Still Circlin’ Back with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Circlin Back 2

Two years now, and the memory of that night still makes me smile.

I’ve had a handful of concert experiences that still leave me breathless remembering them – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band back in 1984, the Brian Wilson band doing “Smile” – but the most exhilarating night of them all was Sept. 14, 2015, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Friends at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The venue, the band, the performances, the crowd, all came together in the magical way that music can.

And how blessed we are to have a permanent video record – PBS turned it into an hourlong pledge drive feature with an extended DVD. Even though it’s not complete, the TV show captures the celebratory spirit of that night, when the band marked its 50th anniversary with some of the singers and songwriters they met on their journey. Continue reading

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10 albums that left a lasting impact on teen w.p.

There is a thing going around Facebook: List 10 albums that made a lasting impression on you as a teenager but only one per band/artist. Don’t take too long and don’t think too hard.

OK, I can do that, although I almost forgot I was still a teenager the first year and a half of college; otherwise I was drawing a blank. Probably thinking too hard.

In the order they occurred to me, not a ranking:

1. Sgt. Pepper – Beatles
2. Ladies of the Canyon – Joni Mitchell
3. On the Threshold of a Dream – Moody Blues
4. Bayou Country – Creedence Clearwater Revival
5. Lazarus – Lazarus
6. Cellophane Symphony – Tommy James & the Shondells
7. Headquarters – The Monkees
8. Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy – Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
9. Judee Sill – Judee Sill
10. Kongos – John Kongos

And of all those albums, the track that started buzzing through my head as I compiled the list was this one. I bought the album based solely on the radio play of “Proud Mary” at that moment in time plus a magazine article I’d read with John Fogerty describing their musical mission. By the end of this first track I was a diehard fan.

I should go through the list and do a post on some of those more obscure titles. Got any favorites from your own teenage years?

Uncle Warren’s Attic #81, part 4

Starting the Circle

Side 1, Track 8 – Clinch Mountain Backstep

Side 2, Track 8 – Randy Lynn Rag

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is best known for its Will The Circle Be Unbroken album, an epic masterpiece that brought together some of the legends of country and bluegrass music with the young upstarts.

Perhaps more than any other tunes on Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy, “Clinch Mountain Backstep” and “Randy Lynn Rag” may have established the Dirt Band’s right to be in the same studio with those legends.

While the band often tapped into old-timey music, just as often it was with a wink and a nudge. Even on Uncle Charlie, “Chicken Reel” and “Swanee River” are played for a bit of a laugh, although perhaps more affectionately than on previous Dirt Band albums.

But on “Clinch Mountain,” penned by Ralph Stanley, and Earl Scruggs’ “Randy Lynn Rag,” the young men just play straight up, full tilt – and brilliantly. Stanley is said to have declared, upon meeting a band member, something to the effect of “You’re the boys who played ‘Clinch Mountain Backstep’ the way it was meant to be played.” (Or is that what Scruggs said about their “Randy Lynn Rag”? In either case, both musicians were impressed.)

My favorite side of the three-record Circle album is Side 4, in which the group and their esteemed guests rip through eight of these sweet little instrumentals one after another (Tracks 1-8 on Disc 2 if you’re stuck with the CDs). It’s bluegrass heaven, and in these two Uncle Charlie tracks the NGDB set the stage for that moment as they showed they could keep up with the good old boys.

Uncle Warren’s Attic #81, part 3

The Coming of Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy

Side 1, Track 4 – Travelin’ Mood

Side 1, Track 5 – Chicken Reel

If you think of an album as a small concert, then after the full-band intensity of the first three songs, it was time to take a breath and do some smaller songs that spotlight individual performers.

Jimmie Fadden’s harmonica dominates “Traveling Mood,” a quiet little blues by New Orleans songwriter James Waynes (who recorded the song as Wee Willie Wayne in 1955) that ambles along with mandolin, bass and drums keeping company. The harmonica punctuates the intro and roars back in for two verses worth of solo. The mouth harp is such an integral part of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band “sound” that it’s hard to imagine them without it.

Then we kick in with fiddle and banjo on a lighthearted 55-second version of the old-time classic “Chicken Reel.” The guys add chicken bawks and squawks and are clearly having fun. It has the feel more of an outtake, as if they kept recording during a break from the serious business of making an album.

These two tracks have the whimsy of the earlier Dirt Band, but the production is up close and personal, emphasizing the humanity of the musicians having fun. The older recordings seemed more like attempts to recapture the way the ancient songs were first recorded on with a single microphone and everyone standing back. Here, everyone is leaning in.

Sufficiently loosened up, next it was time to get back to business, or, as a band member says before the fiddle intro to “Yukon Railroad,” “You got get that convincing …”

Uncle Warren’s Attic #81, part 2

Side 1, Track 2: Prodigal’s Return

“Some of Shelly’s Blues” was the first of three uptempo, driving tunes that launch Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy with an energy that may have been present in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s live shows but had never been heard on vinyl until now.

Much like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band three years earlier, the songs on Uncle Charlie were packed more tightly together than the average album of the 1960s – remember the record didn’t even seem to possess the usual visible spaces between tracks. So, no sooner did “Some of Shelly’s Blues” fade away than we were greeted by a growling harmonica, a rolling rock drumbeat, and a thumping electric bass that led into a more purely rock song called “Prodigal’s Return.”

The first of four songs on this album co-written by a newcomer named Kenny Loggins, this tune has a distinct 1960s psychedelic rock feel, with the electric guitar and bass leading the way in a story of “18 years of total revolution come riding down the road.”

The guitar solo and climax of the song are treated with a heavy phasing effect, and the impact of the first two songs combined was to declare that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was simultaneously redefining itself and defying any effort to define it by genre.

Were they a country-rock band? Were they straight-ahead rockers? Was this psychedelia? What happened to the jug band? Stay tuned …

Side 1, Track 3: The Cure

OK, now, here’s that banjo again, and a straight-up chicka-chicka country-style electric guitar, trading leads in a third consecutive energetic song that opens this album with an enthusiastic bang, bang, bang. Now we know this band may do some rocking but it won’t stray from bluegrass-country roots for very long.

Well I know your little games and I don’t wanna play

It’s like takin’ sick when nobody knows the cure

Written by lead singer and guitarist Jeff Hanna, “The Cure” is the first song on Uncle Charlie that comes to an actual close after two songs that faded out. The effect is like finally stopping to rest after a good hard sprint.

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.