Back when the term “Americana” just meant antique furniture, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was bringing American folk music into the pop-music mainstream. To celebrate half a century of making music, the group is releasing a live album of 18 favorite tunes recorded at Nashville’s famous Ryman Auditorium, many featuring guest artists from the pantheon of folk, Americana, and country music.
A rousingly paced version of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” a song The Byrds put out just over half a century ago, starts the album off with a kick. Then original members Jeff Hanna (guitars/vocals), Jimmie Fadden (drums/harmonica/vocals), and John McEuen (banjo/fiddle/guitar/mandolin) along with longtime member Bob Carpenter (keyboards/accordion/vocals) bring on a troop of guests.
The first is national treasure John Prine – a bit hoarse these days, but with as much heart as ever — singing gorgeous versions of “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” and “Paradise.” “Our little brother Mr. Vince Gill” fronts the band on “Tennessee Stud” in honor of the late great Doc Watson, who recorded the song three times, including with NGDB on the band’s classic 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Gill sounds understated here, but his inclusion is fitting, as he may be the country music star who has nurtured and displayed his folk and traditional-country roots more than any other. Sam Bush joins Gill and the band to pay similar tribute to the late Merle Travis on Travis’s “Nine-Pound Hammer.”
After “Buy for Me the Rain,” a vaguely psychedelic 1967 hit from the band’s first album in 1967, Jackson Browne hits the stage for two songs. A member of NGDB in its earliest, jug-band days, he sings his own mellow “These Days,” then reaches back to the 1920s for “Truthful Parson Brown,” which features a swinging bowed-bass solo.
Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Jeff Walker, and former band member Jimmy Ibbotson make guest appearances in turn. Kraus is in very fine voice – how does she keep getting better? – on “Keep on the Sunny Side,” a song written before 1900, popularized by the Carter Family in the 1920s, and reborn for the new century in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? – and on “Catfish John,” which Deadheads will recognize if not from the Krauss-NGDB recording than from Jerry Garcia’s performances.
Crowell leads the band in his own “An American Dream,” an easygoing island-style tune with a Jimmy Buffett vibe, and “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream),” both of which NGDB recorded years ago. Jerry Jeff Walker, sounding throaty and gruff in the best way, comes out to sing (what else?) “Mr. Bojangles,” with which NGDB had a hit way back in ’71.
The band breaks out its bluegrass shoes for “My Walkin’ Shoes Don’t Fit Me Anymore” and for a smoking version of the “Bayou Jubilee/Sally Was a Good ‘Un” mashup, another highlight. They end the album by keeping to the bayou by getting the crowd going for “Jambalaya,” and close it up by bringing the guests back to divvy up verses of the gospel chestnut “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the symbolic starting point for the whole “Circlin’ Back” venture.
Just about all this material will be familiar to longtime fans of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and much of it to fans of American folk music in general. But there’s a vibrant energy to the show that makes it much more than a nostalgic exercise. This music lives on. The traditions that birthed these songs have existed since long before there was a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and they’ll live on long after the band has gone to that great stage in the sky. We’re fortunate to have this document to mark 50 years of glorious music-making.
My colleague Richard Marcus has reviewed the DVD version of this concert recording. The band’s current tour continues into November, then resumes in 2017.