The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band started in 1966, a bunch of young bucks with a love for jug band music. Their first album contained a bona fide hit, “Buy for Me the Rain.” But it wasn’t until Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy, and “Mr. Bojangles,” that the band was catapulted into the catbird seat. The eclectic mix of folk, rock, country and stone bluegrass seemed prophetic, as all the future iterations of their career were there in seed form. On Uncle Charlie, it was as if the band imprinted their DNA on vinyl. And just as “Mr. Bojangles” was riding the airwaves the band took a sharp left turn, leaving LA for Nashville to make a hillbilly record.
Looking back, it was the right choice at the right moment. By phone from his Nashville home, Jeff Hanna said he wondered if it was the smart thing to do. “Our manager was Bill McEuen, John’s brother. Bill said, ‘Trust me. You’ll thank me later.’ So, I said I was willing to follow his lead. It wasn’t hard to get us to sign on. I mean, come on, getting to hang out with Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Merle Travis?”
The rest is, as they say, musical history, and produced a record that crossed genres and generations at a time when America was, as it is now, divided. Now celebrating fifty years as a recording and touring unit, the Dirt Band has a history that connects the varied streams of Americana into a unified river of song. Except back then Americana was known simply as “country rock.”
The group has moved so easily between genre labels that it seems effortless, and unique in one perspective. Most bands would have been called sell outs at some point along the way, but at each bend in that river of song, the turn was so gentle and genuine that it couldn’t be seen as anything but natural. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band showed us all how the threads tied together to make a whole cloth of the great American song book.
Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, John McEuen, and Bob Carpenter have been together so long that they function as a well-oiled unit, without ever sounding as if they are dated or mailing it in. Hanna and Fadden were there in the beginning when Jackson Browne was briefly a member. When Browne left after a few months McEuen joined. Carpenter has been in the band since the late 70s. When they take to the stage, they hum like a finely tuned engine. Fast forward to the Ryman and 2015.
The evening’s guest list was long and appropriately star-studded, featuring John Prine, Jackson Browne, Rodney Crowell, Alison Krauss, Jerry Jeff Walker, Vince Gill, Sam Bush, Byron House and Jerry Douglas. A special appearance by former member Jimmy Ibbotson was greeted with a standing ovation. Jackson Browne features on two tracks, “These Days,” written around the brief time he was in the band, and “Truthful Parson Brown,” a jug band tune they used to play in the early days.
The whole event kicks off with a rollicking cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” The joyful rendition sets the tone for the evening. From there the night spirals upward, as each guest honors their connection to, and their place in the history of, the NGDB.
John Prine is up first, for two tracks, “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” and “Paradise.” His presence, now as an elder statesman of sorts, was enthusiastically received by the Ryman audience. It sets high expectations for the night’s other guests, which they each in turn meet. On two tracks Alison Krauss once again reminds us that her other worldly voice might just foreshadow the sound of an angelic host.
And what of Jerry Jeff Walker? The author of the Dirt Band’s signature tune seemed right at home, leading off “Mr. Bojangles” solo, until midway through when the rest of the band joins in. “The hand-off was Jerry Jeff’s idea,” said Hanna. Before the song is done Hanna has handed the chorus off to the crowd, which is all too happy to take up the vocal duties. One wonders how gratifying it must be to hear an audience sing your own words back to you
When it seemed as if things could get no better, Hanna took to the mic to introduce the next guest, a member who had been in the group for decades. The audience already knew who he was referring to, and when Jimmy Ibbotson walked out on stage they rose to their feet in appreciation. Ibby responded with a spirited performance of one of their biggest hits, “Fishin’ in the Dark.” But the best of all was a gorgeous arrangement of “Ripplin’ Waters.” Originally appearing on the 1975 release Symphonium Dream, the song has long been a fan favorite. “Ripplin’ Waters” is not on the cd version of Circlin’ Back, but is on the dvd.
By the time the night comes to an end everyone knows what the final song will be. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is the perfect coda to a night of rich roots music, and the rafters of the Ryman resounded with the praises of performers and ticket holders alike, raising their voices in the hope promised in the lyrics. It was as sweet a choir as one could ask for.
This special cd/dvd release is an Amazon exclusive, and priced under $15.00 is an absolute steal. It is also a perfect gift for the Christmas season.