The power and glory of “Ripplin’ Water”

ripplin waterSomehow I had missed that for more than 25 years the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has had in its arsenal an epic-length version of “Ripplin’ Waters,” this despite the fact that there’s an 11-minute rendition on the band’s Live Two Five 25th anniversary live album.

But even if I had remembered, I’m not sure it would have prepared me for the performance I was privileged to hear on Sept. 14, 2015, at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Or maybe I had heard it or heard about it and forgot. That’s fine; that meant I heard it with new ears that Monday night – and was totally blown away.

To describe the performance is easy enough. The four base members of the NGDB – Jeff Hanna, John McEuen, Bob Carpenter and Jimmie Fadden – were joined for a 50th (!) anniversary concert by Sam Bush (mandolin, fiddle, guitar), Jerry Douglas (slide resonator guitar) and Byron House (bass) and a procession of old friends who joined them for a couple of tunes each (John Prine, Vince Gill, Jackson Browne, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Jeff Walker).

The last friend was Jimmy Ibbotson, who spent 30-35 years and the last six songs of the night as a part of the band and wrote “Ripplin’ Waters,” one of the most melodic and charming songs ever. The song is lilting, gentle, sweet, and in its live version provides a platform for the musicians that builds and builds and builds and soars into bluegrass heaven.

This arrangement starts with a now long-familiar (it was first recorded in 1975) twittering of the guitar and mandolin that recalls, well, rippling water. Ibbotson sings the 4-5 verses of the song and then the fireworks begin, as each player in turn takes a few bars – quite a few bars each, actually – to play a solo (harmonica, mandolin, guitar, slide resonator, banjo) and weave melodies together in glorious plain dirt fashion.

At what I thought was the climax of the song, Hanna and McEuen and Bush were together in the middle of the stage in a transcendent blending of their instruments that reached a crescendo and stopped, fulfillingly.

But as the audience (including me, converted into a maniac) screamed its approval of what had been an awesome 6-7-8 minutes of gorgeous sound, Carpenter began to noodle on the piano. At first I thought it was a seamless transition to the next song, but as it progressed and grew, I realized he was advancing “Ripplin’ Waters” to a higher level – even more melodic and transcendent, the notes cascading over us now like a waterfall.

One by one the other players rejoined the fray for more solos, more blending, until it built to a second, even more triumphant conclusion. This was the “Stairway to Heaven” of Americana music, and we yelled and stomped and hooted our delight.

How long was it? Listening to the 11-minute 1991 version only gives a hint, a whisper, an echo of all that occurred on the Ryman stage last week. We were suspended in time anyway – it could have been hours because it felt like it, a testimony to music’s ability to lift the spirits and fill the soul with a peace and joy that can’t be described with mere words.

I hope the recording – the whole show was chronicled for a PBS-TV special next spring – captured the magic in that big room that moment. I’m not sure I have ever been swept away like I was that night and especially that song.

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I hesitate to share this video from January 2015 because it doesn’t match the Ryman performance, but it is essentially the same arrangement and gives a hint of what the world will hear when the PBS video is released, especially when the solos start about 4:00 in …