Published July 17, 2020
Circles in the Dirt
By Dale McCurry
On the road from Ridgway, Colorado, to Scottsdale, Arizona. Staff photo.
In “Something Borrowed, Something New” — my introduction of the concept and entity that is NoteWorthy Music — I talk about my love for genre-bending musicians who “blow preconceived notions and expectations wide open” while allowing themselves to be conduits for “the sweet and savory alchemy” of blended influences and sounds. For me, it is within those poorly defined and compartmentalization-resistant songs where invisible notes become art, and love is made and passed among musicians and music lovers like a bowl of dreams around a campfire.
In the moment, I was mostly referring to variations of what Peter Rowan calls “all the slashgrasses” and the growing legions of progressive acoustic players and jammers. I named Telluride Bluegrass Festival (TBF) a resource for the types of musicians and music that seamlessly weave their way through generations of genre and influence like a festivarian on a Rocky Mountain high.
… invisible notes become art, and love is made and passed among musicians and music lovers like a bowl of dreams around a campfire.
But it was recently, while preparing “A Circle Unbroken: The Dirt Band Turns 50” for the High Notes archives that I was reminded of the role The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (NGDB) had in the earliest days of the country rock movement of the 60s and 70s. And that they have been busily stirring a steaming cauldron of sound ever since.
During an 1,100-mile-round-trip from Ridgway, Colorado, to Scottsdale, Arizona, Hunter S. Thompson-worthy, mad-dog dash across the desert I made to see and talk to the band for the story, Hanna said this of the kaleidoscopic influences, sounds and genres the Dirt Band has delivered for fifty years-plus: “We try to make it a tasty gumbo, you know, with a lot of flavors coming together just right.”
It was while reviewing the story, I realized my love affair with music rich with the commingling of genres like secrets and sheets in neon motels began long before my 2012 exposure to Telluride.
First of all, the surreal image the story recalls of The Dirt Band opening for the Jackson 5 under the grandstand, where stock car racing fans had gathered earlier in the day, is, in fact, not so surreal, but rather a straight-up representation of the times and the band’s broad range of octaves and rhythms, genres and fans.
It began the first time I heard NGDB’s iconic Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The first of the Circle albums (in time there were three) placed longhaired pot-smoking, raised-on-rock-and-roll musicians, shoulder to shoulder with their fathers’ generation of country music, recording old standards. On purpose. Meanwhile, in the streets outside, those two generations were clashing over the future of “the greatest generation’s” America. It was the year the national guard killed four Vietnam War protesters who looked like these young musicians on the idyllic campus of Ohio State.
What began as a push by John McEuen to realize his dream of being the first banjo player to record with Earl Scruggs, and (Get this; I love this) a desire to help rekindle the fading careers of artists they had long admired and emulated, ended in an album that literally gave sons something to talk to their dads about.
As McEuen told High Notes: “[We] were a group with three singles in the pop charts who took the risk of ending their career – by making an acoustic country album, totally against the trends of the day – to record with, and promote the music of, those whom [we] admired and had learned so much from. All with the hopes that it would bring deserved attention to those [we] were emulating.
“It was a win-win in the end — well, not the end, as the circle continues.”
Writer and Editor
Following years as a reporter and editor of a handful of weekly newspapers, Dale McCurry was co-founder and publisher, writer and managing editor of High Notes Magazine on the Western Slope of Colorado and The Wires and the Wood in his native Ozarks. Today, he co-wears those hats for NoteWorthy Music as well.
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