was even in the band for a couple of months.
The band would go through multiple style changes through the years—picking up more electric instruments, taking a run at commercial country radio and then settling into a more straightforward rock & roll sound. However, many know them for their sprawling, generation-spanning 1971 record, May the Circle Be Unbroken, which found Hanna and his cohorts—most of them under the age of 25—playing with their heroes, including Scruggs, Carter, Doc Watson, Merle Travis and more.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band play The Mountain Winery in Saratoga next Wednesday. Those who can’t make it out to the show—which Hanna promises will include songs the band hasn’t played live in more than 30 years—may be able to catch an upcoming broadcast of the PBS special the group recorded late last year. “Check your local listings,” he says.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Jun 22, 7:30pm, $40-$70
The Mountain Winery, Saratoga