The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band began in the 1960s as a southern California folk rock band. They limited success before temporarily disbanding in 1969. After renegotiating their contract with Liberty Records, they were given more artistic freedom, and the changes were immediately apparent in 1970’s Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, which saw the band moving in a more country direction.
Country rock bands originating from California were nothing new, but the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took things a step further by incorporating into their music instruments that were closely associated with bluegrass and country music, and featuring them prominently. While blending of genres is commonplace today, it was quite revolutionary in 1970. The eclectic Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy is equal parts country, bluegrass, folk, and rock. It features both original music and cover versions of other artists’ work, as well as reinterpretations of old folk songs that had long been in the public domain. At times, particularly when the band starts to harmonize, the sound is something akin to the Beach Boys with banjos.
The Uncle Charlie referenced in the album’s title was a relative of producer Bill McEuen’s wife. He was born in Texas in 1886 and performs a brief folk song “Jesse James”, recorded in 1963, on which he plays harmonica and gets his dog Teddy to howl along. He also gives two brief interviews, which are mildly interesting on the first listen.
A number of well known names appear among the songwriting credits: Michael Nesmith of The Monkees wrote the bluegrass-flavored opening number “Some of Shelly’s Blues”, which became a minor pop hit, peaking at #64, and “Propiniquity”, which is one of my favorites on the disc. Kenny Loggins wrote another the album’s singles, the more rock-oriented “House at Pooh’s Corner” which name-drops several of the characters from A.A. Milne’s well loved children’s stories. It reached #53 pop. The album’s biggest hit and the band’s best known song to this day is their cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr Bojangles”, which reached #9 on the Hot 100. It didn’t garner enough attention from mainstream country outlets to make the country charts but that may have been due to the way the record and the band in general, were marketed. It certainly sounded country enough, even by 1971 standards, to have fit into the country radio format.
NGDB member Jeff Hanna wrote “Cure”, which is another one of my favorites and songwriter Randy Newman supplied the very nice “Livin’ Without You”. The NGDB members show themselves to be very adept bluegrass musicians, which is somewhat surprising given their West Coast origins. The 2003 reissue of the album includes a grassed-up version of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “What Goes On”, which Beatles aficinados probably hate but I quite liked. I don’t like the rock-oriented numbers quite as much but they didn’t really detract from my overall enjoyment of the album.
In between the country and rock numbers are a number of traditional folk and bluegrass numbers, usually performed instrumentally, which help give the album a “sitting around the living room” feel, and providing the template for the future and better remembered Will The Circle Be Unbroken trilogy, the first volume of which would appear two years later.
Aside from “Mr. Bojangles”, there isn’t a whole lot among the album’s 23 tracks that will be familiar to most modern listeners, but the album is well worth a listen.