Posted by: gdevi | May 19, 2016

Concert review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Wednesday, May 18th.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band played an awesome concert at the State Theatre in State College this evening. A central Pennsylvania bluegrass band called Grain opened for them. I didn’t catch their names, but they were very good. A four piece band–banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass–they were very good. They played traditional bluegrass and fiddle tunes, John Hartford songs (a very beautiful version of Gentle on My Mind) and then they played some of their own compositions. They did a tribute song to a Texas musician Guy Clark who apparently died either yesterday or today. They played a waltz bluegrass style called She Loves to Ride Horses by Guy Clark. It was very good. I don’t know Guy Clark’s music; I think I know one song by him but I am not sure it is by him–I don’t love you much, do I? — I think that is what it is called–I have to look it up on Youtube–but I distinctly remember the melody. It is a love song, and it is written in these question tags instead of your standard declarative statements. That is why I remember it. Very pretty melody. Apparently, Guy Clark is dead. So they played a tribute song to him, and spoke about him some.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band opened the concert with their cover of Bob Dylan’s You Aint Going Nowhere. These men–Jeff Hanna, John McEuen, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter, Jimmie Ibbotson–all must be in their seventies now. But they played just like they did 50 years ago. Masterful musicians. In particular, John McEuen is a formidable multi-instrumentalist. He played violin, banjo, mandolin, guitar , washtub bass and sang. An incredibly talented musician. Same thing with Jeff Hanna; his voice has not changed one bit. They sang all kinds of songs; two hours of non-stop playing.

They played some of their greatest hits, so to speak–Dance Little Jean, which they said was their first real hit — they introduced the song by saying that they have played at a lot of weddings and that between the five of them, they have thirteen weddings themselves. Four of us, Hanna said, are now happily married, and Jimmie here, Hanna pointed to Jimmie Fadden, is between divorces.  If something is worth doing, it is worth overdoing, Hanna said. They were funny. They also played their early hit Buy For Me the Rain, which sounds beautiful even after all these years. They said these funny and warm anecdotes about touring with Willie Nelson and they played Working Man; Hanna sang it with Fadden playing the harmonica. Fadden is a fantastic harmonica player, and Fadden wrote that song. They played Mr. Bojangles, Voila, An American Dream, Rippling Waters, and a song that they said they wrote with Steve Goodman, Face on the Cutting  Room Floor. They interspersed their playing with little anecdotes about all of these other musicians they have played with and little stories from here and there. Very entertaining performers, really.  They also spoke about the death of Guy Clark; they said it was a big loss for American music.

Hanna said that their songs can be found anywhere on the dial. They played a wonderful bluegrass tune from Will the Circle Be Unbroken — a “kiss off” song that Jimmie Martin taught me, Hanna said–called My Walking Shoes Don’t Fit Me Anymore. It was really wonderful. They also played the Beatles Get Back bluegrass style–it is the perfect bluegrass lyric actually, and John McEuen went totally nuts playing banjo on this one.

Carpenter sang  a song called God Bless the Broken Road, and it was very good. Hanna said that he wrote that song and that was one of his favorite songs, and that some country band whose name escapes me now sang it and it became a huge hit for them and that it won a grammy. I don’t know what the country music version sounds like, but Carpenter sang it really well. They played several fiddle and banjo tunes, whose names escape me now, but I love bluegrass, so I enjoyed them completely. They also played Bayou Jubilee and Jambalaya. It was a sold out show and every seat was taken and everybody sang along with every song. For an encore, they came back and did two gospel songs: Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and The Band’s The Weight. Totally awesome performances.

I come from one of the oldest communist states in India–Kerala. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was very popular in Kerala when we were growing up and we grew up listening to them. My hardcore communist friends loved the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. But communists love Jesus too. Communists think Jesus was a communist; Jesus lived with the poor. I am going to tell all of my communist friends that I saw the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band perform after all these years; they will be thrilled. Thank you, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for this wonderful concert. May your song always be sung!

They didn’t play You are My Flower, but it is one of my favorite songs. It holds the spirit of these beautiful mountain places that I see everyday in rural Pennsylvania. Some day, before I die, I want to see a nice bluegrass concert at the Grand Ole Opry. I once passed through Nashville on my way to a conference–I cannot imagine ever going to Nashville, really–but I would love to see the Grand Ole Opry before I die.


I was listening to all these versions of You are My Flower that you can find on YouTube because it is an incredibly beautiful piece of music. I am probably a boring person to speak of music since I think structurally about anything; in other words, I rarely associate musical beauty with feelings, emotions, intellect, convictions, intentions and things like that. A piece of music sounds beautiful because of its musical structure, and not anything extrinsic to it. And that is why true music is always new.  And that is why there is something called a musical genius. This piece of music by Maybelle Carter is the composition of an ingeniously musical mind. You can have the greatest feeling etc but if the musical structure–the melody, the harmony, the intervals, the cadences, the modulations, the tones, the chord progressions–if these things are not beautiful and harmonic then the most beautiful feeling or emotion or idea will be aesthetically and musically un-beautiful.

I have always marveled at the sheer musical beauty of You are My Flower as a musical composition. The whole musical structure of this song is just perfect–the chord progressions, the harmonic structure, the high notes, the step ups and step downs, the intervals–it is simple and just harmonically beautiful. So when I say that the song holds the spirit of these mountains that I live in–it is not descriptive because music owes nothing to nature except perhaps its raw materials as in skin or drums, as Eduard Hanslick once observed–so, it is not descriptive, but symbolic in the manner of correspondences–a high lonesome sound and a theme about the mountains and the flower on that mountain and troubles and smiles and the harmonic correspondence between these things. What a gorgeous piece of music it truly is.




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