The title of Dirt Does Dylan tells you everything you need to know: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band makes more than a little magic covering the songs of Bob Dylan. Dylan and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band have shaped the music we now call Americana more than any other artists — Dylan from the blues, folk, and rock direction, and the Dirt Band from the jug band, country, and California country rock direction. The album was just waiting for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to make it.
The band is no stranger to Dylan, of course, having turned in a memorably buoyant take on Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” on 1989’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume II. Three new band members — Ross Holmes on fiddle and mandolin; Jim Photoglo (who wrote the Dirt Band’s “Fishin’ in the Dark”) on bass; and Jamie Hanna on guitars and vocals — join longtime members Jimmie Fadden on harmonica and percussion, co-founder Jeff Hanna on guitars, and Bob Carpenter on piano, organ, and accordion in this incarnation of the band.
If The Beatles covered “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” and threw into the musical stew a bit of Gypsy jazz, a little dash of country, and a small pinch of a set from Gerde’s Folk City, you’d have the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version of the song, which opens the album. Jeff Hanna’s lead vocal takes on Dylan’s raspiness, so for a moment, in the first few lines, we’re positively back on 4th Street. Jamie, Jeff’s son, takes the lead on the hauntingly beautiful version of “Girl from the North Country.” Swirling fingerpicked guitar is layered over accordion, fiddle, and mandolin to create an ethereal soundscape of yearning and longing. The eddying lines of lead guitar and fiddle, engaged in a mournful musical conversation in the sparkling outro, is a highlight of the song. The rollicking jug band version of “Country Pie,” replete with Carpenter’s, Holmes’, and Jamie Hanna’s whistling, is just fun and a tribute to a good piece of pie.
“I Shall Be Released” never fails to reach deep into the souls, and this version may be the most soulful of all. The band is joined here by Larkin Poe — sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell — who bring a gospel-inflected vibe to the song with their vocals. There’s a moment in the third verse that recalls James Carr’s transporting “Dark End of the Street,” and Megan Lovell’s lap steel adds an exalted dimension to this version of the song.
Jeff and Jamie Hanna trade verses as they turn “Forever Young” into a joyous romp, they’re joined by Carpenter for a reflective “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
Jason Isbell, Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle, The War and Treaty, and Matraca Berg join the band for a downright stirring “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The song’s never been more powerful than in this moving version.
So don’t think twice about adding this album to your record collection. It can nestle next to the Dirt Band classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this October.
Dirt Does Dylan is out May 20 on NGDB Records.