Recent documentary flicks paint the advent and advancement of folk-rock in America as quasi-mythical events. And why not, there’s a heap of holy happenstance at the root of a movement in American popular music that got going because of a continuing—though sometimes unconscious—
Both Echo In The Canyon and Scorcese’s recent look at Bob Dylan and company in Rolling Thunder Revue locate the ultimate essence of the movement—and also the place where it bore the most fruit—as California.
The list of bands and musicians who were ultimately influenced and so absorbed into an ongoing, growing, mutating and evolving genre—now mostly placed loosely though affirmatively under the banner of a thing called Americana or roots music—is amazingly lengthy. Along the way, this particularly American interpretation of popular music has been diverted, detoured and deconstructed through several decades of growth.
Through this complex process, the plaintive power and intimate sensibility of the genre continues to manifest through many of its original practitioners. A classic example of this propensity can be witnessed in the work of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, an outfit that came straight outta Long Beach, Calif. in 1966, right after The Byrds and Dylan electrified the folk scene.
Weekly Alibi had the opportunity to chat with founding member Jeff Hanna ahead of the band’s headlining appearance at Albuquerque’s official Fourth of July celebration. Of course we talked folk-rock; what else is there these days?
Weekly Alibi: Hey Jeff, where are you all at these days?
Jeff Hanna: We’re up in Canada. We’ve been on the road for a week. We’ve got our last Canadian show tonight [June 27]. Then we’re driving down into Montana tomorrow. And then over to Deadwood, South Dakota.
I bet it’s beautiful up North this summer, eh?
It is really gorgeous. About 70 degrees, really nice. How you doing down there in Albuquerque?
It’s been a cool summer, cooler than in years past. It should be great weather for your gig on the Fourth.
We’re looking forward to it. We haven’t played Albuquerque in a couple of years. New Mexico has always been a great market for us. You know we all lived in Colorado for a while. We’re kinda scattered now, but we were there for somewhere between 15 and 20 years.
Folk-rock and Americana are huge right now. I’ve read critics who say your work was essential to the evolution of the genre in the 1970s. Discuss.
I’m glad to hear you say that. I appreciate that. It’s good that we did something.
Is it okay if I list those things?
There’s a Grammy for best country instrumental. And a version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” that people will recall for centuries. You guys even backed Steve Martin for his huge hit, “King Tut.” How’d you get so funky?
It was fun.
What are your favorite recollections from a storied career making American music?
That’s a hard question because there are lot of different sections after 53 years of doing this. Picking one moment is like picking a specific grain of sand on the beach. I’m really in love with what we’re doing right now. We’re having a great time, we have a couple of new guys in the band who are just killer musicians—my son Jaime on guitars and vocals and and our buddy Ross Holmes, who plays fiddle and mandolin, came over from Mumford & Sons.
Wow, I can dig that!
He had been playing with Bruce Hornsby.
Do those additions really broaden your sonic palette?
It does. Both of those guys are young guys, and it’s nice to have that energy around. They’re not senior citizens like me and Jimmie [Fadden] and Bob [Carpenter]. That energy is contagious, we all have a better time.
How do you feel knowing that here in the middle of the 21st century, folk-rock, Americana, whatever you call it, is still huge in this nation of restless listeners?
It’s great—an honor. Our plan is to never stop doing this.
How would you describe what you do to someone who doesn’t know where Laurel Canyon is or who Jackson Browne or Bernie Leadon are?
There’s so many elements that go into the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Everything from bluegrass and folk to Cajun music to early rock and roll. And like I said earlier, that California-flavored folk-rock.
Like the golden age of rock in America?
Yeah, yeah, yeah!