'Dirt Does Dylan'
Bob's Songs Done Right, Down to the Real Nitty Gritty
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's new album, Dirt Does Dylan, may be my favorite record of Bob Dylan covers, and that is really saying something. There have been so many tributes and compilations by artists who do Dylan right: the Byrds, the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez. Manfred Mann has done 20 Dylan songs, and that would be one great album, but I'm not aware the recordings have been compiled on one set.
In 1972, Mann produced an album called "Lo & Behold: Words and Music by Bob Dylan" by the foursome Coulson, Dean, McGuiness (sic) and Flint. It was a peek at then little heard basement tapes material and other bootlegged songs: "Don't You Tell Henry," "Odds and Ends." I recently dusted off my cherished vinyl copy (an Australian CD is sold by Amazon for $30.88 last time I looked). Tom McGuinness' name is spelled wrong on the cover of the Sire LP, and the recording is thin, without much bass or bottom. McGuinness was bass player in the Manfred Mann on the 1964 No. 1 "Doo Wah Diddy," and as far as I can tell, was still in the band when they hit the Billboard top 10 with Dylan's hilarious "Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo").
Dirt Does Dylan ends with "Mighty Quinn," lively and goofy as it ought to be. When Mann formed his more progressive Earth Band, the group hit the charts with two Bruce Springsteen covers, "Blinded by the Light" (number one, 1976), and "Spirit in the Night" (1977). I'm not drawing any conclusions from this, except to say that the Dirt Band could do a tremendous job of covering Nebraska, beginning to end, more lively, but still true to the spirit of the songs.
Even the Four Seasons recorded half an album of Dylan songs, the other half being Bacharach and David tunes. There have been bluegrass Dylans, polka Dylans, reggae Dylans, cha-cha Dylans, Mormon Tabernacle Dylans, TV dinner Dylans, Scandanavian noir Dylans...you know, a lot. But before getting to how and why the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Dirt Does Dylan is so good, I'm reminded that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was always pretty great, even if you think you know that you don't like their kind of music, which is probably not true anyway.
When I arrived in Boulder, Colorado, in the summer of 1970, the Dirt Band's third and newest album was Uncle Charlie and his Dog Teddy, a conceptual masterpiece that still sounds good 52 years later. Formed in Long Beach, California, the story goes that the Dirt Band moved to Colorado after an earthquake. They may have been managed by still fledging concert promoter Chuck Morris, who managed a Boulder club called Tulagi's, where the Dirt Band were regulars. We lived on sandwiches from the "Jewish style" deli (was it called Herbie's?) upstairs from the 'tule, and inhaled buckets of the 3.2 per cent Coors draft beer other CU undergrads lived on. Not a great beer, but effective for treating cottonmouth.
The Dirt band's mix of country, bluegrass, blues, and other music for uplifting gourmandizers. . . See what I did there? That sequence provide the initials of the official name for the club CBGB and OMFUG. The NGDB was not far off from that description: a little bluegrass, but also pop, rock, and exquisite taste in songs and songwriters. The Uncle Charlie album had a Stanley Brothers' instrumental, but also Buddy Holly's "Rave On," Randy Newman's "Livin' Without You," the radio hit version of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles." It had two songs co-written by promising newcomer Kenny Loggins, including "House at Pooh Corner," later a Loggins & Messina favorite, and they had the confidence to open the album with Mike Nesmith's beautiful "Some of Shelly's Blues," at a time when Nesmith was still associated in most minds with the Monkees. Listening to it “Shelly’s Blues” now, I still get the same burst of serotonin that I remember from 52 years ago. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had banjos and fiddle, but also electric guitars and piano and a rocking rhythm section, with harmonica splitting the distance. They were the bridge between country and rock when country rock was gestating.
Released February 1, 1970, it is not a stretch to say that Uncle Charlie and his Dog Teddy was the founding, and the foundation, of what many years later became known as Americana. And 1970, after all, was the year of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, Dylan's Self Portrait and New Morning, Creedence Clearwater Revival's Cosmo's Factory, The Band's Stage Fright. If they didn't ignite the zeitgeist, the Dirt Band epitomized it, and it made Colorado seem like the center of a groovy musical situation. You could love hard rock, heavy metal and acid rock, or folk music and country blues, and also dig the Dirt Band.
Despite being "long-haired hippies," the Dirt band had ambitions to cross the great divide between "country rock" and the roots of country music with a three-LP set called Will the Circle Be Unbroken in 1972. In an interview with Jacqueline Reynolds of the Aspen Daily News, in March 2022, co-founding member banjo player John McEuen, who left the Dirt Band in 2017 and now occasionally plays with his own group, "the Circle Band," recalled asking Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson to join the Will the Circle Be Unbroken project when they played at Tulagi's in 1972. Both said yes, as did Mother Maybelle Carter and Roy Acuff. (Wiliam McEuen, an essential name in Dirt Band history, was the band's first manager, and produced Uncle Charlie and the Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Bill McEuen, who had gone on to produce Steve Martin albums and films, died in 2020 in Hawaii.)
I admit I lost track of the Dirt Band until Dirt Does Dylan fell into my hands, and it was love at first listen. Despite personnel changes over the decades, their taste and judgement in songs and arranging is still impeccable. There are just 11 songs here, but I would have been happy if this was a triple album too. The song choices don't seem overly bold, except maybe for "Country Pie," from Nashville Skyline. Dylan's version is cute, maybe a little callow, as if you're not sure if he really understands his own joke. If Dylan was exploiting his copyrights in commercials back then, "Country Pie" would have been a great ad jingle for Morton's or Banquet frozen pie. The Dirt Band emphasize the "country" in "Country Pie. " Jeff Hanna and keyboard layer Bob Carpenter sing, while other band members whistle while they work.
The band is still led by co-founder Jeff Hanna, and the album is co-produced by Hanna and Ray Kennedy, one of Nashville's most prolific studio names. The other founding member still playing with the Dirt Band is harmonica player Jimmie Fadden, who was mentored by Sonny Terry and Taj Mahal, among many others who passed through L.A. in the 1960s. Fadden's harmonica is more front and center on some of these tunes than Dylan's self-accompaniment on the originals. Harmonica is deployed as the main instrument on "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," the dominant sound and not just a flavor. Fadden just takes over. It's a wonderful rendition.
Jeff Hanna and his son Jaime (and often, Bob Carpenter) carry most of the lead vocals. Not surprisingly, father and son's voices are close in timbre, and the way they accent and phrase these familiar songs is part of the richness of Dirt Does Dylan. They even bring fresh appeal to "Forever Young," far from my favorite Dylan song for abundant reasons, not the least of which is the way it clung like barnacles to my most depressive moods in my 20s. And the fact that the album it's from, Planet Waves (Asylum), released in January 1974, was the one studio album Dylan did not make for Columbia Records when I worked there, so I knew there was little chance I might see Bob in the building, did not get to work with a new Dylan album. (Perversely, I have come to very much like the Dylan album Columbia released in 1973. Then thought of as a slapdash of incongruous covers, it now reveals the breadth of his musical interests: "Mr. Bojangles" is there, as is Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" ("an utter disgrace," Jon Landau wrote in Rolling Stone), and two songs associated with Elvis Presley, catnip to my Elvis/Dylan obsession.
If you think you don't need to hear a new version of "I Shall Be Released," DDD should rectify that. It features an outstanding star turn by Rebecca and Megan Lovell, the blues sisters who perform as Larkin Poe, my current musical crush. (Their new album comes November 11.) When Rebecca begins the second verse with the line "They say every man needs protection/ They say that every man must fall, " you don't wonder who "they" are: It sounds personal, this forceful woman's voice. It is as good as any version since Music from Big Pink, which sets the very high bar.
All right, you say: What do you do to freshen up "The Times They Are A-Changin'"? Here's the strategy: Have Jeff Hanna sing the first verse, then hand out honorariums: Jason Isbell, second verse; Roseanne Cash, third verse; Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Trotter, the modern gospel duo who perform as The War and the Treaty, fourth verse; and Steve Earle closing out the verses, with Matraca Berg adding harmonies and more harmonica. The prophetic mode is intact and enhanced, the words as relevant as ever.
And that's the trick with covering Bob Dylan as well as it's done on this album. Every performance, every song, the Dirt Band not only hit their marks with precision: They are paying the songs forward.
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