NGDB doesn't have to fish for Canadian fans

They have been here before, but just like no two Nitty Gritty Dirt Band albums are ever alike, no two Nitty Gritty Dirt Band concerts are ever alike.

Plus, the treat of the NGDB appearance on the CN Centre stage tonight is that this show is all on their own terms. They were here in the 1990s at the Salmon Valley Music Festival, so they had to fit into an omnibus schedule of acts. They were here again in 2001 opening for Alabama, so they were confined by the first time-slot ahead of the main act.

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Tonight, they are the main cheese.

Co-founder Jeff Hanna said they get to pour some things on a little thicker when they play in these parts. Canada has always been one of this band's best friends. They recorded their 16-song live album Live Two Five on the north side of the border for a reason. As massive as NGDB is in their home country, Canadians had an affinity for their style and material almost from day one.

"We're grateful for that. Our Canadian fans are among our best. We're always stoked about coming back up north," he told The Citizen.

"There were a couple of records that were game changers for us," he added, as he wondered out loud about why Canada and NGDB were so connected. He remembered their Plain Dirt Fashion album in particular that had a couple of songs on it "that were not singles in the States and in fact weren't singles in Canada either but they got played a lot on (Canadian) radio. One was Face on the Cutting Room Floor and the other was Cadillac Ranch. Those became these kind of underground hits in Canada and people still respond to them like they were huge."

Fishin' In The Dark was also a mega-hit in Canada, and while it was indeed a No. 1 song on the U.S. country chart as well, it failed to even crack the Top 100 mainstream list in the States. Yet today it stands as a definitive song from that era and many non-country fans consider it one of the few from the genre they admit to liking. It has become a standard. An automatic favourite. And he points at Canadian fans for getting it right away.

That was when Canada was just getting into the country music broadcasting game, and Hanna said he liked watching the CMT Canada channel better than the American version because "I always felt it was a little hipper. We'd see them playing Blue Rodeo and kd lang a lot, Prairie Oyster - I love that band - so there was something to me just a little cooler about CMT Canada."

The Canadian attitude about country music - which is only too happy to include the sounds of Corb Lund and Colter Wall and Whitehorse and Lindi Ortega - has always been aligned with the California country sound that spawned NGDB. Hanna and co-founder Jimmie Fadden started the group in the thrust of the jug-bands that plugged in and invented folk-rock in the mid/late 1960s. Jackson Browne was an official member of their band in the earliest days. They played the same venues as John Hammond and Merle Travis and Cream. That was a scene infused with Canada - Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Kate & Anna McGarrigle - Hanna listed all these as influential players for him and the nitty-gritties back in that moment.

It was a place and a time that begat The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Credence Clearwater Revival, The Grateful Dead (Hanna detects a lot of this band's influence on today's new but underground country acts), The Birds and Gram Parsons among many others. These bands leaned on country but rarely felt the embrace of mainstream Nashville.

There was one group that stood above all the others, for Hanna personally and within the NGDB, and it, too, was densely populated by Canadians.

"The Band, I mean sheesh. The Band was our Beatles," he said. "They were the shit, for us, and they are still the shit. Amazing. Every one of them in that band."

He felt an awe and privilege at being able to eventually be friends with Levon Helm of The Band, along with some others from that storied group, and after the hundreds of collaborations the NGDB has done over the years - entire albums worth - that bashfulness has extra power.

Just how influential was The Band on Hanna? He points to his son, now a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. "Jaime is named after Robbie Robertson (whose full name is Jaime Royal Robertson). He was one of my heroes. I don't really know him; I've only met him a couple of times."

Hanna intends to get down to all this nitty gritty one day in book form, when he gets some time off the road.

"I can tell a story. I've got a tale to tell, for sure, but it's hard. It's like writing a song. I hate the part where I have to actually take out my pen and commit something to the page, but I do have intentions of doing that."

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and opening act Nice Horse play tonight at CN Centre.

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