As a tail-end baby boomer, my first deep exposure to country-roots-infused rock music came not from The Band, The Grateful Dead or Neil Young but The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (NGDB). The group ascended to widespread acclaim around 1970 due to its massive hit with Jerry Jeff Walker’s instant-classic, “Mr. Bojangles.” The album that hit resided on — Uncle Charlie and his Dog Teddy — delivered a haystack of new sounds my nine-year-old ears had not heard in quite that way before: Banjos, fiddles, electric and acoustic guitars, harmonica, keyboards, hard rockin’ drums and harmony vocals collided via the likes of George Jones, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly.
NGDB emerged around the same time as The Band and both groups were on the radio a lot during that wrinkle in time — that is how most of us heard new music for back in the day, kids, in those times before the Interwebs ‘n downloads ‘n streams ‘n stuff.
For me, growing up as the youngest in a household with two older brothers, Folk music (as defined by the likes of Peter Paul & Mary, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot) was a big part of the soundtrack of my early life. But it was NGDB that opened my window to the world of Country-Western and Bluegrass musics, even more so than those first couple records by The Band or Neil Young’s country twists on After The Goldrush and Harvest.
So I have a special place in my heart for this band and that album (Uncle Charlie and HIs Dog Teddy) in particular as well as the later groundbreaking Will The Circle Be Unbroken, a three-record set which trailed much deeper into the back woods. Those albums pretty much set the template for many NGDB albums to come.
That said, there is a fine new two CD set (and CD-quality stream on Tidal) simply titled Anthology, a collection which presents a stirring snapshot of a band that went from Southern California psychedelic-infused Pop-Rock to a pure Country entity in the late 70s and beyond. The can and do play everything and you get a great overview of that scope here.
Happily, Anthology gives the listener a sizable chunk of the Uncle Charlie experience including their big hit as well as their great versions of Mike Nesmith’s brilliant “Some of Shelly’s Blues” and Kenny Loggins’ charming “House at Pooh Corner” (one of the singles from the album). You also get a snippet of the mesmerizing “Uncle Charlie Interview” segment in the remixed form (circa 2003, which adds some background banjo picking not heard on the original LP…. little details, but worth noting that some alterations were made at some point along the way).
In addition to the Circle tracks like Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin'” and the epic title track, you also get tracks from the fine 1975 album Symphonium Dream including a sort of slightly trippy Country-flavored version of “Battle of New Orleans” and the rollicking “Bayou Jubilee/Sally Was A Goodun” medley.
But perhaps it might be argued that Disc Two (volume two on the Tidal stream) is the most useful part of Anthology as it lets you explore NGDB recordings many of us may have missed over the years. I admit to having lost touch with them by the time Punk, New Wave and all that followed happened in the 1980s.
You’ll hear sweet duets with the likes of Linda Ronstadt (“An American Dream”) and Nicolette Larson (“Make A Little Magic”). You’ll also hear the lovely “Colorado Christmas,” a single with Emmylou Harris (which also appears on their fine The Christmas Album). And then there are tracks from the late 80s revisitation Will The Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Two including a fine fine version of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” featuring Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman of The Byrds.
Heck, in the grand tradition of why collections like Anthology exist, I learned that there is a THIRD circle volume from 2002 which I really need to get. This includes a fine cover of “Catfish John” with Alison Krause (a song I first heard played by the Jerry Garcia Band!). You’ll also hear Johnny Cash singing “Tears In The Holsten River” there.
I think you get the idea that NGDB are an important band worthy of your exploration. The CD and the Tidal stream sound about as fine as 16-bit, 44.1 kHz audio can sound. I lean toward the CD because this is a nice album for taking in the car (if you still have a CD player) or ripping to your mobile device. But overall the Tidal stream sounds pretty clean and operates quite seamlessly.
If you are not familiar with the NGDB, you should check them out. They are American originals and an important link from the past to the present, keeping roots music traditions alive for new generations to discover and re-interpret anew.