Lord, it was nearly sixty years ago.
Long Beach, California. Jeff Hanna was in high school, a holding zone where hormones and anxiety are left to fester until they explode like Langston Hughes’s dream deferred.
Suddenly, a sound burst through the middling morass at laser speed, deflating the balls of confusion that teenaged Jeff was holding. That sound came from the iron ore town of Hibbing, Minnesota, by way of Greenwich Village. It was Bob Dylan, a young man who at first recharged old folk and blues songs, but who became known for his own wild-eyed compositions.
Hanna didn’t know what was going on. But, at the same time, he knew Dylan was the man who would lead him to know most everything that was going on.
After school, he’d go home, lock himself in his bedroom, and haltingly play the picking pattern to Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” until the halting gave way to the feeling that he’d mastered a magic trick.
And when Dylan came to play at the Wilson High School auditorium, Hanna paid $4 to sit in the balcony with his girlfriend and a group of pals that included Bruce Kunkel, with whom he would soon start the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a fluid combo that would make a beautiful and necessary mark on American music. Another key member of that band was a boy named Jimmie Fadden, who would sit and play Dylan songs with Hanna, transfixed by the way Dylan’s music blended seemingly every roots music strain.
Fadden would become Hanna’s lifelong partner in the groundbreaking, hit-making, Grammy winning, long-lived (since 1966), Dirt Band. Hanna considers Jimmie’s harp to be another lead vocal, and, indeed, Fadden’s harmonica is to the Dirt Band what Mickey Raphael’s is to Willie Nelson: It is instantly recognizable, and instantly satisfying.
What’s all this about Dylan, then? Well, the Dirt Band’s new album, Dirt Does Dylan, is a romp through some of the gems in Dylan’s catalog, as played by Hanna, Fadden, keyboardist/songwriter/vocalist Bob Carpenter (who joined in 1980), and three new members: fiddle specialist Ross Holmes; singer-songwriter and bass player Jim Photoglo (who wrote one of the Dirt Band’s biggest hits, “Fishin’ in the Dark”); and Hanna’s son, the absurdly talented singer and guitarist Jaime Hanna.
Between Long Beach high school days and the release of Dirt Does Dylan, the Dirt Band brought folk music to the national forefront with “Mr. Bojangles,” recorded the volumes of the multi-artist Will the Circle Be Unbroken series of albums, featuring Mother Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal, John Prine, Dwight Yoakam, and dozens more.
They’ve won three Grammys and placed an album and a single in the Grammy Hall of Fame, and scored country hits including “Voila (An American Dream),” “Modern Day Romance,” “Stand a Little Rain” and many more. They’ve undergone numerous lineup changes, the latest of which has just recorded its first studio album together. The album was produced by Ray Kennedy (Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams) and Hanna in a nondescript building located behind an auto parts store in Nashville’s Berry Hills neighborhood. In that studio, with vintage microphones and instruments and this newly reconstructed Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the group added a definitive album to an unprecedented catalog.
Dirt Does Dylan opens with a rousing take on “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” one that finds the joyful middle ground between Dylan’s Nashville Skyline version and the electrifying performances of the song on the mid-70s Rolling Thunder tour. Then it’s on to a gorgeous “Girl from the North Country,” with father and son sharing vocals and a wistful, autumnal electric guitar outro.
“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” finds Fadden sharing vocals with Jeff Hanna and playing a signature harp solo. “Country Pie” is a string-band session, recorded around one microphone with Carpenter, Jaime Hanna and Holmes whistling for their just desserts. And Carpenter is joined by Rebecca and Megan Lovell of Larkin Poe on “I Shall Be Released,” which promises imminent emancipation from a prison of iron bars or worried mind.
The Hanna men sing “She Belongs to Me,” from Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan’s surrealist step forward from 1965. And the Dirt Band follows that with “Forever Young,” an unattainable prayer set to one of Dylan’s rare soaring choruses. Jeff, Jaime, and Carpenter each sing lead on different verses of this classic.
“The Times They Are A-Changin’” further expands the circle the Dirt Band created on past albums when they joined contemporary talents with long-held heroes of music. In this case, though they’d never admit it, the Dirt Band itself is the long-held hero, and their acolytes are Rosanne Cash, Michael and Tanya Trotter of the astonishing duo The War and Treaty, Steve Earle, and a man many consider to be a new generation’s Dylan or Prine, Jason Isbell on vocals and slide guitar.
Asked at the session whether he was comfortable singing the song’s second verse, Isbell said, “I’m cool with singing any verse, because they’re all amazing.” “Times” was written in 1964, and it promises a rapidity of reform that has yet to be achieved. But there’s an insistent hope that we carry to the present-day, and if the times haven’t changed, they’ve at the very least evolved.
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is a song that has mesmerized Jeff and Jimmie since adolescence. Most songs lose some significance as the years roll by and experiences pile up, but after all these years it still explicates a poignant blend of grace and blame, hurt and pining admiration, with which most of us grow well-familiar.
Dirt Does Dylan closes with the jovially inscrutable “Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn),” with this new Dirt Band lineup driving things home with genre-bending musicality that could not have been mustered by the boys who gathered to form the Dirt Band back in the mid ‘60s. The joy of discovery led to the smiling certainty of the ages.
There have been dozens, and maybe hundreds of albums devoted to the songs of Bob Dylan. If adding another to the stack seems superfluous, it’s not. (Is it a stack if we’re streaming? That’s a question for another day.) Dirt Does Dylan provides a damn good listening experience and a new perspective on the greatest songwriter of the 20th century (and his 21st century works are as mighty fine as The Mighty Quinn).
Don’t think twice, it’s more than alright. It is, as Dirt Band collaborator Kris Kristofferson would (and did) say, “A table-thumpin’ smash.”
East Nashville, TN