Uncle Warren’s Attic #81, Part 1

(It’s been a while since I recorded an “Uncle Warren’s Attic” podcast, but I never stopped digging through my stash of aural delights. Here is the first part of an episode I might have developed were I still climbing into the Attic regularly.)

The Coming of Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy

Track 1: Some of Shelly’s Blues

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was a novelty jug band – and then one day it wasn’t.

I was first drawn to them at the very beginning, their first single, a lovely little folk-rock song called “Buy for Me the Rain,” in the spring of 1967. I bought their first album and was a little taken aback, because it was an eclectic mix of folk, bluegrass, and songs from the 1920s and ’30s like “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.”

They did two more albums like that, Ricochet and Rare Junk, that were along the same lines. The musicianship was unmistakable, but they couldn’t resist picking up the washboard and kazoo and doing silly old tunes mixed with some very tasty stuff. I approached each NGDB album with fond hope and finished each listen a little befuddled.

After a 1968 live album (Alive!) that I never found for another 45 years or so, the band pretty much disappeared and drifted from my memory until one fateful day in 1970.

I walked into Graymat’s record store in Morristown, N.J., with cash from my grocery job burning a hole in my pocket, looking for new music. Up on the wall was a brown album cover with a grainy photo of an old guy with a guitar and a little dog sitting next to him.

But that’s not what caught my eye: It was the ornate old-fashioned logo over the photo that spelled out, impossibly, “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.”

The befuddling group was back, and I was about to discover they were back with a vengeance and back to stay.

The old-timey style of the cover promised something different, and opening the record delivered more promises. The back cover listed a horde of tracks – 21 titles in all – and when the record with its familiar Liberty label emerged from the sleeve, I was greeted by something altogether different: The familiar separations between the tracks were missing.

What the heck kind of an album was this?

The answer was immediately apparent: The opening song, “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” was the perfect introduction to the new, vastly improved Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. A plunking banjo led the way, with accompaniment from an acoustic guitar over the first verse of the Michael Nesmith tune, joined then by a soaring harmonica, drums and the rest of the band.

With that opening song, the band declared the birth of what would eventually gain the name Americana music, a blend that was not bluegrass, not country, not folk, not rock, but all of the above and then some. Although the playfulness of the first four albums did not disappear, this was no longer a novelty group – these were serious musicians at work.

Nesmith had an odd habit, which I first noticed with the Monkees’ “Tapioca Tundra,” of writing songs where the title appeared nowhere in the lyrics. If Shelly is in this song, her name is never mentioned, and there is too much joy in the music to call it the blues, nor do the chords follow the traditional blues progression. I have to believe that if this song were named “Stay With The Boy That Loves You,” it would have been a monster hit. The legend goes that people would call radio stations requesting that song, but only the most savvy DJs knew what the callers were talking about.

The last minute of the song is a delightful churning of harmonica, guitars, fiddle, banjo, trombone – all of the chaos that inhabited the first four albums but directed, focused and absolutely charming.

The album was off to a great beginning – and that was only the beginning.