Mezzanine Level 1, Row B, Seat 1.
That’s where I frantically made my way, up the spiral stairs, through the heavy doors, and beyond the black curtains, as the familiar tune of “Mr. Bojangles” became clearer and clearer.
Pioneers of contemporary country rock, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has been delighting audiences with their high energy, feel-good country roots music for over 50 years. The band has seen many iterations over the decades, but founding songwriter and guitarist Jeff Hanna has been the nucleus of the group throughout, along with drummer Jimmie Fadden. Keyboardist Bob Carpenter joined the band not too long after in 1977, and has set the ivories ablaze since.
What started as an innocent jug band formed by a couple of musically inclined high schoolers in Long Beach, California, in 1966, evolved into one of the longest tenured and most renowned American country bands in history.
Friday night at The CMA Theater, they had the Nashville audience perpetually engaging in gentle sways of the head, rhythmic foot tapping, ear to ear smiles, and sing alongs. They brought about repeated standing ovations, and the feeling of joyful togetherness within the theater was palpable. They administered a comforting and familiar nostalgia to all who endured, whether or not you grew up with their music.
Upon settling in, “Mr. Bojangles” had come to a close, and Jeff and the gang engaged in playful banter, teasing one another about their age. They discussed their time living in The Rocky Mountains, and Colorado being the birthplace of Jeff’s son and fellow Dirt Band member, Jaime Hanna, who stood tall and all in black alongside his dad. “He was born on 4/20,” Hanna said. “Just kidding.”
The band’s present day sextet and stage lineup was as such: Hanna front and center on guitar/vocals, Jaime to his right side also playing (shredding) guitar, behind Jaime sat Fadden on drums/vocals/harp, to Fadden’s left and behind Jeff was Jim Photoglo on bass and acoustic guitar, to his left sat Carpenter on keys, and in front of him was Ross Holmes on mandolin and fiddle. Together they were a well-oiled machine of generational talent, a melting pot of multi-instrumentalists working seamlessly on stage, much to the satisfaction of ticket holders. What was an astounding display of musicianship to us, was likely a walk in the park to these guys- easy does it, and second nature.
Towards the latter half of the show during “Rippin’ Waters,” the band was playfully introduced, and each appropriately ripped through their instruments much to the amazement of the audience, one by one. After a massive display of instrumentation, things got somber and intimate as most of the band left, leaving Jeff along with Carpenter, who hopped up to the mic with a guitar, and played the slow ballad, “Bless The Broken Road.”
Between being enamored by the show and jotting down notes, to my left sat a very chatty and possibly intoxicated older southern woman, who when Jeff prompted the question, “So who out there is actually from Nashville?” she very loudly asked my girlfriend and I where we were from. She would proceed to ask me very loud questions between songs, which I tried to answer kindly and in a whisper, and after every other answer she would pat me on my thigh for seven seconds too long. Slight awkwardness set in while her husband sat idly by, entranced in the sound. But that’s the beauty of live music- bringing strangers of all kinds together over a common bond. This can often create conversation, which could lead to a friendship, a date, a new perception, a drink- just about anything. One of my dear friends met a man at a Coldplay concert in Boston who would later officiate his wedding. You just never know. In this case, it just led to mild discomfort, but nonetheless, we were both having a ball.
Shortly after the ballad, Fadden stepped up to the mic, harp in hand, and he and Jeff got swampy with some Jerry Reed-like guitar pluckin’ twang, and reverbed harmonica howling away. This segued into fan favorite, “Fishin’ in the Dark,” which warranted roaring applause from the crowd. It’s the kind of song that makes you want get your sweetheart and take her to square dancing night at the American Legion.
After a breezy island tune that perhaps inspired Jimmy Buffet, they continued on with some red hot cajun zydeco style songs, accordion and all, with “Bayou Jubilee,” on into Hank Williams’ culinary classic “Jambalaya.” “Dress in style/Go hog wild/Me oh my oh/Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou“- dress in style and go hog wild they did indeed. Holmes just about lit the fiddle on fire with his jaw-dropping solo, sending the crowd into a frenzy of cheers.
After this blazing display of high energy Creole favorites, the gang waved a false goodnight, bringing the crowd to their feet, knowing full well we had an encore to look forward to. It couldn’t have been 60 seconds later when one by one, dark figures emerged back to their places on stage. “We’re gonna do this thing family style,” Hanna says. With this, out come the significant others of several band members, standing beside their partners, ready to jump aboard the next tune.
“I was standing/By my window/On one cold and cloudy day,” again, uproarious cheers. A Nitty Gritty favorite, the band laid into the old gospel hymn, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” All of a sudden it felt like I was in church. There was a radiating sense of spirituality, hope, and togetherness. Everyone was singing, and magic was in the air. It was transcendent of time, and generation after generation could feel that familiar comfort within this iconic song.
Then the riff came.
Without warning, they laid into another gold standard classic, The Band’s “The Weight.” Verses were exchanged amongst them, and the crowd was on cloud nine. “In the sky, Lord, in the sky.” They brought it back around, full circle, with a glorious ending to the medley, bringing much fulfilled closure to a night of historic music.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band are tried and true proprietors of bringing an audience together with their upbeat, soulful roots music. They are absolute masters of their craft, and their energy is contagious. From Long Beach teenagers having fun in a jug band, to touring the country 50 years later, it goes without question their impact on American country music will stand the test of time.