Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Speed of Life

Juli Thanki | September 23rd, 2009

speed-of-lifeIt’s been five years since the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released an album. Though they haven’t exactly been resting on their laurels, this interval between records isn’t too surprising: After all, once a band’s been together for 45 years, don’t you think they’d get a little bored with it all? Listening to Speed of Life, the answer is “no freakin’ way.”

This is unadulterated Nitty Gritty: there’s no need for a huge stable of guests or fancypants production (though it must be said that co-producers Jon Randall and George Massenburg do a fine job). These four men are incredibly talented music veterans with nearly two centuries of experience among them, and it’s reflected in the effortless, freewheeling earthiness of the album, from the first harmonica blast (courtesy of Jimmie Fadden) on opening track “Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble to Me.” From there, it’s an excellent adventure through Americana as the band blends elements of country, bluegrass, folk, and rock with harmonies that are reflective of the Band’s influence on the Eagles and subsequent groups like Little Big Town.

One of the album’s highlights is the driving “Jimmy Martin,” a biographical song told from the point of view of the King of Bluegrass (who, as you’ll remember, appeared on two of three volumes of Will the Circle Be Unbroken), from his poverty-stricken childhood where he built his own guitar out of “nothin’ but a cigar box and strings” to his days with Bill Monroe and subsequent formation of The Sunny Mountain Boys. The song ends with a poignant observation as “Martin” sings about never becoming a member of the Opry, noting “the circle is still broken/My greatest dream slipped through my hands.

The Nitty Gritty guys are strong songwriters (all four contribute to Speed of Life) and incorporate work from folks like Shawn Camp, Gary Scruggs and Guy Clark, but just in case that wasn’t enough, one of ‘em married a damn good songwriter too. Matraca Berg, a.k.a. Mrs. Jeff Hanna, penned a pair of tunes for this album as well as contributed some lovely backing vocals. “The Resurrection,” co-written with Alice Randall, is an alt-country lyrical stunner about a dying town struggling to stay afloat as its residents—which include a weary train conductor and an out of work minister—wait “For the resurrection/Fire from the ashes and the tears/the resurrection/You know, dreams die hard/Dreams die hard around here.” Berg also teamed up with Troy Verges (“Blessed,” “I Would’ve Loved You Anyway”) to write the album’s Cajun closer, “It’s Good To Be Alive,” a carpe diem singalong that soothes the heartache of “The Resurrection” with Bob Carpenter’s accordion and the assertion that “bees’ll sting, but honey’s sweet.”

In addition to these songs, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band also parties like it’s 1969 by covering two classics: “Stuck in the Middle” by Stealers Wheel and Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country.” The band sticks pretty close to the original melodies, but breathes new life into both songs thanks to John McEuen’s sprightly banjo picking and Jimmie Fadden coaxing incredible sounds out of that harmonica.

Speed of Life isn’t an album that’ll see much—if any—airplay on commercial radio. For one thing, it’s pretty dang rootsy. Also, all the band members are over 40 and not a one is named George Strait or Alan Jackson. And they may never reclaim the commercial success they experienced when Will the Circle Be Unbroken went platinum or “Fishin’ in the Dark” topped the charts. But really, the only ones losing out here are those who aren’t listening to The Speed of Life, because these guys are having a blast and playing killer music–no matter who’s paying attention.

4 Stars

  1. Leeann Ward
    September 23, 2009 at 9:44 am

    Great review. I bought the album last night, but haven’t had a chance to listen to more than clips of it yet. This review makes me even more excited to hear it.

  2. Jon
    September 23, 2009 at 10:37 am

    Nice try, Phil and Jimmie Lee, but Jimmy Martin didn’t sing tenor with the Blue Grass Boys.

  3. Chris N.
    September 23, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Bam! Take that, songwriters — you’ve been JONNED!

  4. Jon
    September 23, 2009 at 11:45 am

    Just trying to keep the record straight. Jimmy’s probably saying the same thing wherever he’s at now.

  5. Rick
    September 23, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    The reviewer Billy Altman in the latest issue of “Sound And Vision” magazine gives this album 5 Stars on both the quality of the music and the sound production. Billy gives Mindy Smith’s “Stupid Love” 3.5 Stars in comparison (and another reviewer gives Holly Williams’ new album only 2 Stars!)

    This new Nitty’s album also earns the title of “2009 Sound+Vison Reference CD” which is almost never awarded to country music albums. I just might have to give this one a listen!

  6. Ryan
    September 23, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    Good catch Jon… but to be clear, he did sing lead.

  7. Jon
    September 23, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Yes, he most certainly did. Now, Del and I noticed this afternoon while working on his Sirius XM show that Jimmy did sing tenor on the original recording of “Angels Rock Me To Sleep,” but that wasn’t really with the Blue Grass Boys – it was one of those handful of cuts that Monroe did with studio musicians at Owen Bradley’s behest (in fact, Bradley played the organ on it) – so I’m sticking with my story. I like both Madeira and Jimmie Lee Sloas (who, among other things, produced a wonderful album on Don Rigsby a few years back), but this song didn’t really grab me.

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