Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Reimagines Timeless Tunes on ‘Dirt Does Dylan’

by Clayton Edwards
nitty-gritty-dirt-band-reimagines-timeless-tunes-dirt-does-dylan

When you think about it, Dirt Does Dylan is a match made in musical Heaven. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Bob Dylan are American institutions at this point. So, hearing NGDB cover 10 of Dylan’s best-loved songs just makes sense.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is arguably one of the most important bands in American roots music. They’ve been around since the mid-sixties and have consistently made great music.

However, it was their 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken that made them roots music heroes. On that record and subsequent installments of the Circle series, they introduced a whole new generation to their musical heroes. They tapped legendary country artists like Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Mother Maybelle Carter, and several others for the albums. This allowed those artists and the American musical traditions they represent to resonate with listeners who may have never heard them without NGDB. To me, Dirt Does Dylan is an extension of that same spirit.

For fans of folk and roots music, Bob Dylan really needs no introduction. He may not be your favorite vocalist, but he’s without a doubt one of the most important songwriters of the 20th century. His songs spoke of societal issues that unfortunately seem to be timeless. More importantly, his songwriting dug into the human condition like few songwriters before or sense.

Dirt Does Dylan shows us that both Dylan’s writing and NGDB’s sound are timeless.

Dirt Does Dylan Brings Things Full-Circle for NGDB

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was formed in 1966. Since then, their lineup has changed several times. The current lineup only contains two of the band’s founding members: Jeff Hanna (vocals, guitar) and Jimmie Fadden (vocals, harmonica).

Hanna, Fadden, and some friends saw Dylan live at Woodrow Wilson High School in December of 1964. Hanna opened up about that night in an interview with Ultimate Classic Rock. “I took my high school girlfriend and a couple of my buddies. We were just enthralled. It was just him and a Gibson guitar and a harmonica in a rack around his neck, all by himself on that stage. It was phenomenal, really transcendent.”

Before that, Hanna and his pals were already big fans of Bob Dylan’s Work. Hanna and Fadden would sit together and learn to play the songwriter’s tunes. About the impact that Dylan had on the band and its early members, Hanna told UCR, “He’s been in our collective DNA for so long.”

Hanna also opened up about the song selection for Dirt Does Dylan. Being longtime fans of the songwriter’s work, the band had their work cut out for them. Their original tracklist contained 80 songs. By the time they got to the studio, they had trimmed it down to 40. From there, they played through the list to see which songs sounded best with their arrangements. “The stuff we could play and sing with authority is what kind of ended up there,” Hanna said.

Reimagining Classics

Dirt Does Dylan isn’t just an album of covers. Instead, it sees the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band making these timeless songs their own. That’s evident in songs like “Country Pie” which sounds like an old-time string band session. Then, there’s the amazing arrangement of “Forever Young” that sees Jeff Hanna sharing vocal duties with his son Jamie Hanna who has been with the band since 2018. Instead of opting for a slow ballad, Hanna and company opted to take inspiration from the up-tempo cut of the song on Planet Waves. However, they worked the bridge and refrain from the ballad version into their arrangement. It’s the best of both worlds, really.

For the most part, the vocal deliveries from the various vocalists on this record tend to represent the singer more than the songwriter. However, there are times when Hanna adds some Dylan-style inflection to his singing. This happens on “She Belongs to Me” and a couple of other tracks. While these aren’t my favorite moments on Dirt Does Dylan, they don’t take away from the overall product.

Standout Songs from Dirt Does Dylan

 I feel like I had my work cut out for me here. There are ten timeless songs that represent the combination of two American icons. After spinning the album a handful of times, these are my favorite tracks.

Forever Young

Hot take: this is my favorite version of “Forever Young.” The up-tempo arrangement makes it sound much more hopeful than the original ballad cut. Additionally, the fact that father-and-son duo Jeff and Jamie Hanna share vocal duties on the track elevates it to a new emotional level.

Country Pie

This isn’t the deepest song on Dirt Does Dylan by any stretch of the imagination. Sometimes, it’s not about being deep. Sometimes, it’s about having fun. This song is fun.

 Everything about it feels purpose-built to put a smile on your face. An acoustic guitar and standup bass create a rhythm section that will get your toes tapping. Fiddles, harmonized whistling, and a guitar handle the leads in turn.

The Times, They Are A-Changing (featuring Roseanne Cash, Steve Earle, Jason Isbell, The War & Treaty)

This is one of my favorite Dylan tunes and this version is just so cool. In a way, it’s a reversal of Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The song sees a handful of contemporary artists and the band that undoubtedly influenced them over the years coming together to record a timeless classic. In the final chorus, all of the singers come in together and create a multi-generational harmony that will raise the hair on the back of your neck.

Final Verdict on the New Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Album

This album couldn’t have been anything short of incredible. NGDB’s sound combined with Dylan’s writing is a marriage of some of the most important figures in modern American roots music. This is one that you need to hear sooner rather than later.

Outsider.com