Everything old is new again.
That seems to be what’s happening with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Their new album, Speed of Life, is ready to roll and guitarist-vocalist Jeff Hanna says it’s a step into the past in some ways.
“It’s a little more like our albums from the 1970s,” he says from Florida, where the band was playing a few dates. “When John McEuen rejoined the band in 2001, we kind of moved back to the acoustic sound, more mountainy-bluegrass.”
The album, which Hanna describes as “pretty joyful”, was co-produced by George Mossenburg and Jon Randall. It was the first time the two had teamed up with the band, and Hanna says it was a great experience.
“They wrung more great music out of us than we’ve done in a while. They really made us work.
“They had sort of a good cop-bad cop thing going, and no, I’m not going to tell you which was which.”
A lot of the recording was done live off the floor, without a lot of the layering many albums do these days. Hanna says it’s a system that worked well.
“It’s more like what we really sound like. We came back in and did a little bit of clean-up work after, but a lot of it is just us playing live in the studio.”
The album is a split between new material and older songs, almost dead even.
“We like to play the older songs,” Hanna says. “Some of them have been really good for us. Like Mr. Bojangles. There have been people do a great job on that song, like Jerry Jeff Walker, but it’s just one of those songs that seems to suit our sound perfectly.”
Bojangles was the first big hit for the band, coming out in late 1970. By then the group had been together for about four years, and they were starting to find their niche in the world of music. It’s a niche that takes some figuring out. They’ve had songs like Bojangles, which doesn’t seem to fit any genre of music, and hits like Fishin’ in the Dark, which is clearly country. They’ve also put out songs with titles like Cupid’s Got a Gun, which is probably nothing like what you would imagine it to be from the title.
When it comes to playing live, Hanna knows there are some unfortunate rules they have to follow.
“There’s some music that’s going to get left out. We can’t fit every song we’ve done in 40 years into 90 minutes or two hours. What we try to do is look at the different periods of the band, and play some of the new songs as well.”
The older songs are the ones that get the audience reaction, of course, and sometimes it can catch the band itself off guard.
“Cadillac Ranch was never actually released as a single, but the fans up in Canada loved it. When we put out a couple of videos from our live show, we used Cadillac Ranch as one, just because audiences loved it so much.”
Anyone who comes out to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band show at the CN Centre on April 6 knows a few things are going to happen. You’re going to hear some songs that will take you back a few years, and there are a couple of songs you are guaranteed to hear. Hanna says it was an easy lesson.
“If we don’t play Mr. Bojangles and Fishin’ n the Dark, there’s going to be trouble.”
Tickets for the April 6 show are on sale at all Ticketmaster locations.