The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has lifetime bluegrass street cred, even if they never even thought about bluegrass music again.
Their 1970 triple album, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, featured stellar guest performances by many of the stars and legends of bluegrass and traditional country music.
It was not only a spectacular critical and commercial success, but also served to introduce the music of Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson, Vassar Clements, Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff and Merle Travis to a young music audience that may have never discovered it otherwise.
Their recordings since have been geared more towards mainstream country, where they are often billed simply as The Dirt Band, though usually with a nod towards traditional acoustic American folk musics. They did release a second Circle project in 1989 and a third in 2002, both of which made the country album charts.
On September 22, they will have their first new CD in five years, Speed Of Life, released on their own NGDB label, distributed by Sugar Hill Records. It was co-produced by George Massenburg, a recording engineer in the truest sense of the word, and Jon Randall, an award-winning songwriter and Nashville musician. Massenburg not only pioneered the use of parametric equalization in audio recording, he has also produced hit recordings in pop, rock and country music. Randall brings experience in the bluegrass and acoustic world to the project, and has done co-writing with Jeff Hanna of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
The band’s bluegrass connection is cemented by banjo player John McEuen,who was in the news of late for his work with Steve Martin on The Crow, Martin’s first all banjo recording. The two are old friends, with a kinship partially forged by their mutual love of the old five string.
John spoke with us recently about the new project. We first wondered why this was the right time for a new releases after five years.
“The band knew enough songs finally! Well, really… it took a few years to jell as far as what we were looking for to express ourselves with new music, and it came together. When George Massenberg said he would produce, well, that was an unexpected compliment to our potential outcome. What a great thing, and I believe it made it the best NGDB effort in 15 years.”
Here’s a taste of one of the tracks, called The Resurrection (written by Matraca Berg and Alice Randall), which starts with the familiar harmonica of Jeff Hanna.
We also asked McEuen what he most liked about this new CD, and what he expected that the band’s many fans in the bluegrass world would enjoy.
“It is fresh.. I guess that is what I like about it, and the new songs are going over better live than we had even hoped for, as it is often the case for new songs that they do not. But not this time… seems like the ’70’s!
I would like to hear from the bluegrass folks what they get out of it in that regard. But for me, it was the NGDB showing how bluegrass influences can be applied to other types of songs… the instrumentation being used in different settings, like a lot of our recordings from the ’70’s showed.”
More audio from Speed Of Life should start showing up soon.