Nitty Gritty Dirt Band “Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy”

 

Today’s Cool Album of the Day (#709 in the Series) is Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy

Most music fans will know the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (if they know them at all) as the makers of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, a superb album which has become semi-legendary in certain circles, with good cause. It was an essential purchase when it came out in 1972, a wondrous 3 LP set within which tribute was paid by a younger generation to some of the most revered performers of traditional Country music. The likes of Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs and Roy Acuff were on board for a seminal release on which both sides of the “divide” (real or imagined) emerged with credit. It’s beloved by many and even spawned two sequels over the years, with top quality being firmly maintained. Only a fool would rule out completion of a fourth installment. It’s also an album which has had much attention over the years, all of it deserved, which is why I would now like to shine some light on a lesser known entry in the bands catalogue – their 1970 release “Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy”.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were formed circa 1966 in Long Beach, California, two key band members being Jeff Hanna and Jimmie Fadden. They were joined by John McEuen shortly thereafter. Their early repertoire was a somewhat quirky and eclectic mix, jug band music, folk, and some novelty material. It was good enough to quickly earn them a deal with Liberty Records; their self-titled debut was released in 1967 and spawned an instant hit single “Buy For Me The Rain”. A great start but the three albums which followed offered only diminishing returns. They split up for about a year and when they reconvened in 1969 they had relocated to Aspen, Colorado and gained a new member, Jimmy Ibbotson. Whether it was Jimmy’s influence mainly or just a general drift towards it I don’t know but the material they started recording had a much stronger Country influence and the new sound proved inspirational. The album which resulted was easily their greatest effort thus far.

“Uncle Charlie…” is a joy throughout, a sublime blending of old time country with modern sensibilities, as reflected through the music and the songs chosen. Before the move to Colorado the band used to hang out and perform at The Troubadour in LA and they were friendly with many on the nascent country rock scene. For this album they drew freely from the well of excellent songwriting talent to be found within this circle.

Mike Nesmith was first to get the Nitty treatment, the album opens with a terrifyingly good version of his song “Some Of Shelley’s Blues” and they later deliver what’s surely the definitive take on “Propinquity” another of Mike’s very best songs.

Kenny Loggins, later to find much fame with Jim Messina and as a solo artist, was next and he’s the writer or co-writer on no less than four of the songs herein. I’d really love to tell you what’s the pick of the bunch but I simply can’t. I’ve just played all of them again and can’t decide on a favourite, you’ll have to choose for yourself!

Then there’s “Livin’ Without You” from the pen of that master craftsman Randy Newman. No way can there be a better version, anywhere, than the one included here.

That not enough for you?

Try “Rave On”, a song made famous of course by Buddy Holly. The version here positively bursts with energy and passion. It really would have been a pretty big hit, if released as a single.

Which leads me, neatly enough, to the song which actually DID become their biggest hit, “Mr. Bojangles” which was written by Jerry Jeff Walker? It’s a very well know song these days of course (even the likes of Sinatra and Nilsson had a crack at it) but as far as I can gather the NGDB were the first to cover it and they certainly had the greatest success with it, it got them to No. 9 on Billboard and N0. 2 in Canada, becoming their highest ever chart placing.

Also worth telling about are the instrumental fills. In between the actual songs are about 4 or 5 little tunes, played on banjo, harmonica, and mandolin. They really add to things and help make the album the experience that it is.

But wait. Stick around. I couldn’t possibly let you go without mentioning this album’s secret weapon, the duo who lent the album its very title no less, Teddy the pooch and his best buddy Uncle Charlie.

The band’s manager and producer for this one was Bill McEuen (John’s brother) and years ago he’d recorded an interview with his wife’s uncle Charlie. The old fella chatted about his life and his love of music and how he’d play harmonica and get his dog Teddy to howl along. When it came time to do a final mix and running order for the album he remembered the interview  and, in a flash of inspiration, he cued up part of the old tape and let it run and when Teddy starting howling along, quickly faded out and let the intro to “Mr. Bojangles” kick in. When he and John listened back to it, it worked perfectly and they decided to add more of it to the latter half of the record.

This was a masterstroke. The “Uncle Charlie & Teddy” material helps elevate this one from “great album” level to “slice of classic Americana” status. It speaks of a time and place where families would learn old songs and stories from previous generations, a tradition stretching back to time immemorial.

And that was that, job done. As mentioned in the opening paragraph the NGDB went on to bigger and (possibly) better things. They even re-invented themselves for a while as a much more mainstream act in the late 70’s and the 80’s, before coming back to their roots in latter years. Some good stuff no doubt but for me they never came close to matching the superb material they produced from 1970 ’til 1975, the shining jewel in the box being this little treasure.

It’s never really been out of print and received a lush reissue in 2003, remastered with a couple of excellent bonus tracks.

Seek and ye shall find..…..……………….

— Stephen Dalrymple, Glasgow, Scotland

Track listing

  1. “Some of Shelly’s Blues” (Michael Nesmith) – 2:51
  2. “Prodigal’s Return” (Kenny Loggins, Dann Lottermoser) – 3:11
  3. “Cure” (Jeff Hanna) – 2:11
  4. “Travelin’ Mood” (James Waynes) – 2:39
  5. “Chicken Reel” (Traditional) – 0:55
  6. “Yukon Railroad” (Kenny Loggins, Dann Lottermoser) – 2:16
  7. “Livin’ Without You” (Randy Newman) – 2:00
  8. “Clinch Mountain Backstep” (Ruby Rakes) – 2:31
  9. “Rave On” (Norman Petty, Bill Tilghman, Sonny West) – 2:56
  10. “Billy in the Low Ground” (Les Thompson) – 1:13
  11. “Jesse James” (Traditional) – 0:50
  12. “Uncle Charlie Interview” (Uncle Charlie) – 1:38
  13. “Mr. Bojangles” (Jerry Jeff Walker) – 3:37
  14. “Opus 36” (Muzio Clementi) – 1:42
  15. “Santa Rosa” (Kenny Loggins) – 2:24
  16. “Propinquity” (Michael Nesmith) – 2:20
  17. “Uncle Charlie” (Jimmie Fadden) – 1:49
  18. “Randy Lynn Rag” (Earl Scruggs) – 1:46
  19. “House at Pooh Corner” (Kenny Loggins) – 2:39
  20. “Swanee River” (Stephen Foster) – 0:36
  21. “Uncle Charlie Interview #2 / Spanish Fandango” (Traditional) – 2:36

Personnel

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

  • Les Thompson – electric bass, mandolin, electric guitar, vocals
  • Jimmie Fadden – lead acoustic and electric guitar, harmonica, washtub bass, vocals, drums
  • Jeff Hanna – rhythm acoustic and electric guitar, drums, washboard, percussion, vocals
  • Jimmy Ibbotson – rhythm acoustic guitar, lead electric guitar, electric piano, drums, conga, accordion, vocals, keyboards
  • John McEuen – banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, accordion,vocals, guitar, steel guitar

Additional  Musicians

  • Bill Cunningham
  • Maurice Manceau – guitar, keyboards, vocals
  • Jim Gordon – horns, keyboards
  • Mike Rubine
  • John London – bass
  • Byron Berline – violin
  • Russ Kunkel – drums
  • Chris Darrow – guitar, violin, vocals
  • Ralph Barr – guitar, vocals

Links

Give it a listen in its entirety below

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Posted by Larry Carta


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