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Nitty Gritty Dirt Band tackles music of rock bard Bob Dylan for latest album

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Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band 

Where to start when talking about the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band?

The legendary group, together now for more than 55 years, started in the mid-1960s as a jug band before going electric and, alongside the Byrds, the Eagles and others, helped give birth to country rock.

A cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” put the Dirt band in the pop Top 10 in 1970, and since then it has turned out many great albums and — especially after turning to a more straight-ahead country sound in the 1980s and ‘90s — hit singles.

Of course, the group is also famous for recording the landmark 1972 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” on which the California country band met country and bluegrass royalty including Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis and Roy Acuff, among others. It was a culture clash of major proportions that resulted in an enduring classic.

The Dirt Band has gone through numerous iterations over the years, but its core members have always been guitarist/vocalist Jeff Hanna and drummer/vocalist/harmonica player Jimmie Fadden. Multi-instrumentalist John McEuen has had two long stints with the band, leaving most recently in 2017. Keyboardist/vocalist Bob Carpenter has been in the lineup since 1977.

These days, Hanna, Fadden and Carpenter are joined by Hanna’s son, multi-instrumentalist Jaime Hanna, fiddler/mandolinist Ross Holmes and bassist Jim Photoglo.

The latest lineup had been touring for several years but had not made a record together by 2020. While casting about for ideas, someone in the Dirt Band camp asked if they had ever done an album of a single songwriter’s material. They hadn’t, and so the idea was hatched: Who better to go to for an endless supply of great songs than Bob Dylan?

Started before the pandemic and finished recently, “Dirt Does Dylan” will be released May 20 — the day before the group performs at Chesterfield Amphitheatre.

“We had recorded ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,’ a Dylan song on ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. 2,’ and we still play that song every night,” Hanna says by phone from his home in Nashville, Tennessee. “So we had our toe in the water as far as Dylan material went. We started looking for songs to do and had a list of about a hundred.”

They winnowed down the list, then winnowed it some more and then some more and eventually had the 10 songs that wound up on the album: a nice assortment of classics (“Forever Young,” “I Shall Be Released,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’”), along with some slightly lesser-known songs (“Country Pie,” “She Belongs to Me”).

“Some of them, like ‘Quinn the Eskimo,’ are just fun to sing,” Hanna says about the selection process. “The final criteria was whether or not it sounded like us and didn’t drift into us imitating him. That was the hard part,” he adds with a laugh, “not to go into that voice!”

The album features a number of special guests. Larkin Poe (sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell) appear on “I Shall Be Released,” while “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is turned into an all-star singalong with Jason Isbell, Rosanne Cash, the War and Treaty (Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Trotter), and Steve Earle each taking a verse. Hanna’s wife, singer-songwriter Matraca Berg, adds harmony vocals and harmonica.

“That song just seemed like such a natural to have other voices on it,” Hanna says.

So since the Dirt Band has now recorded an album of his songs, has Hanna ever had an encounter with the mysterious rock bard?

“I have!” he says. “And it was enigmatic, just how you’d like it to be.”

Actually, two: Back in 1985, the Dirt Band played the first Farm Aid concert and also backed up its (then) Colorado neighbor, John Denver. Dylan knocked on the door of the band’s dressing room to meet with Denver. “I got to be a fly on the wall while Denver and Dylan chatted each other up,” Hanna says. “It was very interesting because you wouldn’t necessarily assume that they would be on the same wavelength.” But he wasn’t introduced. “There was no, ‘Hey, Bob, nice to meet you,’” he says. “We were furniture.”

But in 1989 the band was in LA to collect several Grammys for the “Circle Vol. 2” album and the next night attended an all-star tribute to Roy Orbison, who had died. Dylan was one of the performers, and mutual friend Al Kooper offered to introduce Hanna to him.

“So through this series of velvet ropes and VIP areas, deeper and deeper into the inner sanctum, we walked into this dark room, and he’s in there greeting people,” Hanna says. “I didn’t know what to say. So I wound up saying, (stammering) ‘Hey, Bob … Mr. Bob, I don’t know if you know this, but we did this album that had “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” on it, and we won some Grammys with that.’

“There was a long pause and Dylan replied, ‘You sure did!’ Then this burly guy came up and said, ‘That’s enough.’”

“I’ve heard three or four Bob stories just like that. There’s just one sentence or a kind of punch line or something. It’s kind of cool, really.”

What Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tenille Townes, Rob Ickes, Trey Hensley • When 4 p.m. May 21 • Where Chesterfield Amphitheatre, 631 Veterans Place Drive, Chesterfield • How much $20-$99 • More info 636-537-4000; ticketmaster.com

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The Blender by Kevin C. Johnson

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