My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Jimmy Ibbotson

Paul W. Dennis’s favorite albums of 2016

real-country-musicBeing the old man of the blog, I suppose it is inevitable that my favorite albums would differ from those of Razor X and Occasional Hope. There is some overlap, however, and where overlap exists I will not comment on the album

(#) on Razor X’s list / ($) on Occasional Hope’s list

15) Tracy Byrd – All American Texan (#)

14) Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives (#) ($)

13) Rhonda Vincent – All The Rage, Volume One

Alison Krauss fans notwithstanding, Rhonda is the Queen of Bluegrass music and is also adept at country and western swing numbers. Rhonda has a great band and all of the members are featured. Her guitar player, Josh Williams, is on a par with any acoustic player currently going.

12) Balsam Range – Mountain Voodoo

Balsam Range has been around for about a decade, winning the 2014 IBPA “Entertainer of The Year” and Vocal Group of The Year” awards. Their newest album was nominated for several awards. This band is renowned for their vocal harmonies. Their current single “Blue Collar Dreams” is being played on Bluegrass Junction on XM Radio – it’s a goodie and indicative of their material.

11) John Prine – For Better Or Worse ($)

the-life-and-songs-of-emmylou-harris10) Various Artists – Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris
I suspect that Emmylou Harris is the most highly revered female country singer, particularly for younger country fans and pop music fans. The epitome of elegance and grace, Emmylou has also been a champion of traditional country music. This album contains nineteen tracks with a vast array of admirers who gathered at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington DC on January 10, 2015 to pay tribute. Emmy sings on a few of the tracks but mostly the guests sing songs at least loosely associated with Emmylou. Guests include Sheryl Crow, Alison Krauss, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell and others.

09) Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show – Sho Nuff Country

Although focusing on bluegrass, this veteran outfit has a strong propensity to record country music of the period before 1980, and they perform it well. For me the highlights are “Six Pack To Go” and “Why Baby Why”, but I really enjoyed the whole album.

08) Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (& guests) – Circling Back: Celebrating 50 Years
Knowing that this ban has been around for fifty years is making me feel old, since I purchased several of their early albums when they originally came out. This album was recorded live at the Ryman on September 14, 2015 and features the current membership (Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter and John McEuen) augmented by friends Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Byron House. The guest vocalists include former band members Jimmy Ibbotson and Jackson Browne with John Prine, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell and Jerry Jeff Walker also making appearances. Highlights include Alison Krauss singing “Catfish John” , Vince Gill singing “Tennessee Stud” and Sam Bush and Vince Gill teaming up on “Nine Pound Hammer”.

07) Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price (#) ($)

06) Time Jumpers – Kid Sister (#)

05) Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me ($)

things-we-do-for-dreams04) Trinity River Band – Things I Do For Dreams
I find it odd that Callahan, Florida, a town of about 2000 people, has produced two of my favorite new bluegrass bands in Trinity River Band and Flatt Lonesome. Trinity River Band was nominated for the Emerging Artist award at the recent International Bluegrass Music Association award a few months ago. They play well, sing well and present an effective stage show.

03) Dale Watson – Under The Influence
Had he been born in the 1930s or 1940s, Dale Watson would have been a huge mainstream country star. This album finds Dale tackling a wide array of country and rockabilly classics from bygone years. My favorites from this disc include Dale’s take on the Eddie Rabbitt classic “Pure Love” and his take on the Phil Harris song from the 1940s “That’s What I Like About The South”.

02) Flatt Lonesome – Runaway Train
Flatt Lonesome won the IBMA Vocal Group of The Year award for 2016. They are just flat[t] out good. Their take on Dwight Yoakam’s “You’re The One” has to be heard to be believed, but my favorite track is their cover of the Tommy Collins tune “Mixed Up Mess of A Heart”.

01) Gene Watson – Real. Country. Music ($)
Okay, so I lied, but I cannot let the #1 album go by without the comment that I consider Gene Watson to be the best country male vocalist alive today and that I pray that 2017 sees another new release from Gene.

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Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III’

will the circle 317 years passed between the original Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Volume II. 13 years after that, in 2002, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided it was time for a third instalment, which they released on Capitol. It did not make as much of a stir as either of the previous instalments, but is still a pretty solid collection of bluegrass and oldtime music with some guests old and new.

The opening ‘Take Me In Your Lifeboat’ is beaty bluegrass gospel performed with Del McCoury and his sons. The McCourys are back on the secular ‘Love Please Come Home’, which is well done but not memorable.

I preferred the contributions from bluegrass great Jimmy Martin (1927-2005), who had taken part in both previous versions, and who belies his age with confident upbeat performances here. He sings his own ‘Hold Whatcha Got’ (which Ricky Skaggs had made into a hit in the late 80s), and also the lively ‘Save It, Save It’.

In contrast, June Carter Cash (1929-2003) takes the lead vocal on the Carter Family’s ‘Diamonds In The Rough’, with Earl Scruggs on banjo. She does not sound at all well, and indeed died the following year. Although Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was also in poor health, he sounds much better than his wife on a self-penned tribute to the late Maybelle and Sara Carter, ‘Tears In The Holston River.

Willie Nelson, not involved in previous versions, gets two cuts here. Willie sounds good on ‘Goodnight Irene’, but the tracks is irredeemably ruined by the presence of duet partner Tom Petty. Petty is out of tune and the harmony is embarrassingly dissonant. A cheery Nelson version of ‘Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ is better although it does feel a bit perfunctory.

Dwight Yoakam (another newcomer to the series) is great on his two tracks. He shows his Kentucky roots on the mournful and authentic ‘Some Dark Holler’. He is outstanding on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Wheels’, which he makes sound like. Vince Gill’s ‘All Prayed Up’ is an excellent piece of up-tempo bluegrass gospel.

Emmylou Harris sings her ex-husband Paul Kennerley’s ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’, a sweet declaration of eternal love, exquisitely. She also duets with Matraca Berg (Mrs Jeff Hanna) on Berg’s folk-styleode to the river running through Nashville, ‘Oh Cumberland’. Alison Krauss exercises her angelic tones on ‘Catfish John’.

Iris Dement sings beautifully on her own nostalgic ‘Mama’s Opry’. Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Dillard team up for the pacy folk of ‘There Is A Time’. Band members’sons Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen (who were the duo Hanna-McEuen at the time) are a bit limp for me on ‘The Lowlands’, a folky Gary Scruggs song.

Sam Bush takes it high mountain lonesome on Carter Stanley’s ‘Lonesome River’. ‘Milk Cow Blues’ is taken back to its blues roots and features Josh Graves and Doc Watson. Watson also sings the traditional ‘I Am A Pilgrim’. More contemporary is ‘I Find Jesus’, penned by Jimmy Ibbotson. ‘Roll The Stone Away’ (written by Jeff Hanna with Marcus Hummon) uses religious imagery but it is a bit dull. The Nashville Bluegrass Band take on A. P. Carter’s ‘I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome which is OK.

Gravel-voiced bluesman Taj Mahal and legendary fiddler Vassar Clements guest on the good-humored ‘Fishin’ Blues, which is mildly amusing. Taj Mahal and Alison Krauss guest on this album’s take on the title song which falls rather flat with Alison sounding a bit squeaky and therest of them dull and lifeless.

This album lacks the groundbreaking nature of Volume I, and the cosy atmosphere of either previous set, making more of a standard collection of older material. There are definitely some tracks well worth hearing, and I’d still be interested if there was a Volume 4.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Bang, Bang, Bang’

bangbangbang1999’s Bang, Bang, Bang was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s sole release from DreamWorks Records, and a last-ditch effort to reverse the band’s decade-long commercial decline. Emory Gordy, Jr. and Steve Fishell were brougnt in to co-produce with Josh Leo. The result was an album that relied more heavily on outside songwriters than most of their earlier work and a more mainstream country-pop sound instead of the country-rock for which they had become well known. As the title suggests, Bang, Bang, Bang isn’t their most substantive collection of songs, but it still has its enjoyable moments.

The opening track “If This Ain’t Love”, written by Jim Lauderdale and Gary Nicholson is a big departure for the group. The horns are a bit jarring but the tune is catchy and contains plenty of steel guitar in the mix, which is a very welcome inclusion — remember this was the era of Shania Twain and Faith Hill when many artists had one eye on the pop charts. The title track, which was the album’s sole single, is a disappointing piece of fluff. It died at #52 when it was originally releasd in 1998. The following year’s re-release fared even worse, recaching only #63. Even more disappointing is the Steve Bogard/Rick Giles tune “Forget The Job (Get A Life)”, an extremely annoying number that sounds like something Shania Twain rejected. I don’t know what they were thinking when they recorded this one but everyone involved should have known better. “It’s About Time” isn’t a first-rate song but it is saved by a nice harmony vocal provided by Matraca Berg.

Things get better with a nice cover of Mac McAnally’s “Down The Road”, which I prefer to the original. “Singing To the Scarecrow”, about a Kentucky farm girl who dreams of stardom, is one of two Dennis Linde compositions and is also quite good. Even better is “Dry Town”, an uptempo Gillian Welch-Jown Rawlings number. The novelty tune “The Monkey Song”, written by Jimmy Ibbotson, is the album’s sole song written by a NGDB member.

While Bang, Bang Bang ultimately did nothing to relaunch the band’s recording career, and it may not be the best remembered entry in their discography, it is certainly worth a listen. Used cheap copies are readily available.

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Acoustic’

220px-NGDB-AcousticTwenty years ago, when their string of radio singles came to end, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band returned their roots with a collection entitled Acoustic. Like other similarly titled projects through the years, this isn’t re-recordings of past hits, but rather an album of all-new material.

While the album didn’t spawn any singles, it’s most notable for introducing the world to “Bless The Broken Road,” a Jeff Hanna, Marcus Hummon, and Bobby Boyd co-write that would top the charts for Rascal Flatts ten years later. Not many know the song began as a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band tune, with a lush piano drenched arrangement not too far removed from Rascal Flatts’ hit recording.

Jimmy Ibbotson had a hand in writing a few of the album’s tunes. “Sara In The Summer” is a harmonica laced folksy country shuffle, “How Long” is a mid-tempo love song, and “One Sure Honest Line” is a song about songs. All are excellent, showcasing the band’s tight harmonies set to clean, appealing production. Ibbotson co-wrote “This Train Keeps Rolling Along,” a fantastic story song with Jim Photoglo and Vince Melamed.

Bob Carpenter was another prominent songwriter on the album. He co-wrote Harmonica ballad “Let It Go,” America-like “Badlands,” and harmony rich “Love With Find A Way.” While all of the tracks are good, “Love With Find A Way” is the highlight, sounding like The Eagles from their Desperado era in the early 1970s.

Dennis Linde contributed “Hello, I Am Your Heart” a slice of filler that really doesn’t go anywhere. Jimmy Fadden had two cuts. “Cupid’s Got A Gun” is a plucky ballad while “Tryin’ Times” is heavy on mandolin yet light on social commentary, as the title suggests.

If anything, Acoustic is too polished. The album still sounds impeccable but the immaculate arrangements hinder any chance for letting loose, which a lot of these songs could benefit from. It’s still a great album, though, and well worth seeking out.

Grade: A

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘The Rest Of The Dream’

the rest of the dreamThe follow up to Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol 2 was always going to be a challenge. The band kept Randy Scruggs, who had overseen the Circle II sessions on hand as their producer for 1990’s The Rest Of The Dream, but did not attempt to copy that album at all. Instead it is a solid return to the country-rock which had done so well for them in the 1980s. Unfortunately they may have lost momentum with their focus on the less overtly commercial Circle II, while country radio was being engulfed with fresh new faces and the move to a more traditional sound. Sadly, they were never again to enjoy a top 40 country hit.

The lead single was a cover of rock star Bruce Springsteen’s ‘From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)’. A dramatic story song about a young girl who elopes with first one man and then another, then shoots her second lover, while the abandoned husband awaits her release from prison, it is delivered in upbeat fashion. It sounds very radio friendly (and convinces as a country-sock song), but peaked at a very disappointing #65. The pleasant but forgettable ballad ‘You Made Life Good Again’ didn’t do much better.

The sunny mid-paced title track, released as the last single with a supporting video, failed to chart at all. It was one of a brace of songs contributed by singer-songwriter John Hiatt, who had appeared on Circle II. It’s enjoyable enough, but I prefer the other one, ‘Just Enough Ashland City’, a charming up-tempo story song in which the narrator finds true love and learns not to judge by outward appearances:

I was Mr Sophisticated and she was “just a country girl”
She wound up showing me everything
I’d ever been dreaming of
I may have known the way to San Jose
But I didn’t know a thing about love

This might have been a more successful single, as might aacouple of other tracks. The gentle ballad ‘Waitin’ On A Dark Eyed Gal’, written by Ron Davies (brother of Gail), is an excellent tune, about holding on to forlorn hope and defying the reality that the narrator has been stood up.

Also great is ‘Blow Out The Stars, Turn Off the Moon’, an excellent song about the end of a relationship written by the brilliant Bobby Braddock, filled with images of their romantic nights under the stars:

When our love was new as the first evening star
We both said “I worship you just as you are”
Then I tried to change you, girl, and I don’t know why
You tried to change me, hey, might as well try
To blow out the stars, turn off the moon
Fade out the crickets and the nightingales too
Take down the magnolias that ride the soft wind
Another love story has come to an end

It is sensitively sung by Jeff Hanna, and beautifully played by the band. This lovely song is my favourite track.

The band’s Jimmie Fadden co-wrote (with Kim Tribble and Bob Garshelis) the charmingly quirky ‘Snowballs’, fantasising about winter walks with a sweetheart, throwing snowballs at the moon:

And after every throw we’d share a little kiss
Make sweet love together every time we’d miss

Hillbilly Hollywood (covered by John Anderson a year or so later on his comeback Seminole Wind album) is about the draw of Nashville for a young musician, which was written by Vince Melamed and Jim Photoglo. I prefer Anderson’s version, but this one is decent.

Jimmy Ibbotson co-wrote ‘Junior’s Grill, a tribute to a favorite diner which would be a great commercial jingle but is a little dull as a song. All four current band members (Hanna, Ibbotson, Fadden and Bob Carpenter) cowrote ‘Wishing Well’, but the song is disappointingly bland.

Overall, though, this is worth picking up –especially as used copies can be found cheaply.

Grade: B+

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Workin’ Band’

workinbandWith the release of 1988’s Workin’ Band, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band began to wind down its most commercially successful decade. It was the band’s final “regular” album of the decade and its last for Warner Bros.; the following year’s album and their Universal debut would be the much-acclaimed and guest star-studded Will The Circle Be Unbroken?, Volume II which we reviewed in April 2009 .

Like the previous year’s Hold On, Workin’ Band was produced by Josh Leo. It produced three Top 10 singles, beginning with “Workin’ Man (Nowhere To Go)”, a #4 peaking hit that despite its uptempo arrangement, dealt with the plight of American farmers who were displaced after losing their farms at auction. It was followed by another uptempo, radio-friendly number “I’ve Been Lookin'”, which reached #2. Both songs were penned by band members: Jimmie Fadden wrote “Workin’ Man” and Jimmy Ibbotson and Jeff Hanna penned “I’ve Been Lookin'”. The third single, “Down That Road Tonight” was written by Jeff Hanna with Josh Leo and Wendy Waldman. My least favorite of the three singles, “Down That Road Tonight” contains just a hint of the blues. It reached #6 and marks the second-to-last time The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band would score a Top 10 hit (“When It Goes” from the Circle II collection became their final Top 10 in 1990).

Two of the album’s tunes were later covered by other artists. Holly Dunn released a very similar version of “Thunder and Lightnin'” a year later and Lorrie Morgan recorded a much slicker version of “Soldier of Love” in 1996, which pales in comparison to NGDB’s rendition.

Band member Bob Carpenter contributed two of his original compositions to the project: “Baby Blues”, a co-write with Wendy Waldman and “A Lot Like Me”. Both are departures from the band’s usual sound. Carpenter takes over as lead vocalist and though he is not as gifted a singer as his bandmates, he is effective on both tunes, particularly the rock-infused “A Lot Like Me”, that I liked a lot more than I expected to.

Workin’ Band was always one of my favorite Nitty Gritty Dirt Band albums. I bought it on cassette when it was released in 1988, but never upgraded it to CD. Consequently, I had not heard it in a very long time, but it has held up surprisingly well and I found that I enjoyed it as much as I did over quarter-century ago.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Partners, Brothers And Friends’

partners brothers and friendsBy 1985 the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were confident in their mainstream country/country-rock style, and released the excellent Partners, Brothers And Friends, a fine collection of mainly up-tempo, mainly positive songs which shows the band at their best.

The lead single, ‘Modern Day Romance’ was their second country chart topper. It is an early Kix Brooks songwriting credit (alongside Dan Tyler), and is a solidly enjoyable story song about a roadside pickup which turns into a wild weekend and a broken heart when the girl leaves him stranded:

I tried to love her without any strings
But a modern day romance has left me some old fashioned pain

The wistfully nostalgic ‘Home Again in My Heart’ then hit #3, with the banjo most prominent in the mix helping to give it a rustic feel. The charming ‘Old Upright Piano’ (written by Don Schlitz and Rhonda Kye Fleming) also looks back fondly to childhood memories of the narrator’s grandparents, and allows Bob Carpenter to shine on the piano.

There is a similar mood to Jimmy Ibbotson’s song ‘Telluride’ (not the song of that name later recorded by Tim McGraw but a cover of a song Ibbotson had written in the 1970s. Its poetically folky lyrics about a 19th century gold miner and his love for his wife are counterpointed by a more contemporary arrangement.

The autobiographical title track (written by Jimmy Ibbotson and Jeff Hanna) peaked at #6, but is one of my favourites of their records as it cheerfully chronicles the ups and downs of their career.

There are a number of enjoyable upbeat numbers, any of which would have been possible singles. The exuberant ‘Redneck Riviera’ (witten by Jeff Hanna and Bob Carpenter) is an early version of the country beach song, but it’s quite entertaining and rooted in real life. Hanna, Ibbotson and Steve Goodman wrote the catchy ‘Queen Of The Road’, a joyful tribute to a tough girl biker. The breezy cowboy song ‘Other Side of The Hill’ (sometimes also known as ‘Cadillac Cowboy’ and recorded by a number of other artists) is another enjoyable cut.

Slowing things down for a moment, ‘As Long As You’re Loving Me’ is a love song with a pretty melody written by Don Schlitz, Lisa Silver and Russell Smith.

They close up with the dramatic saga of ‘Leon McDuff’, a farmer who loses his riverside farm to floods, an unhelpful bank and an unscrupulous tax official who grabs his land for his own benefit. The song is structured as the defence lawyer’s speech at his trial for murdering the sheriff sent to evict Leon and his family:

I’m asking you to be the judge of when enough is enough

The band’s instrumental playing on this track is spectacular.

This album sees the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at their best. It is strongly recommended (and can be found as part of a 2-4-1 CD with its predecessor.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Plain Dirt Fashion’

plaindirtfashionIn 1982, The Dirt Band, as they were then known, reverted back to their former name and moved toward a more mainstream country sound. They scored their first Top 10 country hit in 1983 with “Dance Little Jean”. A year and a label change later, they solidfied their reputation as a mainstream country band with all of their singles through the end of the decade reaching the Top 10.

Plain Dirt Fashion was the band’s first album for Warner Bros., and in the summer of 1984, the song from which the album’s title was derived became the first of their three number one country hits. Written by Rodney Crowell, “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)” is a nostalgic look back at an impovershed but happy childhood and my favorite Nitty Gritty Dirt Band single. With tight harmonies and plenty of fiddle, it is one of their most traditional efforts, foreshadowing the upcoming New Traditionalist movement which would take off in earnest about a year later. It was followed by the upbeat “I Love Only You”, written by Dave Loggins and Don Schlitz, which reached #3. “High Horse”, penned by Dirt Band member Jimmy Ibbotson, became the album’s third single. It peaked at #2 in early 1985. All three singles were tailor-made for country radio without any of the rock elements that had been the hallmark of much of the band’s earlier work. Two album cuts, however, are covers of old rock-and-roll hits — Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch and Meat Loaf’s “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad”, neither of which is particularly memorable.

In general, while the singles are timeless and have managed to avoid sounding dated, the album cuts haven’t aged as well, mainly due to the somewhat heavy-handed — and typical of the era — use of the drum machine, which mars “Cadillac Ranch”, “Run With Me” and “‘Til The Fire’s Burned Out”. “Video Tape”, the album’s closing track, gives away the album’s age by its reference to a now-obsolete medium. It asks, “wouldn’t you be in good shape if your life was on video tape?” a question that would never be asked in the era of iPhones and social media when so many have regretted having their actions recorded. The one truly great non-single cut is “The Face On The Cutting Room Floor”, about a has-been (or more accurately, never-was) actress who fails to make it in Hollywood after refusing to sleep her way to the top. The tune was written by Steve Goodman with band members Jeff Hanna and Jimmy Ibbotson.

In addition to the band members themselves, the album credits list some marquee names as additonal musicians, with Steve Gibson, Mark O’Connor, and Ricky Skaggs all lending their talents to the project.

Although it occasionally shows its age, Plain Dirt Fashion is still an enjoyable album and worth a listen if you haven’t already heard it. It is available for download or on a 2-for-1 CD with the band’s next project Partners, Brothers and Friends.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Let’s Go’

0215albums247The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band returned to their country roots in 1982, around the time the band started using their full name again. They had a lineup change as well, with former member Jimmy Ibbotson joining Jeff Hanna, Jimmie McFadden, and John McEuen for the sessions taking place in Nashville. With Norbert Putnam and Richard Landis producing, Let’s Go was released on Liberty Records in 1983.

The album, which peaked at #26, had two successful singles. “Shot Full of Love,” written by Bob McDill reached #19. While not overwhelmingly country, the track worked in the Urban Cowboy era of smooth country-pop and was nicely driven by the band’s excellent harmonies.

Ibbotson wrote “Dance Little Jean,” an excellent mid-tempo acoustic guitar driven number in hopes it would convince his ex-wife they should reconcile. The plan backfired although she’s reported to say he could afford to pay child support (the Jean of the song referred to the couple’s daughter), as the track would be a hit. Her prediction was correct and the song rose to #9.

The remainder of the album was peppered with tracks penned by notable songwriters. Rodney Crowell wrote “Never Together (But Close Sometimes),” a Caribbean flavored number accentuated with steel drums and an island beat that are horribly dated today. Pop singer-songwriter Andrew Gold contributed “Heartaches In Heartaches,” an excellent mid-tempo number notable for a rocklin’ beat. Dave Loggins composed “Goodbye Eyes,” a tender soft-rock ballad that would’ve been a perfect crossover hit had it been a single. And finally, Marshall Crenshaw inscribed “Maryann,” a synth-heavy ballad with a fuller arrangement than most of the tracks, but still perfectly Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Hanna co-wrote “Special Look,” a very good synth drenched number with Bob Carpenter. He and Fadden collaborated on the title track, a number that wouldn’t have been out of place in Alabama’s catalog at the time. “Don’t Get Sand In It,” isn’t country at all, but from a pop/rock perspective, it’s still good. “Too Many Heartaches in Paradise” leans more into country music from the era and would’ve been a good choice as a single.

As a whole, Let’s Go isn’t a country album and to categorize it as indicative of the Urban Cowboy era is a stretch. But the band is in fine form throughout, with clean arrangements and harmonies that may be dated today, but are still very listenable.

Grade: B+

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’

will the circle be unbrokenEven if the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never made another album after this one, they would have still deserved a place in country music history. This groundbreaking album teamed up the young folk-rockers with country hearts with a selection of veterans including some from the early days of recorded country music, performing music mostly from the same era. It was a triple LP, but was remastered and released as a double CD in 2002, and is also available digitally. There is a friendly living room atmosphere, with snippets of the chat in the studio between tracks.

The various instrumental tracks and backings are brilliantly played by the Nitty Gritties and their guests, often anchored by Earl Scruggs and fiddler Vassar Clements.

The album opens with bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin (1927-2005) singing Hylo Brown’s ‘Grand Ole Opry Song’, which pays affectionate tributes to the stars of the Opry past and present. The song’s subject sets the mood for the whole project. This was one of the singles released to promote the album. It is very charming, but wasn’t very commercial even in the 1970s. Martin’s former boss Bill Monroe had declined to take part in the sessions, distrusting the young men from California, and reportedly regretted that decision once he heard the end result; but Martin’s piercing tenor is a strong presence on a number of tracks. ‘Sunny Side Of The Mountain’ and ‘My Walkin’ Shoes’ are a bit more standard pacy bluegrass – brilliantly performed, but they don’t really hit the heartstrings. The plaintive ‘Losin’ You (Might Be The Best thing Yet)’ is more affecting, and ‘You Don’t Know My Mind’ is also good.

Roy Acuff (1903-1992) was also dubious about the project, but having agreed to take part was quickly won over by the long haired youngsters’ genuine love of country music and their musicianly skills. Known as the King of Country Music, Acuff was the biggest star in country in the 1940s, and one of the influences on artists like George Jones. Even after his commercial star had faded, he remained a very visible presence in the genre, as a stalwart of the Opry and as co-owner of the music publishing company Acuff Rose. He sings some of his signature gospel-infused tunes ‘The Precious Jewel’, the gloomy ‘Wreck On The Highway’, plus the lonesome love song ‘Pins And Needles In My Heart’. He also takes the lead on Hank William’s joyful country gospel classic ‘I Saw The Light’, enthusiastically backed by the NGDB and Jimmy Martin on the chorus.

Mother Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) represents the earliest country recordings and the crystallization of country as a genre from Appalachian folk and the popular music of the day. She sings the lead on the optimistic ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’, a turn of the century religious tune which was one of the Carter Family’s first recordings in the 1920s. Her vocals are thickened with age (and she was never the lead voice in the original Carter Family, taking second place vocally to sister in law Sara), but backed by a chorus of other participants there is a warm familial atmosphere which is quite endearing, and the playing is impeccable. ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’, another Carter Family classic, and ‘Wildwood Flower’ are also charming.

Flatpicking guitarist Merle Travis sings ‘I Am A Pilgrim’, the coalmining ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ and ‘Nine Pound Hammer’; these are delightful and among my favorite tracks, particularly ‘Dark As A Dungeon’. Another guitar legend, Doc Watson, who surprisingly only met Travis for the first time at these sessions, takes on vocal duties for Jimmie Driftwood’s always enjoyable story song ‘Tennessee Stud’ as well as the traditional ‘Way Downtown’.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band harmonise nicely on a tasteful version of A P Carter’s delicately pretty ‘You Are My Flower’. Their vocal style betrays their folk-rock roots, but the instrumentation is perfectly authentic. They also picked out some Hank Williams classics to spotlight their own vocals. Jimmie Fadden leads on ‘Honky Tonking’, and Jeff Hanna gives ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ a Jimmie Rodgers style edge with his voice sounding as though at any moment he’s going to break into a fully fledged yodel. Jimmy Ibbotson takes on ‘Lost Highway’ (penned by Leon Payne but most associated with Hank)..Their vocals sound a little tentative compared with their more confident later work, but the songs are beautifully played. That is actually a reasonable assessment of the whole album – there is nothing to criticise musically, but the vocals, while honest and authentic, are not up to the standard of, say, today’s best bluegrass.

Pretty much the entire lineup participates in the title song, an inspired choice. The song’s own message is a spiritual one but in the context of this project it has a metaphorical second meaning. The messages of unity and tradition are underpinned by the cover art with its use of US and Confederate flags, and the legend “Music forms a new circle”.

This album is a towering achievement and one of the most significant in country music history. It united two generations, linking the up and coming country rockers with the men and women who had in effect created country music as a unique and definable genre. If you have any interest in music history, it’s a must-have.

Grade: A+

Spotlight Artist: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

ngdb 1980s

Is it folk or rock or country?
Seems like everybody cares but us

Lots of people have had that question about the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The answer, of course, is all of the above, with the band’s origins lying in the roots scene of 1960s California, but their greatest strength has been as a country rock band in the 1980s, and in the role bringing together country heritage with younger performers and listeners in the Will The Circle Be Unbroken trilogy.

The band was founded in the 1960s in Long Beach, California, by Jeff Hanna, as a folk-rock jug band. The first members included Jimmie Fadden and singer-songwriter Jackson Browne (soon replaced by John McEuen). Hanna, Fadden and McEuen are still members today, although the lineup has seen a long list of changes. They soon signed to Liberty Records and from 1967 released a series of folk-rock albums.

Jimmy Ibbotson joined the group in 1970, and the four plus Les Thompson recorded their most country influenced effort to date, Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy. They really made their mark on country music, and a place in country music history, with the ground-breaking and legendary Will The Circle Be Unbroken in 1972. The genre has always balanced change with reverence for its heritage, but by the early 1970s the oldest artists were no longer at the forefront. The triple album – a rarity at the time – revived many classic and oldtime country songs, and collaborated with veteran artists including Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, and Earl Scruggs among others.

They were still not a straight country group, playing for rock audiences much of the time. In 1975 Ibbotson left the band, and they changed their name to the simpler The Dirt Band, adopting a more rock and pop direction, although they continued to record some country songs like Rodney Crowell’s ‘Voila An American Dream’, which was a pop hit for the band in 1980.

Reverting to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band name in 1982, the core group of Hanna, McEuen, Ibbotson and McFadden made a concerted bid for the country mainstream. They enjoyed immediate success with the single ‘Dance, Little Jean’ becoming their first top 10 country hit. After their first mainstream country record they transferred to Warner Brothers Records. They were rejoined in 1983 by Bob Carpenter, who had been with them for a while in the late 70s, and for a few years Bernie Leadon of the Eagles took the place of McEuen.

At the height of their success, the neotraditional sound was sweeping country airwaves. it was the ideal moment to revisit the legendary Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Recruiting some more recent stars alongside survivors from the original, Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume II was a tour de force, winning two Grammy Awards and the CMA Album of the Year. A third instalment would following 2002.

Their commercial appeal faded a little in the 1990s, and they wandered between labels, issuing material on MCA, Capitol, Liberty, DreamWorks and independent labels. They are still active touring – appearing at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in California on 5 October, and in Canada the rest of the month. They released their last album to date in 2009.

We’re happy to announce they will be our Spotlight Artists for this month. We will be focussing on their mainstream country period.