By Chuck Reece
Jeff Hanna, a Long Beach, California, kid who sold his surfboard to buy his first good acoustic guitar, helped cause one of the greatest culture clashes in the history of Southern music.
The clash we’re talking about happened in 1971. Hanna was 24 years old. Earlier that year, he and his mates in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had scored their first pop hit with their recording of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” But Hanna and his band of California hippies had a bigger dream: to go to Nashville and record with the pioneers of the country music.
Their hit had given them enough industry credibility to make the dream a possibility, but it wasn’t the easiest thing to pull off. Their idea would, first for the first time, put a bunch of damned liberal, countercultural longhairs in the distinctly short-haired world of Nashville country music. Even by the time ’71 rolled around, none of the Nashville establishment had crossed that cultural rubicon yet, with the exception of Johnny Cash. When the Dirt Band’s idea started bouncing around among country music’s old guard, bluegrass king Bill Monroe famously refused to play a note with this bunch of dirty hippies.
But Hanna and his bandmates — John McEuen, Jimmie Fadden, Jimmy Ibbotson, and Les Thompson — came to the project with great respect. They didn’t intend to come to Nashville and mess with the old folks’ minds. They just wanted to play music with their heroes.
“The cool thing about me and my buddies — the thing that really drew me to guys like Fadden and John — is when we all hung out together, the stuff we loved was American folk music,” Hanna told me last week when the Dirt Band, still together after all these years, came through Atlanta on its 50th anniversary tour. “When we were exposed to people like Jimmy Martin or Flatt & Scruggs or Doc Watson, that was huge. Doc was huge. That was one thing we all totally agreed on: Doc was the king. He was our idol.”
That respect was what made their dream come true. The result was the first album that truly built a bridge between the hippie crowd and the Southern progenitors of country music: a three-record set called “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
The banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs, far hipper than most folks gave him credit for, proved to be the Dirt Band’s secret weapon in making “Circle” a reality. The toughest nut to crack was the great Roy Acuff, who had been on the Grand Ole Opry since 1938. Acuff was 68 years old at the time of the “Circle” sessions.
“We got a little attitude from Roy Acuff,” Hanna says. “But that was him just looking at us and judging the book by its cover. He loosened up immediately as soon as we started playing together. Initially, he looked at us a little sideways. But we got past that. He came to one of the sessions with his mind not fully made up [about] whether or not he was gonna take part in this thing. We played him a Merle Travis track. I think it was ‘Dark as a Dungeon’ or ‘Nine-Pound Hammer,’ maybe. And Roy just said, ‘Man, that ain’t nothin’ but country. I'll be here tomorrow. Be ready.’
“He was all about the music, as it turned out,” Hanna concludes.
By the time the project was completed, a wondrous collection of country pioneers were on tape with the Dirt Band: Scruggs, Travis, Martin, Acuff, Watson, Vassar Clements, Junior Husky, Oswald Kirby, even Mother Maybelle Carter.
Hanna and the Dirt Band boys mostly just wanted to play the music they loved with the people who created it, but they were soon aware something larger was happening.
“We were crossing this generation gap — and also a cultural gap. Our nation was really ... well, geez, this sounds familiar … our nation was really divided then,” Hanna says and chuckles ruefully. We resolve not to waste our time talking modern politics, and he continues. “It was like, finally, there is common ground through music, which was so great. That's a beautiful thing.”
“Circle” helped a lot of Southern kids back then cross their own cultural gaps. I know that after I got hold of that record when I was 13 or 14, I stopped thinking my dad was an idiot for liking Roy Acuff. I even began to think Roy was cool.
Hanna says he’s heard hundreds of stories like mine. “To have somebody say, yeah, I wasn't really talking to my pops, and so we sat down and listened to this record together. That's very gratifying.”
I ask Hanna what it was like to play with Mother Maybelle Carter.
“Oh, man,” he replies, then pauses, as if to gather his thoughts. Forty-five years later, it remains a big deal for him.
He tells me how Scruggs helped bring Carter into the Dirt Band's fold. When Scruggs confirmed Carter's participation, Hanna says, “I'm immediately thinking about my Pete Seeger instructional book for playing the guitar. And in that instruction book was how to play ‘Wildwood Flower.’”
“Wildwood Flower” is like a totem to country guitar players. Learning to play the “Flower,” as Maybelle played it on the original 1928 recording, is a rite of passage for pickers, because she was inventing a whole new guitar style on the early Carter Family recordings. Pickers call it “the Carter scratch.”
“I clearly remember when she walked in the studio, all of a sudden we were like these polite little boys going, oh, my gosh, the queen is here!” Hanna says. “But even though she was regal, she was also so sweet and homespun that we just adored her. She couldn't have been cooler.
“Maybelle ... I remember her saying, ‘Well, I've never played “Wildwood Flower” on the autoharp. Would that be OK?’ We were like, uh, yeah. That's like having Robert Johnson say, ‘Could I pick a little "Crossroads" for you?’”
Mother Maybelle died seven years later, and today, all the other greats from the “Circle” are gone from this earth. But the record remains, long since gone platinum and still selling thousands of copies a year. More importantly, it still teaches us that music crosses cultural barriers quicker — and with greater joy — than any other language. As it says on the album's cover, "Music forms a new circle."