“How many of you out there have been married to one of the members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band ?” Jimmy Ibbotson — a Dirt Band member since 1969 — made the joke to the crowd that gathered Monday night (Jan. 27) at a Nashville soundstage.
Spouses and former spouses aside, it’s clear that fans have enjoyed a lengthy relationship — a musical one — with the Dirt Band. To celebrate the three volumes of the group’s ongoing project, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the Dirt Band joined several old friends to play some even older songs for an upcoming PBS concert special that begins airing in March.
The first two Circle volumes were released in 1972 and 1989, but most of the songs performed Monday came from the third installment released in 2002. Jimmy Martin — the self-professed King of Bluegrass — began the taping with “Grand Ole Opry Song” and “My Walkin’ Shoes,” two songs he recorded on the first Circle album. Martin has performed on all three volumes, as have Earl Scruggs and son Randy, who both participated in this week’s taping.
Vince Gill offered “All Prayed Up,” a track from the most recent Circle album. A Gill original, it was written and performed in the style of a traditional gospel song. With interplay from fiddler Vassar Clements (another triple Circle alumnus), roots music icon Taj Mahal performed a lively rendition of “Fishin’ Blues.”
Other highlights included Rosanne Cash ’s interpretation of “Wildwood Flower” with sparse instrumentation from Randy Scruggs (on acoustic guitar), Carpenter (on accordion) and bassist Byron House. Introducing the Carter Family standard as “one of the most important songs in the entire lexicon of American music,” she dedicated her performance to the late Helen Carter, who taught her the song. Cash later joined John Hiatt on a spirited version of “One Step Over the Line,” his original song from the second Circle album.
Del McCoury , along with sons Ronnie and Robbie, turned in two performances — “Take Me in Your Lifeboat” and “Love, Please Come Home.” Mahal returned to kick off the signature “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” — another Carter Family song — that will be used to close the telecast. Individual verses were sung by Gill, Hiatt and a vocal quartet spotlighting Alison Krauss , Matraca Berg , Iris DeMent and Cash. The all-star performance also featured Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen, who have received considerable acclaim for their work on “The Lowlands,” a track from the latest Circle album. They are the sons of Dirt Band members Jeff Hanna and John McEuen.
Mahal and members of the Dirt Band first met during the mid-‘60s while performing on the club circuit in Southern California. Prior to the taping, Mahal told CMT News, “These guys have done something that I have been working on from another angle for a lot of years — to make people aware of deep Americana, as I call it. We have a tendency to be looking for influences from outside, and we do not look at this great tapestry of music we have on the inside of America. And they started back years ago giving back to the community and bringing in a lot of great players and great songs.”
Gill cites the original Circle album as one of his all-time favorites. He tells CMT News, “The first one in the early ‘70s was a huge staple for me because I was falling in love with bluegrass and discovering all of these great people. Great songs. I listen to that one over and over.”
Noting the atmosphere onstage with the Dirt Band, Gill added, “It always feels the same being with those guys. I have known them since I was about 18 years old and I find their attitude, musically, so refreshing. They are so open-minded. They are giving and inclusive of everybody and everything. They are what music is all about.”