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Classic Tracks: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “An American Dream”

The story behind “An American Dream," which put the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band back on pop radio after 10 years, was nothing less than a saga.

Four studios from all around the country, an initial duet refusal, and the ultimate singing partner were all part of the “An American Dream” saga, which put the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band back on pop radio after 10 years.

While on tour with Louisiana’s LeRoux, NGDB had some time off, and as frontman Jeff Hanna put it, LeRoux members said, “Y’all have to go to Studio in the Country in Bogalusa, Louisiana.”

The band, with Hanna co-producing alongside Bob Edwards, took them up on the invitation. They had met Edwards, Al Kooper’s engineer, when Kooper wrote for Crawdaddy magazine—in addition, of course, to being one of the more influential musicians and producers of the era. Kooper had interviewed Steve Martin, who was Dirt Band manager Bill McEuen’s other client. Edwards then engineered some overdubs on the album preceding the An American Dream album at the Record Plant, in Sausalito, Calif.

At Studio in the Country—where everyone believes there was a Neve console and Studer multitrack—the band cut rhythm tracks for two songs for the An American Dream album: “New Orleans,” and the title track, “An American Dream.”

The NGDB rhythm section at the time included Merle Bregante on drums and Richard Hathaway on bass, in addition to founding member Hanna on guitar. LeRoux’s guitarist Tony Haselden laid down a lead guitar solo in which he incorporated a lick that NGDB multi-instrumentalist John McEuen showed him on the banjo. Hanna performed all the rest of the acoustic and electric guitar parts on the track.

Co-producer Edwards recalls an Electro-Voice RE20 or Sennheiser MD 421 on the bass drum, Shure SM57 on the snare, Sennheiser 421s on the toms (“or if I got real adventurous and tried condenser mics on the toms, they were probably 87s or Neumann KM 84s.”) an AKG 451 or 452 on the hi-hat, and AKG 414s on the overheads.

“The bass was undoubtedly taken direct,” Edwards says. “We miked the amp with a 421. Guitar amps generally would have some combination of an SM57 and 421, and maybe also an 87 used as a room mic, back a little bit to get a little room sound.”

Edwards says with the Neve board or any of the classic consoles, a lot of outboard gear wasn’t needed, but there were Pultec Equalizers in various models, UREI 1176 or Teletronix LA-3As or Teletronix LA-2As for compression. “Back then, reverb was EMT plates,” Edwards says.

A few months later, the team went to The Aspen Studio in Aspen, Colo., owned by manager Bill McEuen. ”Bill McEuen built the studio for the Dirt Band and to work on Steve Martin’s albums, who he also managed,” Edwards explains. “We also recorded the score for Steve’s The Man With Two Brains up there. That was really the Dirt Band’s home base, and several of the members lived there at the time.”

The Aspen studio had a Harrison console with VCA automation. “It worked great, but we were pretty much locked into using Neve or API mic pre’s as much as we could, just for the sake of consistency,” Edwards says. “Chances are on most of the overdubs we did up there, the signal path was through an external mic pre, which was probably an API or Neve, and through outboard gear. Bill had a great selection of Pultec equalizers and UREI and Teletronix compressors. We pretty much kept the sound and signal path the same as the other places we recorded. The chances are most of those overdubs were done through outboard mic pre’s and outboard equalizers.”

Edwards says The Aspen studio also had EMT 250 and 251 digital reverbs. “They weighed between 80 and 90 pounds and were about waist height and like R2-D2’s younger brother,” Edwards says with a laugh.

While there, they recorded Hanna’s lead vocal, Jimmie Fadden’s signature harmonica part and McEuen’s dobro, captured acoustically with a high-end condenser mic.

As with most of the records Hanna and Edwards produced together, with the exception of the Louisiana beginning on this one, they started in Aspen and continued in L.A. for overdubs. At Sunset Sound where there was the custom API DeMedio console, they overdubbed the late Bobby LaKind (from the Doobie Brothers) on percussion. He played a chime tree, conga and you can hear the güiro prominently throughout the track. Edwards is pretty sure they recorded Al Kooper on electric piano at Sausalito’s Record Plant.

Mixing was done back in Aspen; Edwards describes it as an incredible place to work.

“The front of the control room was this angled wall of glass about a story and a half tall, where if you were sitting at the console in the mix position and looking off to the right, you were looking at the back of Aspen Mountain,” Edwards recalls. “And if you were looking off to the left, you were looking up at Independence Pass. There were birds flying around and snow coming down and it was the top of the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide. Inspirationally, it was unparalleled and very comfortable.”

The song was done but Edwards and Hanna were looking at one another wondering what they were going to do about the missing female voice. Rodney Crowell’s version had Emmylou Harris on it and they were big fans of that recording. They asked their drummer friend Rick Shlosser for Nicolette Larson’s phone number.

“We asked Nicolette if she wanted to come in and sing on ‘American Dream,’ and she just turned us down. Well, we didn’t know her,” Hanna says in her defense. “For starters, we were not yet friends. We later became fast friends.”

They were stymied.  They really wanted a female voice to go with Hanna’s.

“Bob looks at me and says, ‘What about Linda?’” Hanna recalls “‘Linda Ronstadt?!’ She was on the cover of Time magazine—literally the Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll. Somehow I got Linda’s number; she had changed it a bunch of times.”

Hanna and Ronstadt went back all the way to 1967 when she was playing with Bobby Kimmel and Kenny Edwards in the Stone Poneys. Hanna recalls being at the session when they cut “Different Drum.” In 1975 Ronstadt had recorded a duet with member Jimmy Ibbotson on “Hey Good Lookin’” for their Symphonion Dream album.

“I call her up and it went like: ‘Hey Linda, Jeff Hanna.’ ‘Jeff, ahhhh! Are you in town?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Let’s have dinner.’ I said, ‘It’d be great to have dinner, but before we do that, how would you feel about coming into the studio and singing on this tune we’ve got?’ She said, ‘What’s the tune?’ I said, ‘American Dream,’ this tune that Rodney wrote.’ She said, ‘I love that song.’ That was great, I thought. She said, ‘When do you want to record it?’ I said, ‘How about tonight?’ She said, ‘I’ll be there in two hours.’”

Hanna recalls Ronstadt was taking karate at the time and showed up at Sunset Sound in her dojo outfit and “killed it in two takes.”

“The first take was perfect and she was self-critical like always: ‘Let me sing that bridge on the second take,’ and that was it,” Hanna says.

Edwards says they used a Neumann U 67 on her vocals. “That was the tried and true vocal mic for her,” he says. “Probably some EQ and compression on it. At Sunset Sound the console equalization was top notch, so we may have used that, or maybe some outboard gear, I honestly don’t remember. But for compression, probably a Teletronix LA-2A would be my guess.”

“And while she was there, we asked her to sing on another tune, ‘New Orleans,’ which had a call and response on it, and if you listen to that you can hear her clearly wailing,” Hanna adds. “And we had dinner and that was that.”

The postscript on the story was that Ronstadt endorsed the Dirt Band to her friend Nicolette Larson, who then sang on the band’s next single, “Make a Little Magic.” That single took the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to No. 25 on the Billboard charts in 1980, and the band has just celebrated its 50th anniversary.