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Nitty Gritty Dirt Band carries rich legacy in history of American roots music

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, with 45 years in the music business, has amassed a catalog that makes the group’s shows a celebration of Americana — as it was at a recent Santuary Concerts performance in Chatham.


The band showcased a career-wide rainbow of ’70s pop hits such as Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” and Randy Crowell’s “An American Dream,” and ’80s favorites “Dance Little Jean” (Jimmy Ibbotson) and “Fishin’ in the Dark” by Wendy Waldman (whose trio, the Refugees — with Cindy Bullens and Deborah Holland — will be playing in the area this summer), as well as selections from its latest album, “Speed of Life.”

Don’t be fooled, though. The new album has deep roots, including a rare vocal by drummer Jimmie McFadden on Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country.”

The band broke right out of the box with Dylan‘s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” which Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn turned into a top 10 country hit in 1989 (having also done it nearly 20 years earlier as the Byrds). It got the show off right, with the audience singing along.

Marc Fink

John McEuen played the demon fiddler in a tribute to “Jimmy Martin” (from the new record) and had some stage time alone with nothing but his banjo and considerable sense of humor. Earlier in the show, he and vocalist Jeff Hanna speculated about the Beatles using a banjo themselves, before the band launched into “Get Back.”

Their vocal harmonies are a bit thinner now, since since Ibbotson left the band, although Hanna sang his old leads as if they were his. Still, they make magic, digging into a deep treasure chest.

The most passionate vocal of the night was Bob Carpenter’s on “Bless the Broken Road,” which Hanna said he co-wrote for his third marriage. The NGDB recorded the tune roughly 20 years ago, and it became widely known after it went platinum, topping the charts, for country stars Rascal Flatts six years ago.

Long-time fans can’t possibly get to hear everything they want (I could’ve gone for “Buy For Me The Rain,” “Make a Little Magic” or “Hard Road”). Otherwise the band would be playing all night.

As it was, theirs was an extended performance, one that kicked into high-energy as the NGDB took the audience on a trip south with the classics “Jamabalaya” (Hank Williams) and “The Weight” (The Band), among others.

The Sanctuary always boasts top-quality talent — the Roches, Jesse Colin Young, Graham Parker, Garland Jeffreys, and Frank Vignola’s Guitar Trio, to name some. The sound system works well for the quieter acts; the NGDB brought in its own, geared for larger venues.

It’s easy to see why larger stages still beckon, given the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s confident stage presence and rich musical catalog (the landmark 1972 triple album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” is in the Library of Congress). And in case anyone had forgotten, the members of NGDB reminded folks that they’ve been Americana before Americana even existed.

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