Nitty Gritty Dirt Band frontman Jeff Hanna goes way, way back with the music of Bob Dylan — to the very first time he ever saw him more than half a century ago. It was December 5, 1964, at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California.
“Yeah, $3.50 advance, $4.50 at the door, just Bob with an acoustic guitar and harmonica rack,” says Jeff. “It was after ‘Another Side of Bob Dylan,’ so the tail end of all-acoustic Bob, right before the electric stuff. He was on the cusp of making a change in musical intent and boy, was it great. Quite a thing for a 17-year-old kid.”
A bit more than two decades later, Jeff’s son Jaime had his mind similarly blown with his first Dylan experience at the ripe old age of 14.
“Red Rocks in Colorado, 1986 with Tom Petty,” says Jaime. “My little brother and I went with dad, sat at the soundboard where there was this lunch-bag full of joints. It was pretty cool and iconic to be there at that moment. And you could say it was my dad’s fault! He knew seeing him would be important for me.”
Dylan remains a multi-generational touchstone six decades after he broke onto the scene, and the Hanna men’s viewpoints through time help animate Dirt Does Dylan. A 10-song tribute to the Dylan songbook, it’s the Dirt Band’s first studio album since 2009’s Speed of Life. It’s also the group’s first album to feature its new lineup, in which Jaime has joined the family business as singer/guitarist and occasional drummer. Also new to the lineup are bassist Jim Photoglo and fiddler/mandolinist Ross Holmes, joining longtime drummer/harmonica wizard Jimmie Fadden and keyboardist Bob Carpenter alongside Jeff Hanna on vocals and guitar.
This isn’t the first time the Dirt Band has covered Dylan. 1989’s second volume of the long-running Will the Circle Be Unbroken series featured Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman reprising their roles from the iconic version on the Byrds’ 1968 classic, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” But Dirt Does Dylan is a deep dive into all things Bob, with versions of some of the great bard’s definitive songs — “I Shall Be Released,” “She Belongs to Me” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” among them. The latter song features an all-star cameo guest list of Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle, Jason Isbell and The War and Treaty all taking a verse.
“That one’s generational, back to that 1964 Wilson High School gig for me,” says Jeff. “As you know, Bob has never wanted to be labeled as a ‘political’ or ‘protest’ writer. But as an observer of history and society and culture, he’s always so brilliant. He wrote that one at the apex of the Civil Rights movement, which it fit right into, and yet it’s still timeless with a consistent message across the ebb and flow of the world and society and humanity. Jason and Rosanne and everybody else all brought something unique to the tune, yet it hangs together in a beautiful way.”
Other highlights include the rousing sing-along version of “Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn),” a Dirt Band soundcheck standard since Manfred Mann had a hit with it in 1968; “Girl From the North Country,” based on the 1969 Nashville Skyline version; and “I Shall Be Released,” best-known for the classic version sung by The Band keyboardist Richard Manuel on “The Basement Tapes.” Then there’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” 1963 B-side to “Blowin’ in the Wind” and even more of a back-pages trip for Jeff Hanna than most of these songs.
“Me and Jimmie (Fadden) and Bruce (Kunkel) were like folk puppies, and our hangout spot was McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Long Beach,” says Jeff. “We’d go there after school, grab a guitar off the wall and play. That fingerpicking pattern to ‘Don’t Think Twice’ was tricky and real cool, and learning it was like a rite of passage. It was all part of the folk process to learn that tune.”
Father-son dynamics played into “Forever Young,” with Jeff taking the first verse and Jaime the second (and Carpenter the closing third verse). That seemed fitting, given that “Forever Young” was a song Dylan reputedly wrote for his son Jakob, a future pop star as leader of The Wallflowers. The Hannas singing to each other makes it a touching intergenerational moment.
“Since it started as a song Bob sang to his son, us doing it as a father-son thing, too, came out really cool,” says Jaime. “Dad singing to me, ‘May your wishes all come true’ and then me singing, ‘May you have a strong foundation’ to him. Yeah, Dylan, he’s a pretty good writer, that guy.”
As was the case for so many projects, the coronavirus pandemic upended the planned timeline for Dirt Does Dylan. After whittling a list of around 80 possible songs down to several-score tunes to attempt in the studio, they did most of the recording in the spring of 2020. First up was the Nashville Skyline song “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” which also wound up in the pole position on Dirt Does Dylan — eventually. The virus shutdown suspended work for about a year, and then it took another year after that to get all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed. Ray Kennedy, whose best-known credits include Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, co-produced at his Room & Board Studio in Nashville.
“Ray’s like the mad-scientist dude from Back to the Future in a lab coat and chef’s hat,” says Jeff. “His whole sonic scene is a throwback to all this amazing analogue stuff. He’s got an incredible collection of instruments and microphones in his studio, and we used ’em all. He’d say things like, ‘Beatles records sounded pretty good, didn’t they? This is the mike they used.’”
Now that Dirt Does Dylan is out in the world, maybe it will somehow lead to another in-person encounter with the man himself. Jeff has had a couple of experiences over the years, most memorably in early 1990. It was right after the Dirt Band’s second Circle album won three Grammy Awards, and Al Kooper guided Hanna backstage to usher him into Dylan’s presence.
“We walked through this maze of tents, velvet ropes, bodyguards,” Jeff recalls. “The last rope lifted and there’s Bob in this big chair in a room tricked out with lamps and scarves. Al and Bob go way back and he introduced me, set it up nice: ‘This is Jeff Hanna who just won a Grammy, he’s a good friend and would love to meet ya.’ And I told him his music has meant so much to me — the wrong thing to say because it never lands. Then I said we’d just won a Grammy for an album with ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,’ he looked at me for a second and said, ‘Yeah, you sure did, didn’t you?’ He had a smile on his face, but…what did that mean? Like everybody else when it comes to Dylan, I’m still analyzing. Anyway, that was it, somebody took me by the elbow and we were out. ‘What just happened?’ I asked Kooper. And he said, ‘You just met Bob Dylan, and that’s how it goes.’”
Photo Credit: Jeff Fasano