My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: The Beach Boys

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy’

ngdb uncle charlieThe 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.

Grade: A

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Concert Review – Kathy Mattea at Silver Center For The Arts in Plymouth, NH

Kathy MatteaKathy Mattea came ready to give it her all. Amidst a blinding snowstorm, and the after effects of the head cold that had eluded her to three days prior, she took the stage Feb 23 in the teeny 665 seat Hanaway Theatre (located in isolated Plymouth, NH) with just three other musicians, a caravan of guitars, and a message.

Of late Mattea has been outspoken on the subject of coal, or “Black Gold” as she sings in a recent song. Her crusade opened a so-far two-album floodgate, a life-changing detour into the Appalachian Folk songs of her West Virginian heritage and the most fully realized music of her thirty-year recording career. Her otherworldly alto graces the lyrics of Jean Ritchie, Laurie Lewis, Hazel Dickens, and Alice Garrard with the plainspoken beauty of a woman directly in line with her authentic center.

But even more impressive is Mattea’s ability to blend the “new” with the old, creating a woven tapestry linked by environmental cause, a deep sense of history, and a sharp ear. She opened with the first track on Calling Me Home (“A Far Cry”) before launching into “Lonesome Standard Time,” her #11 peaking single from 1992, without skipping a beat. She then graced the audience with my favorite of her singles, “Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thrust),” which was recently reinstated back into her set.

The intermingling of her past hits and newer material took me by surprise. I expected Mattea to focus mainly on the subject of coal, with a dusting of her biggest hits, thus leaving non-signature tunes as distant memories. But instead Mattea covered the hallowed ground between her past and present with the seamless ease of a songstress in tune with every note, paying close attention to every lyric.

Dressed in a mint green blouse, black jacket, and casual leggings, Mattea had the confidence of a seasoned professional but the cool of an everywoman; she was one among equals not a star singing to a crowd. Her greatest virtue was her subtlety, showcased through her candor and humor, on par with that of a next-door neighbor, a friend.

She greeted us like we’ve known her all our lives, commending us “Plymouthians” on our toughness in weather, braving a major snowstorm like a bright sunny day. Later she encouraged communal participation, denouncing those who belittled us for an inability to carry a tune, before having us sing loud and proud on multiple choruses of both “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” and “Come From The Heart.” The latter bonded us as a tight-knit family – she enthusiastically attempted to get us clapping on the offbeat, which wasn’t meant to be. Clapping on all beats didn’t work either so plan B had us singing “You gotta sing like you don’t need the money, love like you’ll never get hurt, dance like nobody’s watching, it’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work” at the tops of our lungs.

Further audience participation caused an off-script deviation into “Mary, Did You Know” and a proclamation that it wasn’t included with the $35 ticket price. She rolled with the flow, only grappling with the tune to see if she could reach the high note without her head popping off (she did have a head cold, after all). The song soared, and proved that sick or healthy professionalism wins out every time.

My favorite moment of the night confirmed another of Mattea’s many facets -her shrewd intellect. Her successful blending of old and new cumulated in a shared linkage – most of Mattea’s songs are deeply rooted in various fossil flues, albeit generally indirectly. I’d never viewed her material from such a focal point before, and she gracefully clarified her hypothesis, explaining how she’s singing about the diesel fuel of trains (“Lonesome Standard Time”) and the long hall truckers (“Eighteen Wheels”) to the coal. This led to a fabulous rendition of “455 Rocket” (fossil fuel: gasoline), her 1997 single and final top 20 chart hit. (In another showcase of her clever humor, I loved how she modified the line, “as we skid I thought I heard angles sing (sounded like the Beach Boys)” into a sly commentary on Beyoncé’s recent lip-synching scandal).

Mattea went on to grace us with more stories – how she first played the banjo in college only to pick it up again more recently, and the time she performed in newly restored theatre in Ohio, only to find out the majority of the audience didn’t know whom she was. She was candid on the subject of marriage, mentioning her and Jon’s recent (the prior week) 25-year milestone, gracing us with “Love Chooses You,” a Willow In The Wind album cut, and the song sung at their wedding.

Before “Love At The Five and Dime” she remarked on Nanci Griffith’s writing, likening the second verse to poetry, and shared that her classic “Where’ve You Been” almost wasn’t written, if co-writer Don Henry hadn’t been in the room. The latter came with a tale about a man with Alzheimer’s who’d forgotten his wife, until a visit in which she and their daughter were yelling at each other – and memories came flooding back.

Some of my favorite moments weren’t even the older hits (she also sang “Untold Stories,” another unexpected surprise) but the new material, even more simplistic on stage, than record. The quiet beauty of “Agate Hill” elicited tears, while her effective reading of “West Virginia Mine Disaster” showcased her storytelling prowess. “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” was a nice uptempo change of pace, and “Coal Tattoo” really let the band rip.

My other great joy, and the benefits of my front row center seat, was witnessing the nuances of the band in action all evening. Sitting that close, I was able to take in all that was happening on stage and watch the four musicians bring each song to life with the fullness of a full ensemble. The front row seat brought an appreciation to the evening that even two or three rows back would’ve made near impossible.

Seeing Mattea live was one of those musical highlights of life where everything comes together perfectly for a truly outstanding evening. She’s an otherworldly talent who has only aged with sincere grace and humility since her Nashville hit making days. If you’ve never attending one of her shows, or if it’s been a while since your last evening with Mattea, it’s well worth it to catch her when she’s in your area. It’ll likely be one of the best musical nights of your life. That was certainty the case for me.