Is it Saturday yet?

top 10 of 2015

Ever since about 10:30 p.m. last Sept. 14, I have been looking forward to the PBS special Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: 50 Years and Circlin’ Back, which premieres Saturday night on a public television station near you.

I was standing in the middle of the back section of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, clapping my hands and smiling like a giddy fool who had just watched the performance of a lifetime – and I wanted to see it again and share it with all of my friends.

“I can’t wait until the show is released,” I said out loud. You see, the band’s 50th anniversary concert was recorded for release in March, during the spring PBS fund drive, and I wanted to see and experience the show again. And again.

So, when my googling finally hit paydirt and I saw that the show was going to be aired and available March 5, I literally went out into the living room and danced like a little boy.

“What is WRONG with you?” Red asked. I was so excited I couldn’t say it out loud at first, I just jumped up and down until the golden retrievers joined me.

I have seen the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in person about a half-dozen times through the years – all but the first time with Red at my side – but they outshone my every expectation of this evening, and I had such high expectations I was willing to drive 1,000 miles to experience it.

With longtime member Jimmy Ibbotson back on stage for the final songs, and augmented by Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Byron House – who should each be named honorary NGDB members for life – the musicians I have followed since their first minor hit in 1966 (”Buy for Me the Rain”) never sounded better, and I finally realized what I should have known long ago: This is my all-time favorite band.

Of course other bands may have more brilliant singer-songwiters and more big hits and flashier shows, but when these partners, brothers and friends get together something downright magical happens.

It can’t be as good as being there was – for one thing, those transcendent three hours will be condensed into 90 minutes, and the tremendous “Ripplin’ Waters” is necessarily relegated to the DVD extras (it otherwise would comprise more than 10 percent of the alloted time) – but just as the Will The Circle Be Unbroken album all those years ago, it will stand as a record of lightning in a bottle, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that can now be shared again. And again. And again.

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Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Dismal Swamp

One of numerous exhilarating moments from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 50th anniversary concert last September at the Ryman Auditorium. John McEuen leads the band and guest artists Sam Bush (mandolin), Jerry Douglas (resonator) and Byron House (bass) in a rousing rendition of his “Dismal Swamp.” I am eagerly awaiting next month’s PBS special and DVD release from that night so friends can experience why I keep talking about that magical night.

My personal top 10 of 2015

top 10 of 2015
Our view at the Ryman for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 50th anniversary concert, my favorite pop culture experience of 2015. Click “Read more” for the full list.

Top 10 lists are all the rage this time of year, and it’s fun to go back and remember what happened over the past 12 months before embarking on a new year. Herewith – and in a particular order for a change of pace – is the last semi-regular list of my top 10 pop culture experiences of the year. They’re not necessarily things that were released in 2015 (as you’ll see in the first entry) but my favorite moments that happened this year. The full countdown list follows this artificial break: Continue reading My personal top 10 of 2015

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 …