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Nitty Gritty Dirt Band keep the circle going

By Dan MacIntosh, October 2002

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The "Circle" album series is all about holding together the eternal family of country music, and the serious need to pass down these bedrock musical ideals to succeeding generations.

And just as the elder Scruggs passed the torch along to his sons with the first album, a few Nitty Gritty Dirt Band members are doing this exact same torch-passing with their offspring, as Hanna's son, Jamie, and McEuen's son, Jonathan, each appear on this third "Circle" album for the song, "The Lowlands."

Elsewhere, Jimmy Martin's son, Ray, makes an appearance, and Doc Watson's grandson, Richard, contributes, adding even more of a family flavor to the proceedings. "When I was 24 years old watching Earl Scruggs play with his sons in the studio on the first record, I thought, 'Wow, that's just so cool,'" Hanna recalls. "And then 30 years later to watch it happen (with my own son), it was an amazing feeling. It was great, because it was really on a really good song, too. It would have been enough that they were on the record, but that their contribution was a really special one, really helped. The inclusion of Tom Petty's singing and playing came down to spontaneous pure good luck.

"While we were waiting to record Willie Nelson, Petty showed up with his record company to pretend to mix his new album in front of the big executives from his record company," Ibbotson recounts. "But he really just wanted to play his new music real loud in a great situation. We all met out in the smoking lounge and visited, and he and Willie were happy to see each other. We cut the one song with Willie ("Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms"), then we cut the second song, which was 'Goodnight Irene.' Unannounced to me - although I'm sure Jeff knew all about it - Petty walks in carrying a guitar and smoking a Marlboro - something you never do in session anywhere: smoke in a session. But he did. He walked in and said, 'Do you mind if I sit down and play along?'"

"He'd heard us running it down, and he said, 'Man, that sounds good. Can I sing on this?'" Hanna continues the story. "Actually Randy Scruggs handed him his guitar and provided him a chair. And then he (Petty) said, 'Have you got a pick?' And I handed him a pick. And it was really fun. "If it hadn't been that his record company president happened to be in the building at the time where he could say, 'Hey, do you mind if I do this?' this track might not have ever happened," Ibbotson notes. "In the booth that day, we had our manager, Willie's manager, Petty's manager, our lawyer and the head of his record company," Hanna lists, in great amazement. "And they were happy, so it was great. So we didn't have to go through a lot of the legal stuff that you have to normally go through to get somebody to sign off." At first, the band was a little divided about inviting Iris Dement to perform, which is more than a little surprising. Jeff Hanna was all for it, but Ibbotson needed a little prodding. "We're all fans of her music, but Randy Scruggs had actually produced one of her records a few years ago - a really good record," Says Hanna. "He gave her a call and said, 'Would you like to take part in this?'" "I had a totally different picture of Iris Dement in my mind," Ibbotson admits. "And Randy and Jeff kept saying, 'Let's get her.' And I kept saying, 'Let's get Linda Ronstadt. We know her, we've got a history. Let's get Bonnie Raitt. We know here, we've got a history.' I didn't know anything about Iris. Every time her name would come up, I'd get lukewarm, and my mind would wander, and my eyes would glaze over. Thank heavens she showed up because she is that link. She is a young, beautiful Maybelle Carter."

Recording with her was so much like recording with Maybelle. Maybelle, on the first record, was so timid, so apologetic. "Is it okay if I sing this way?" And Iris singing about that time (on the song "Mama's Opry"); Oh my God! It was a beautiful thing." "Her voice is like a time machine," Hanna adds. "It's so unencumbered by trend." This "Circle" release also marks the return of multi-instrumentalist John McEuen to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fold. Both McEuen and Ibbotson have left and returned again to the group at various times in the past, and such separations and reunions only added to the musical and emotional growth for them as individuals, and to the overall increased quality of the whole. "Johnny had to go through a growth period with his music and his personality that he really needed," Ibbotson says of these comings and goings. "I spent a couple of years away from the band in the late '70s, and it was really good for me to learn how hard it is to do make music without the brand name of The Dirt Band. So, they were nice enough to not freak out when I stopped showing up for the shows. Then a really good tour came up - going across Canada - and Jeff had the idea that getting him (McEuen) back would be a good idea. This was last October opening for Alabama. "Frankly, when John was gone for those 15 years - and not to wear this out - but we got better at what we do," Hanna concurs. "The four-piece unit got so much better." "In fact, the place where it happened - that we had our first reunion with John - was right across here," Ibbotson says, pointing across the way to the Cerritos Performing Arts Center, and bringing us full circle back into the present tense. "It was an evening featuring John McEuen and the String Wizards, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and John came up and joined us."

The band's new album is proof positive that the circle they first began forming way back in the Sixties, shows no signs of ever being completely broken by time. "Doing the 'Circle' record was a great sort of reconnecting with these various parts of the band," says Hanna. Making great music is a little like eating fine food: One bite is never quite enough. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is still hungry, and wants to go back into the studio and make even more new music together. This time, though, it will consist of mainly original stuff. "I wish it was only the five of us, man, just going up to one of my mountain studios somewhere in Baja or Woody Creek and just locking ourselves in until blood was spilled," Ibbotson half-jokes. "Then go back, heal, come back and do a few more. But I doubt that'll happen." It may not happen exactly that way, but it will happen, because The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band remains united, even though they may never get the full respect they so richly deserve. "It depends upon how you look at all 36 years," Hanna notes. "We've had a lot of hits on our own."

Ibbotson is not nearly as nonchalant as his singing partner on the subject of respect, though. "I bristle at not being known as a band; as the creative songwriting, record producers that we are, that we have been and that we've had success as. I'd love to see it now."

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