Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

If you are of my age, you probably first heard bluegrass music when the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies came on.  Flatt & Scruggs played that song and it was a huge hit and popularizer of bluegrass.  I also remember listening to Homer and Jethro as a kid.  It was bluegrass, but it was also comedy.  Roy Clark would occasionally play some bluegrass banjo on Hee Haw, but mostly, bluegrass was not very popular compared to rock or country.

I first heard the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band back in the 70’s, back when you heard music either on vinyl albums or on the radio.  The first big song they had (as far as i can remember, anyway) was Mr. Bojangles.  A heartwarmingly sad story.  They didn’t write it and they weren’t the first to perform it, but they made it their own, and it is their version of the song which most people remember.  Here’s the thing about the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band:  They had hit records, but they didn’t fit into the normal genres.  They weren’t a rock band or a folk band or a country band, but they had a few elements of those things on occasion.  What they really were is a Bluegrass Band.  That made things difficult.  Their music did get played on country stations and also on popular/rock stations, but Bluegrass is a different thing.  Jimmy Buffett and John Denver had the same problem of not quite fitting into a radio station niche.  Both of them kind of ended up being played on country stations, but also had a following in pop/rock.

Bluegrass vs Country

What’s the difference between country and bluegrass, you ask?  There is some overlap between country, bluegrass and folk, but here are the things i see as the quantifiable differences.  Bluegrass music is mostly all acoustic (there are purists like Bill Monroe who refuse to have anything to do with electric music in bluegrass, but generally, an electric bass or occasional electric guitar is tolerable for most bluegrass songs).  Country music typically has guitars, a bass, drums, very often a steel guitar, and cowboy hats (rant mode on:  often the only difference between modern county music and pop music is the cowboy hats).  Bluegrass almost always has a banjo, a fiddle, and often a mandolin.  You can also often find a Dobro, autoharp, washboard, wash tub bass, or harmonica.  The guitars and banjo mostly aren’t strummed, they’re picked.  It’s a whole different sound, and is sometimes known as back woods or old-timey music.  I’m not particularly a fan of most country music, at least modern country.  I do enjoy some Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams or Tennessee Ernie Ford. Bluegrass music, however, when done well, is a wonder to listen to.  It is joyful. It often speaks of nature, rather than the affairs and breakups and pickup trucks which permeate country music.  As you can see, i have a bias.

I only have a very few albums/CDs of bluegrass music. Honestly, i’m not sure why that is. I enjoy what i have, but i’ve never felt compelled to collect more. I do want to say that Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is among the best bluegrass music i’ve heard.

History/Background of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

The band formed originally in 1966 and still exists today.  They disbanded for a few months in 1969, but other than that have been making music for almost 50 years.  Unlike most groups, the band personnel has changed rather fluidly over those years. Wikipedia lists 17 different configurations over the years, but often there are members who leave and come back as their schedules and careers change so there tends to be a coherentness to the group in spite of the changes.  One of the distinctives is that they play with a lot of special guests on their albums. This was the hallmark of “Will the Circle be Unbroken“.  That 3 album (vinyl) set was a mixture of the new, young, hippie bluegrass guys playing with some legends in the field like Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Maybelle Carter and Jimmy Martin.  The great thing is that it worked. The old guys and the young guys bonded over the music.

51i032HoWxL._SX425_514UwIXl5mL._SX425_They’ve released 27 albums over the last 50 years, not counting compilations (like Dirt, Silver & Gold, my favorite).  Their most famous album was “Will the Circle be Unbroken” and they’ve released a volume 2 and a volume 3 over the years, but none has the magic of that first one.

The best compilation collection in my opinion is Dirt, Silver & Gold.  It’s now a single CD, but seems to contain all 37 songs from the 2 CD set I bought in 2009. It covers the best of their music from 1966-1976 and that is some really good stuff.  In case you aren’t sure if you like bluegrass or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, you can play these songs i’ve chosen (with great difficulty) from their album right here.  I’ve been floating on the joy of their music the past 2 days.  I hope you enjoy it just as much.


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