It may have taken 50-odd years, but perhaps the greatest interpreters of roots music have finally put their innovative skills to the music of perhaps the greatest songwriter of all time.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band have released Dirt Does Dylan, a ten-song album which explores the work of Bob Dylan, with a little help from some musical giants - as has been the hallmark of the band going back to the early ‘70’s.
The NGDB were formed in 1966, but it was their epic collaborative double-album Will the Circle be Unbroken, launched in 1972, which defined them as true innovators. In what was regarded as a unique project at the time, the group pulled together a bunch of country legends to help them interpret traditional standards and classics written by the likes of A.P. Carter, Hank Williams, and Earl Scruggs.
In fact Scruggs himself played on many of the songs, as did Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Doc Watson, Vassar Clements and Earl’s son Randy Scruggs.
There were eventually three volumes of Will the Circle franchise. Volume 11 came out in 1986 and included such big names at the time as Johnny and Roseanne Cash, June Carter Cash, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and John Prine. Doc Watson reappeared for Volume 111, as did The Cash family, Harris and Skaggs - among newbies!
Interestingly, there was only one Dylan song – an astonishingly-good version of “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” by former Byrds Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman – among the 86 songs in the three volumes.
As might be expected, there has been at least a dozen line-up changes in NGDB over their 56-year reign. Only two founding-members remain for the Dylan project – Jeff Hanna (guitar/vocals) and Jimmie Fadden (drums/harmonica/vocals). But there is real musical class in the rest of the current group – the long-serving Bob Carpenter (keyboards/vocals), Hanna’s son Jamie (guitar/vocals), Ross Holmes (fiddle/mandolin/vocals) and Jim Photoglo (bass/vocals).
And the collaborative artists here ain’t too bad either. They include Roseanne Cash, Steve Earle, The War & Treaty, Jason Isbell and Larkin Poe. Hanna’s wife Matraca Berg (backing vocals) makes it a truly family affair.
The NDGB take no risks with the Dylan material, with generally soft and melodic treatment on most of the chosen songs, all but one – “Forever Young ” – coming from the Nobel Laureate’s ‘60’s output.
But at times, the guests do provide some grunt.
The Larkin Poe sisters, Rebecca and Megan Lovell, give real vocal-harmony flourish to “I Shall Be Released,” with Megan providing a refreshing bluesy input on lap steel guitar. And while Jeff Hanna kicks off the vocals on “The Times They Are A-Changing,” the remaining verses are shared by Jason Isbell, Roseanne Cash, The War & Treaty (Michael Trotter Jr & Tanya Blount-Trotter) and Steve Earle. This makes for a memorable upbeat rendition of the great man’s historical epic.
Father and son Jeff and Jamie share vocals on the two opening tracks “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” and “Girl from the North Country,” trading the lead on the two songs which somehow helps to cement the Nitty Ditty Dirt Band DNA, so to speak, into the tribute album. This is further entrenched when the other original, Jimmie Fadden, sings “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”
There is something very polished about Dirt Does Dylan, personified to a great extent by the acoustic purity in one of Dylan’s most beautiful laments “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” The Hanna harmonies here are simply superb and Fadden’s acutely-timed harmonica riffs make it even more memorable.
May the NGDB 50ish-year journey down Americana music’s long and winding road continue!
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation