Proving there is nothing like a Dylan covers project to pep up flagging inspiration, and proving also you just cannot have too many of such a thing, Dirt Does Dylan is a worthy addition to the shelves of similar, proving the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, almost as aged an act as is the Bard of Hibbing, have still got legs. Legs and, indeed, arms and voices, the better as to play this collection of, largely, older Dylan standards.
Since kicking off, back in 1966, the band have actually been quite shy of Dylan covers, a glance of their early album credits suggesting they were putting more eggs in the Jackson Browne basket, and I struggled, wading through their myriad releases to find much beyond their version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” on Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume Two, and that potentially only down to the presence of Messrs. McGuinn and Hillman as guests.
That said, founding member Jeff Hanna claims he first found his muse upon hearing Bob Dylan, then locking himself away in his bedroom, working on the chord structures of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” sharing that passion with Jimmie Fadden, who would be his longtime partner in the band they together formed. Fast forward five and a half decades, and Hanna and Fadden are still in the fold, with longtime stalwart Bob Carpenter and three new players, including Hanna’s son, Jaime. And is “Don’t Think Twice” still on the menu? You bet it it is!
Dirt Does Dylan kicks off with “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” Dylan has released two notable takes on this song: the original Nashville Skyline version and the raggedier, looser romp of the Rolling Thunder Revue. It is more to the latter that this cover turns, and is good enough, if a little reverential, vocally speaking, needing the glorious fiddle solo of Ross Holmes to lift it into anything special.
The rendition of “Girl From the North Country” is a joy, losing the need to ape any copycat vocal. It’s a bluegrass-infused lament of fiddle, guitar, mandolin and accordion, Carpenter’s touch on that instrument a light and effective swell throughout. The Hannas, father and son, trade and share the vocals, and take this arguably over-egged song back to its pre-ubiquity innocence. The guitar that creeps into the second half is also a restrained delight. Lovely stuff.
Back to basics for “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” a 12-bar chug, as much as anything to show off Fadden’s expertise on harmonica, making for a contrast, clearly, with the author’s own. Otherwise workmanlike, mandolins tinkling, organ swirling, Fadden’s (again) drums a solid metronome to carry the tune plenty well enough for the railroad imagery. Neat melodic bass lines from Jim Photoglo add to the variation as the song stretches out. “Country Pie” is perhaps exactly the sort of song you might expect this group to love, and they clearly do, extracting every inch of yee-haw from it, Fadden and Hanna evidently enjoying it. Fiddle and harp trade lines, along with some extraordinary three-part whistling, making this lightweight song somewhat special.
The version of “I Shall Be Released” here carries no small debt to The Band’s solo versions, with Carpenter’s lead vocal not a million miles away from Richard Manuel’s, albeit in a lower register. Here the NGDB is joined by the sisters of Larkin Poe, Rebecca and Megan Lovell. Their traded verses give the song an additional sheen, as does Megan’s lap steel, with Rebecca’s guitar slotting well alongside Jeff Hanna’s playing. As it builds, gradually drowning out the never-more-Manuellian piano, it becomes quite a miniature epic.
This highwater mark is slightly diminished by the Dylan-by-numbers phrasing of “She Belongs to Me” that follows. Given the zillions of karaoke Dylans out there in coversland, many of whom could and should know better, the slavishly faithful Dylan sound here is one that this writer can do without. (Mind you, I think the greatest Dylan interpreter is Roger McGuinn, who could pass for his aural twin, so who am I to talk.)
“Forever Young” starts with the most attractive brief harmonica intro yet from Fadden, but it’s a slight plod through this most charming of songs, perhaps courtesy the drums. Great fiddle solo, mind, from Holmes. But that is maybe just the anticlimax we need before one of the all-star extravaganzas the Dirt Band have long specialized in.
For “The Times They Are A’Changing,” the NGDB bring in a veritable top table, with Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle, Jason Isbell and the duo, The War and Treaty. Unexpectedly, it is the last who add the most, despite being the least famous. This African-American duo of Michael Trotter, Jr. and his wife, Tanya Blount, occupy that hinterland of Southern soul, where there is as much country as the potent blend of blues, gospel and R&B. They lift this song above the processional litany of Americana royalty, which it might otherwise become. Indeed, it is only when the whole ensemble sing together that any sense is lost of who it is over what it is.
The final track, back where Hanna began, is the simple and effective promised rendition of “Don’t Think Twice.” There are loads of versions of this song out there; this one actually succeeds in its relative straight take, initially just Hanna’s voice and guitar, with some railroad hoots of harmonica gradually creeping in. Despite my earlier critique of any overly Dylanesque vocal, here it is just so darn right that I have to forgive and forget. I guess the harmony must be Fadden, it being seemingly just the pair of them as they began, at least until the end, when it gets the full chorale and a hint of organ. A cracking finale.
Oh, except it isn’t, is it? I’ve forgotten “Quinn the Eskimo.” I have a problem with this song, which I’ll own up to being entirely on me. Manfred Mann’s version has completely spoilt me; I find their homogenized Anglo-version way preferable to the down-home rustic of most other performances, including the songwriter’s. And this is a down-home rustic version. But again, as I said, my problem. De gustibus non est disputandum.
So what’s the Dirt Does Dylan verdict? I think it fine but unexceptional, possibly only trouble completists. It is good to see the Dirt Band still plugging away and looking and sounding so, well, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band-esque. But, you know, one thing I miss, one sound I miss, that being the banjo. If John McEuen were to make a third entry back into the ranks of his old compadres, I think that may have been enough to give the luster that I find ever so slightly lacking.
Dirt Does Dylan tracklisting:
1. Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You
2. Girl from the North Country
3. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
4. Country Pie
5. I Shall Be Released (ft. Larkin Poe)
6. She Belongs to Me
7. Forever Young
8. The Times They Are A-Changin’ (ft. Rosanne Cash, Jason Isbell, Steve Earle, and The War and Treaty)
9. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
10. Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)