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Image by Jefferson Santos


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Songwriter of "Baby's Got a Hold On Me", “Partners, Brothers and Friends,” "Bless The Broken Road,” “I've Been Lookin'”​

Singer and guitarist Jeff Hanna was a high school student in Long Beach, California, when he formed the first version of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It was 1966 – the peak in popularity of the American folk-music revival.

We were all raised with rock influences from our older siblings, but folk music grabbed hold of us – artists like The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. Joan Baez was one of my favorites. I would read her liner notes and see that a ballad was an Appalachian song that somebody found way back when. Through that discovery process, we became acquainted with people like Doc Watson, Flatt and Scruggs, and Mother Maybelle Carter.

Hanna moved around as a child and, at age 15, relocated with his family from Littleton, Colorado, to Southern California. In high school he met Bruce Kunkel and the two became fast friends. Jamming at a local guitar shop, they hooked up with four like-minded musicians to create the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: an old-style jug band-turned-California folk-rockers, playing gigs around the area wearing pinstripe suits and cowboy hats. Their first single, “Buy for Me the Rain,” was a surprise success and the band gained exposure on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, in the 1969 musical western Paint Your Wagon, and on tour with artists from The Doors and Bill Cosby to Dizzy Gillespie and Jack Benny.

In 1970, the band released its second LP, featuring its most famous song, “Mr. Bojangles.” Written by Texas musician Jerry Jeff Walker, the song – a four-minute waltz about an old man and a dog – didn’t seemed destined for radio play. “We just thought it was a brilliant piece of music and it belonged on our record,” Hanna remembers. With Hanna singing lead on all but the last verse, the band took the unlikely hit to No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Their love of traditional music led the band to dream of an album that brought the roots of country and folk music back into public consciousness. From this seed of an idea came the famed “Circle Sessions” – six days of recording in East Nashville’s Woodland Studios with many important early country music figures: Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, and others. The resulting LP, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, has become one of the most influential albums of the modern music era, introducing a generation of musicians and audiences to the generation that came before. Two other Circle albums followed in the years to come, as did continued work for Hanna with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which celebrated its 50th anniversary with a sold-out concert at the Ryman Auditorium.

Hanna has achieved great success as a songwriter, as well, including composition credits on well over 100 albums. Since the 1990s, he has sometimes collaborated with his wife, country music singer and songwriter, Matraca Berg. In 2006, his composition “Bless the Broken Road” won the GRAMMY Award for Best Country Song; in 2010, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s recording of “Mr. Bojangles” was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame.

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