"This album has a real spirit of renewal," Jeff Hanna says of Welcome to Woody Creek, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Dualtone debut. "In some ways, it's a return to where we began. But it's also the start of a whole new thing for us."
Over the course of a recording and performing career that spans five decades and over 30 albums, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has earned a unique status as one of America's most respected and beloved musical institutions. Since their early days in the vanguard of the '60s country-rock movement, they've consistently drawn from a broad array of influences to make music that's distinctly their own. Along the way, they've scored several hit singles, won countless awards and collaborated with an impressive assortment of contemporaries and legends.
The durable quintet's formidable creative chemistry is particularly potent on Welcome to Woody Creek. The 12-song album finds the multitalented, multiinstrumental combo—guitarist/vocalist Jeff Hanna, guitarist/bassist/mandolinist/vocalist Jimmy Ibbotson, keyboardist/vocalist Bob Carpenter guitarist/banjoist/drummer/harmonica player Jimmie Fadden and mandolinist/fiddler John McEuen—demonstrating the musical and personal rapport that's endeared them to fans around the world. Hanna, Fadden and McEuen were present for the band's formation in the mid-1960s, while Ibbotson came on board in 1969; Carpenter joined up in 1976.
The new album—the NGDB's first full-length studio effort since 1998, and their first since McEuen's return in 2001 following a stretch of solo projects—is something of a landmark in the group's storied career. The five bandmates cut the bulk of the album in the relaxed setting of Ibbotson's home studio in Woody Creek, Colorado, unencumbered by the pressures of a formal studio situation.
The resulting album is a compelling showcase for the band's effortless expertise and seamless versatility. The rootsy pop numbers "Walkin' in the Sunshine," "It's Morning" and "Forever Don't Last" and the poignant ballads "Jealous Moon" and "Any Love But Our Love" distill the same homespun blend of solid songcraft and emotional substance that originally earned the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band its reputation, as do the rollicking rural workout "Party on the Mountain," the country-gospel tune "Safe Back Home" and the moody instrumental "Midnight at Woody Creek."
Another standout track is the wry "It's a New Day" (penned by Hanna's wife, renowned singer/songwriter Matraca Berg, and ace tunesmith Tim Krekel) a cautiously optimistic number that taps into the theme of a renewed spirit.
Welcome to Woody Creek also continues the band's longstanding tradition of astute interpretations of outside material, with a haunting, heartfelt reading of Gram Parsons' evocative ballad "She," as well as a playful bluegrass reworking of The Beatles' "Get Back" that recalls the group's early days.
"We used to fool around with bluegrass versions of Beatle songs back in the early days," Hanna explains. "We kind of rediscovered 'Get Back' when John McEuen rejoined the band and we started playing it live. I think we cut it the first or second day in Woody Creek; it's essentially a live track, and it was a perfect way to get ourselves in the right frame of mind for this project."
"Get Back" is typical of Welcome to Woody Creek's emphasis on earthy, unpretentious performances, with a minimum of production frills. "This album's kind of going back to what we were doing in the late '60s and early '70s," Hanna observes. "When I listen to it, I hear that same spirit that we had then, but with a lot more experience and a little more maturity."
Welcome to Woody Creek's loose, organic vibe is largely a by-product of its stripped-down recording approach. "Colorado is our adopted home, and we've returned there as often as possible," says McEuen. "Woody Creek's atmosphere is a lot like Aspen was when we first went there in 1970. It was a perfect place to go and make some music; we had great memories to reflect on, and new ones to make."
"The most refreshing part of this project was just getting in there and being left to our own devices," Hanna enthuses. "It's been a long time since we made a record that way—just went into a room and looked at each other and said 'Let's see what we can come up with.' "
"The whole process," he explains, "happened very naturally and very quickly. We originally went in just to do some demos, but we liked what we heard so much that the demos became the record, more or less. We didn't even have a record deal when we started recording; we just went ahead and made some music and figured we'd find a home for it."
The informal, spontaneous atmosphere resulted in some of the band's most inspired performances to date. "When you strive for perfection, you risk losing the feel in the process," Hanna notes, adding, "Anybody who's made a record has had the experience of trying to beat the demo—trying to capture the original moment of inspiration that you felt the first time you played the song. I think we avoided that on this one by keeping the original moment of inspiration. Sonically, it reminds me of the records that we made in the early '70s."
Indeed, Welcome to Woody Creek maintains a deep connection to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's eventful musical history. The group has played a key role in rock's rediscovery of its early rural roots, from their early days as a fledgling jug band at the legendary McCabe's Guitar Shop, to their 1967 debut hit "Buy for Me the Rain," to their pioneering country-rock explorations on such highly regarded albums as 1970's Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy (which included the group's first Top Ten pop hit "Mr. Bojangles") and 1975's Dream, to their widely acclaimed three-LP 1972 set Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The latter project was an unprecedented and momentous undertaking, teaming the band with such country, bluegrass and folk giants as Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Mother Maybelle Carter. It was followed by acclaimed sequels in 1989 and 2003.
In the course of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's evolution, the group's lineup has included such notable fellow travelers as a pre-stardom Jackson Browne, Kaleidoscope member Chris Darrow and Eagles/Flying Burrito Brothers guitarist Bernie Leadon.
For a few years in the late '70s and early '80s, the group shortened its name to the Dirt Band and scored memorable pop hits with "An American Dream" and "Make A Little Magic." In 1984, they made headlines as the first American rock act to tour the Soviet Union. Through the remainder of the '80s, they reassumed their original full-length moniker, and achieved substantial success on the country charts with numerous hits including the Number One singles "Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper's Dream)," "Modern Day Romance" and "Fishin' in the Dark." Meanwhile, the group's trailblazing embrace of its musical roots was echoed increasingly in rock's emerging Americana movement.
Although they've achieved an enviable level of commercial success over the years, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band continues to stick with its original sources of inspiration. "We're grateful whenever we get on the radio, but things like singles and airplay aren't as big an issue for us anymore," Hanna asserts.
"Now we're more concerned with just making music that we feel good about and can stand behind," adds Fadden.
"We did very little overdubbing and doubling of instruments on this album—a lot less than we would have if we'd been trying to make a contemporary 'radio' record," Carpenter points out. "I think it sounds more like us because of that."
"The five of us playing together make a sound that nobody else makes," Hanna says. "Whether it's good, bad or indifferent, it's ours. We're all like brothers and the way we play together is pretty instinctive at this point. There are times when we've gotten a little too perfect for our own good, so the ability to be scruffy is important to us."
That blend of mastery and understatement allows Welcome to Woody Creek to capture the sound of a veteran band still discovering new strengths. As Ibbotson points out, "There's a line in the liner notes of this album that says, 'It seems that we've been playing music with each other since we were schoolboys, but every now and then it's good for us to look at each other in a new light.' I think that taking ourselves away from the grind of the music business to make this record has really helped us to rediscover our bond, and to rediscover what's special about this band."
"We really consider this album to be the beginning of something for us, and I think that this is how we want to make records for the rest of our career," Hanna states, adding, "It's a really great time for us. I think that people are hungry to hear real music made by people singing and playing together. That's great for us, because that's what we do."