Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Dirt Does Dylan

I’ve been a Bob Dylan fan since the early albums and I’ve heard many, many Bob Dylan covers over the years. Dylan’s songs are so strong lyrically and musically that they can stand a lot of different treatments and many artists have done a grand job of re-interpreting the songs – The Byrds Tambourine Man, Joan Osborne’s Man in a Long Black Coat, Johnny and June Cash’s It Ain’t Me Babe, and Chris Smither’s Desolation Row all come to mind and you’ll doubtless have your own favourites.

There have been no end of tribute albums as well over the years – and recently we’ve had a slew of them from the likes of Joan Osborne, Willie Nile, Betty LaVette and Emma Swift.

But, for my money, the most enjoyable one I’ve heard is this one by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has been on the go since the mid ‘60s in a variety of line-ups, but always with singer-guitarist Jeff Hanna and drummer Jimmie Fadden.

Photograph: Jeff Fasano

The band has won multiple Grammy and CMA awards and nominations and was hailed by the LA Times as a group that “helped knock down barriers then separating the traditional country and rock music communities, setting the stage for the eventual emergence of what came to be known as Americana music.” Along the way they’ve recorded with musical legends like Mother Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal, and John Prine.

In Dirt Does Dylan, we get ten songs chosen from Dylan’s early catalogue – the most recent song is Forever Young from the 1974 Planet Waves. These are all iconic early Dylan songs but the NGDB handles them with considerable aplomb and – dare I say it – breathes freshness into them.

They are helped along the way on The Times They Are A-Changing by Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle, Jason Isbell and the War and Treaty, who each take a verse singing; and by the Lovell sisters (Larkin Poe) on I Shall Be Released.

The latter is for me the stand-out track, with Rebecca Lovell’s bluesy vocals soaring and Megan’s slide guitar just reaching right inside of you and squeezing your innards. Simply quite wonderful.

The album kicks off with Nashville Skyline’s Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You, with a nice country feel, enhancing by some fine fiddle playing by Ross Holmes. Girl From the North Country becomes a lovely ballad, perfectly driven by picked acoustic guitar, while It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry is great loose-sounding, bluesy-country fun, with some very cool harmonica.

The fun continues with Country Pie, complete with whistling and some whimsical fiddling – oh, I do like a bit of whistling, a bit of a lost art these days. And I’m glad they decided to include Bringing It All Back Homes’s She Belongs To Me, one of Dylan’s most enigmatic and poetic early songs. I’ve always liked it. It was the song with which Dylan kicked off his Manchester Free Trade Hall concert in 1966 in which he “went electric” during the second half of his show, prompting a fan to shout “Judas!” And, in case you’re wondering, it’s number 34 on the list of songs most performed by Dylan over the years. I was fortunate enough to hear him play it in Dublin a few years ago. The Nitty Grittys do the song proud – check out the tasteful guitar solo.

Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right is maybe the closest to the Dylan original, though the guitar picking is quite different – quite encouraging, given that I’ve tried and failed to replicate exactly what Dylan does myself.

And then, they round things off with Quinn the Eskimo, first recorded by Dylan during the Basement Tapes sessions and officially released in 1970 on Self Portrait. Dylan is widely believed to have derived the title character from actor Anthony Quinn’s role as an Eskimo in the 1960 movie The Savage Innocents. Though interestingly, sometime in the 1970s I remember Barry McGuire (remember Eve of Destruction?) telling me he thought Dylan was referring to the second coming of Christ – a prelude to Dylan’s Christian conversion? The song was famously covered by Manfred Mann (check out our great interview with Paul Jones here) who had a big hit with it in 1968.

It’s a fitting closer for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band doing Dylan, a great fun-filled come-all-ye, all acoustic guitars, fiddle, harmonica and voices in unison.

Don’t hesitate – if you’re a Dylan fan you’ll love this. If, somehow, you’re not familiar with Dylan, it’d be a great introduction. Highly recommended.