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The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band keeps plugging along

October 14, 2018


Terry Frei 




 Current Nitty Gritty Dirt Band lineup: Bob Carpenter, Jim Photoglo, Ross Holmes,

Jaime Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Jeff Hanna. Photo by Glen Rose.



At some point Saturday night, the crowd in the Union Colony Civic Center’s Monfort Concert Hall will erupt in recognition of the first notes and where they will lead.

I knew a man, Bojangles and he danced for you
In worn out shoes
Silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pants
The old soft shoe
He jumped so high
He jumped so high
Then he’d lightly touch down…

Many will sing along. Then they won’t be able to get the tune out of their heads until Tuesday.

Jeff Hanna, with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, has been performing the Jerry Jeff Walker-written “Mr. Bojangles” for most of the group’s 52 years, and the song reached as high as No. 9 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in February 1971.

There will be a lot more music to choose from for the set list at the UCCC on Saturday night.

The band’s catalog includes roughly 30 albums and other hit singles, most notably “Buy for Me the Rain” (1967), “An American Dream” (1980), “Make a Little Magic (1980),  and “Fishin’ in the Dark,” a relatively late arrival in 1987. Its best known album is the audacious “Will the Circle be Unbroken” (1972), in which — in the words of country star Roy Acuff — “a bunch of long-haired West Coast boys” collaborated with country and bluegrass legends (including Acuff) for what has evolved into a 42-song, two-CD set.

Almost sheepishly in my conversation with Hanna last week, I mentioned that I assumed the country-rock group — it’s difficult to pigeonhole the band, but that’s the best description for a group that packed a lot of instruments into its songs to go with the vocals — doesn’t mind playing those hits every show.

 The single. On this thing called “a 45.”

“We have to,” Hanna, 71, said on the phone from Nashville, then laughed. “For a while, it was real hip, ‘You don’t play the hits,’ and then it went, ‘This is stupid … play ’em.’ I understand the other side of that, which is that if you sprinkle in some stuff alongside the regular material that is maybe a little more fresher and inspiring.

“But you can also rearrange songs. We’ve added some solos to ‘Mr. Bojangles’ that didn’t used to be there that are really cool, stretching a bit more instrumentally. And then ‘Fishin’ in the Dark,’ having six guys sing it now is big. We try to make sure we don’t turn our backs on the audience. They are giving a few hours of their lives and some money as well, and that’s a good thing. It should be an exchange program.”

The band taking the stage Saturday in Greeley will include two original Nitty Gritty Dirt Band members — Hanna (guitar) and Jimmie Fadden (drums, harmonica). A third, Bob Carpenter (keyboards, accordion, bass), has been with the group since 1980. The later additions are Jim Photoglo (guitar), Ross Holmes (violin, fiddle) and Jaime Hanna (guitar). Yes, Jaime Hanna, who had been in country star Gary Allan’s band, is Jeff’s son. And as Jeff Hanna mentioned, all six in the group now sing.

“Jaime and I have been talking about doing something musically together as a side project,” Jeff said. “And then I felt like it would be great to have another guy who was a singer and songwriter and guitarist. Jaime came out for a four- or five-day run we did in Florida and we just had a blast. He gave Gary his notice, and Gary was great about it.”


 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, 1966

The tour, which also includes a stop at the Paramount Theater in Denver Friday night, follows the successful 50th anniversary tour that spanned 18 months and included a special Sept. 14, 2015 concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Among the guests who played with the band that night were Walker, Jackson Browne (briefly a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member in the early days), Vince Gill, Sam Bush, John Prine, Alison Krauss and former band member Jimmy Ibbotson.

“If you judge yourself by your friends, we’re doing pretty good,” Hanna said.

That concert was shown on PBS, and the network recently re-upped to broadcast it five more years. The “Circlin’ Back: Celebrating 50 Years” CD/DVD package sold well. Founding member John McEuen left the group for a second time after the tour and Holmes essentially replaced him.

So why am I writing about the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band? Yes, the group, which temporarily jettisoned the “Nitty Gritty” portion of its name from 1976-82, is coming to Greeley. I’m also going to hypothesize that it’s one of the “biggest” groups ever to perform at the UCCC.

The band has appeared in Greeley at least once before, at the University of Northern Colorado’s Gunter Gymnasium on April 30, 1971. That time, the NGDB was the headliner of UNC’s three-day “May Days” celebration, which in addition to live music  included showings of the films “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and “The Sterile Cuckoo,” plus a kegger and dance on the school’s tennis courts.

 The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band


Saturday, October 20, 7:30 p.m.

Monfort Concert Hall at Union Colony Civic Center



The band even has Colorado ties in its past. Hanna attended junior high in Littleton before moving to California, then was based in Evergreen for much of the 1970s, through 1985. Other band members of the time lived in Aspen,  before it became Aspen. The band was billed as being Colorado-based — or even Denver-based — for a significant length of time.

More important, this is one of those bands that serve as time markers, and you just have to get over it when many of the younger folks around you shrug in indifference and/or ask, “Who?” But among the concertgoers,  there could be 19-year-olds sitting next to Dirt Band fans who were 19 in the year of Woodstock — where, in fact, The Who performed a 24-song set.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s personnel evolved over the years, in the wake of its informal formation as a jug band while Hanna worked in a Long Beach guitar shop, but this isn’t a case of throwing an over-the-hill shaky organizer of a group out there with studio musicians to take advantage of group name recognition.

Jeff Hanna still has his fastball. And slider and changeup. Plus, the cast around him is an energizing mix of old (reliables) and new.

Dirtheads get it.

The “Circlin’ Back” tour earned the band new fans, as did the PBS special, DVD and CD.

“We got a little rehearsal hall here in Nashville and rehearsed like the devil for like three days,” said Hanna. “By the time we got on stage, we were kind of tired. But the roar from that crowd was just the biggest shot of adrenalin I think we’ve ever had. We woke right up and had a really good time. And then we went out and toured for 18 months.”

Now they’re back on the road and heading for Greeley.

“I feel like every time we play, it gets better,” Hanna said. “We’ve all gotten comfortable with the material and there’s a lot of ground to cover from ’67 to now. The musicianship, the additional firepower that Ross and Jaime bring instrumentally is so good, and they’re great singers as well. What started out as kind of a funky end to 2017 has become lie a really bright future for us.”


The 1990 version of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Greatest Hits indeed included most — but not all — of their best-known songs.