Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna Talks Tackling Dylan on New Covers Album: ‘There’s an Embarrassment of Riches’

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna Talks Tackling Dylan on New Covers Album: ‘There’s an Embarrassment of Riches’

When Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided to go into the studio to record its first album with its current touring lineup, the seminal country rock group decided to pay homage to a single artist. One name quickly became the favorite.

Bob Dylan was an obvious choice because his songbook is so deep,” NGDB co-founder Jeff Hanna says. “There’s an embarrassment of riches as far as songs go, and the songs cover every possible place you might want to go musically.”

Dirt Does Dylan by NGDB comes out May 20, and includes the band’s star-studded version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” — which came out last year as a charity single benefitting Feeding America, and features Jason Isbell, Steve Earle, Rosanne Cash and Hanna’s wife Matraca Berg, among others.

Hanna is joined on the album by fellow NGDB co-founder Jimmie Fadden and longtime Dirt member Bob Carpenter, as well as Jim Photoglo (who co-wrote the band’s hit, “Fishin’ in the Dark”), Ross Holmes and Jaime Hanna, who all became part of the band over the last few years.

NGDB goes it alone on the other nine tracks, save on their “I Shall Be Released,” which features Larkin Poe. The video for that cover premieres below.

NGDB met Larkin Poe’s Rebecca and Megan Lovell more than a dozen years ago, and more recently, both acts had played at Dierks Bentley’s Seven Peaks Festival, where they first broached recording together.

Then as the Dylan album progressed, “I sent them the track and they came over in an afternoon and just sang the heck out of it. They did a beautiful job,” Hanna says. “Bob sings lead. Rebecca sings the second verse, joined by Megan, and Megan plays some lap steel. And then in the outro, we ended up trading back and forth electric guitar and lap steel really fast. It was really, fun but those choruses when those girls start singing is pretty stunning.”

Though NGDB is well known for featuring other artists on its recordings — including on its landmark triple vinyl album Will the Circle Be Unbroken and the two subsequent Circle volumes — Hanna says there was not the intent to make the entire Dylan album a collaborative effort. “We never really floated the idea of it being a duets record from top to bottom,” he says. “We were so focused on creating something with this band.” The album comes out on the label’s own NGDB Records, distributed by MRI.

Hanna, who first saw Dylan in concert when he was in high school in 1964, has been a lifelong fan — and, like his bandmates, relished diving into the material. Everyone one brought in songs to consider, but some tunes naturally dropped out as they tried them out. “We’re a band, and so much of Dylan’s material is very personal [and meant] more for a solo artist,” he says. “Also, Dylan doesn’t write a lot of big choruses. There are some tunes [with them] and we were drawn to those. I wanted to record a version of ‘Don’t Think Twice,’ just because I’ve been singing it since I was a kid, and I thought if it sucked, I won’t put it on the record. But I think it came out pretty good.”

They also wanted to show Dylan’s range, while still keeping the material relatively light. “One moment you’ve got this heartfelt ‘I Shall Be Released,’ which is such a deep, soulful sort of message. Then you get ‘Country Pie,’ which is a 180 and really harkens back to our jug band days,” Hanna says. “That was really fun. We cut that song live around one microphone in the studio. I think it took us 30 minutes.”

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the  aforementioned iconic Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, which paired the band with bluegrass and country pioneers like Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson and “Mother” Maybelle Carter.

“The average age in our band when we cut that record was 24,” Hanna says, with a tone of nostalgic delight. “We were so thrilled and really starstruck to be in the studio with these people that we idolized from the time we were little folk puppies,” Hanna says. “They were all so gracious and so great and so easy. We cut 33 songs in six days. We got that much music on tape that quickly because these are professionals. They were really good and they kind of swept us all in that.”

It wasn’t until the years passed that Hanna and the band realized the significance of what they had created musically and socially. “I don’t think we realized the historical impact, or even cultural impact,” he says. “There was a generation gap and war in Vietnam and a big sort of cultural gap — the hippies versus the rednecks kind of thing going on then. So to have this meeting of folks just agreeing on something and breaking down those walls, it was great,” he says. “But at the time, we were just having a great time making music with these genius, amazing, iconic talents. “Mother” Maybelle Carter, holy cow. I mean, she was my first guitar hero.”

A commemorative coffee table book celebrating the recording of the album will come out this summer. At this point, Hanna says there are no plans for a fourth Circle volume.

Instead the focus is squarely on Dirt Does Dylan, and bringing their unique spin to one of America’s greatest songwriters’ material. But Hanna laughs when talking about ever trying to top the master’s singular take on his own material. “You know the phrase ‘making a song your own,’ right?,” he says. “I don’t know if anybody’s ever going to accuse you of making the song your own in this case, because these are Bob Dylan songs. But you try to make it a really good fit, a really smooth ride.”

Dirt Does Dylan tracklist:

“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”
“Girl From the North Country”
“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”
“Country Pie”
“I Shall Be Released”
“She Belongs To Me”
“Forever Young”
“The Times They Are A-Changin’”
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”
“Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)”

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna Talks Tackling Dylan on New Covers Album: ‘There’s an Embarrassment of Riches’ When Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided to go into the studio to record its first album with its current touring lineup, the seminal country rock group decided to pay homage to a single artist. One name quickly became…