The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band isn’t from Kansas, but they said performing here is a little like coming home.
“We have a lot of history in Manhattan,” the group’s longtime lead singer and guitarist Jeff Hanna said in a phone interview Thursday with The Mercury. “We’ve done a lot of concerts there.”
In fact, a recording of one 1973 performance at K-State’s Ahearn Fieldhouse ended up on one of the group’s live albums, “Stars and Stripes Forever.” That show was a 10-hour marathon of a concert that also featured Joan Baez, the Byrds and Earl Scruggs. Recordings from shows at Kansas City’s Cowtown Ballroom also were featured on that record.
Hanna said the group played Kansas and Missouri so often in the 1970s that people often thought they were from one of those states, even though they were actually based in Colorado at the time.
“We’re happy to be coming back,” he said.
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band will perform at 7:30 Sunday night at McCain Auditorium. He said the audience can expect to hear a variety of songs from a career that spans six decades.
“Obviously, we’ve got a deep song book,” Hanna said. “We’ve been doing this for a long time. The material we’ve got onstage goes all the way back to the ’60s when we started.”
The band, best known for songs like “Fishin’ in the Dark” and a cover of “Mr. Bojangles,” formed when Hanna was in high school in Long Beach, California. Initially it was a jug band that used homemade instruments like a washboard and washtub bass as a rhythm section. It evolved over the years from a folk group into one that crossed over into other genres, allowing the band to play with many other musicians and become part of the burgeoning California country rock scene.
“That’s kind of been in the center of what we do ever since,” Hanna said. “I think most music fans — I don’t think anybody just likes one thing. You either find an artist compelling or you don’t.”
The lineup has changed quite a bit over time, though Hanna said it’s actually been fairly stable since about 1980. Hanna and drummer Jimmy Fadden have both been around since the early days. Keyboardist Bob Carpenter joined in 1980. Other band members include Hanna’s son, Jaime, who plays mostly fiddle; another fiddle player, Ross Holmes, formerly of Mumford and Sons; and Jim Photoglo, a successful country songwriter, on bass.
Jaime has played with Gary Allan and his band Hanna-McEuen, which he formed with the son of another longtime Nitty Gritty band member, John McEuen.
“It’s great,” Jeff Hanna said of having his son in the band. “It’s great, A) having my son on stage, but B) he’s a really fine musician.”
In the early days, Hanna said they’d play a place called the Troubador in Los Angeles, and the other performers included Linda Ronstadt, the guys who would become the Eagles, J.D. Souther and Jackson Browne, who was in the band for a time.
“It was a bar full of these people who would leave a lasting legacy in music,” Hanna said.
Later the band members lived in Nashville, where they found another community of big musicians, such as John Prine, Kris Kristofferson and Dan Fogelberg. Hanna said some of his favorite singers today are country musicians like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell. He also mentioned Sheryl Crow and Rhiannon Giddens.
“There’s so much great music out there right now that is super encouraging to me,” Hanna said. “The record business is a mess; that’s another conversation. What’s cool is, there are so many talented folks.”
Hanna said one of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s biggest accomplishments was the three-disc “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album, a collaboration with a number of legendary bluegrass, folk and country artists. It was an unusual idea at the time, and a major undertaking. The idea was to tie different generations of artists together.
“‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ allowed us to play with some amazing folks: Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Mother Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin,” Hanna said.
The band also made two follow-up volumes years later, which he said was interesting, because by then they were the “adults.” Band members were in their early 20s for the first one, and they were in their 40s during the later recordings. Volume II won the Country Music Association album of the year and three Grammys.
“With almost all these folks, we’ve maintained friendships to this day,” Hanna said. Bruce Hornsby, Willie Nelson, who we’ve been pals with forever, The Scruggs family, the Carter family, who are all just Mount Rushmore figures for us.”
Hanna, now in his 70s, said he feels lucky to be able to continue to perform. The band still tours, though less than it used to. And it plans to get into the studio to record this winter.
“More than anything we’re grateful that we still get to do this,” Hanna said. “We get around a lot better than a lot of our peers. We’re lucky in that regard. And we’ve — especially in recent years — taken good care of ourselves.”