Review- The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, At The Ryman

I remember that vinyl record so well. The white cover with the Civil War figure in the middle, the studio photos of Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Mother Maybelle Carter, Vassar Clements and the Dirt Band members, and all the rest. In a lot of ways, the original Circle album had everything I needed as a young musician just beginning to explore the guitar, banjo and fiddle. I was not alone, as almost every musician I’ve ever known in the bluegrass world has a copy. Musician friends I know in the “triangle” area of North Carolina do an annual show, performing songs from the original recording. For many folks, it was the recording that introduced them to a few foundational musicians in roots country music. But it wasn’t just that. The music was alive; you could hear Earl Scruggs or Roy Acuff talking, and then they’d kick off a song.  Doc Watson said, “How does it go Vassar?” and Vassar Clements launches into Down Yonder. You felt like you were right there with them. The recording was made and released in 1972. That was an election year. Richard Nixon won in a landslide. Remember what happened to him? I do.

So, here we are in 2016, only days after a tumultuous Presidential election that has left many of us bewildered and uncertain about the days ahead. I’d say we need the Will The Circle Be Unbroken song– and the spirit of these recordings, past and present– now as much as ever.

On this fine collection recorded live at The Ryman Auditorium, current NGDB members Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, John McEuen and Bob Carpenter are joined by Jimmy Ibbotson, Vince Gill, John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglass, Byron House, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell and Jackson Browne. It is a relaxed and heart-felt performance that is a trip down memory lane. The NGDB, in many ways are a conduit band for what we now just call “Americana” music. They could embrace west-coast rock & roll and 70’s popular music with country, blues and bluegrass.

From Jackson Browne singing Truthful Parson Brown to Alison Krauss singing Keep On The Sunnyside, this celebration of 50 years of the NGDB is a winning combination of songs and musicians collaborating to make music that says where they came from– and, hopefully, continues to inspire musicians in the future. It still works for me.

Chris Brashear

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