Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Jon Ashley
To this day, there are gatherings out in the hills and the valleys of California, ones like the parties that used to happen at Zappa's place and others in Laural Canyon and ones that are nothing like it. The gatherings are attended by handfuls of songwriters, with the idea that and a desire to play and sing songs all night. It's not to stop. They just keep going until the sun comes up or the wine, beer, weed and cigarettes are either all gone or no one has the energy to go out and fetch more. These are mostly invitation only, tough to find and exclusive. They aren't performances, but more practices and more services, a sermon to the most tangible god those players and writers know. We've heard about these gatherings and we feel that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band helped in fostering this kind of ritual get-together in the early 1970s, after the recording and release of the classic album, "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," a collaboration that the Long Beach, California, country band recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, with a group of country and bluegrass legends, heroes to all the members of the band. They played and recorded with the likes of Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff and Merle Travis - a bevy of musical genius all humming together in one room, sharing jokes and stirring their coffees at the same time. When you spread the LP open, there are three panels of photographs from those sessions that make you immediately long to have been there, tucked away deep in one of those corners to just hear the interactions and be a witness to what amounted to a great band playing unthinkably real and gold standard collaborations with some of the best that ever lived, making a record of the historic meetings. Those photographs show cigarettes the way that they used to loosely and limply hang from every goddamn mouth, back in those days. They show revered old men in white dress shirts, slacks and ties playing banjos, guitars and singing. It's the kind of outfit that, when you see it on these old pickers and bluegrass crooners from Tennessee, you think to yourself that it's the thing they wear to church, to the bar, to parties, to perform, to feed the horses or cows and maybe even sleep in. They smell, from the photographs we can tell, like those already seen and mentioned cigarettes and that old man smell that's partly body odor, but mostly just old skin and the effect of hard work. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, notable for a number of reasons, but primarily for the two "Unbroken" albums, its cover of "Mr. Bojangles" and their 80s hit "Fishin' in the Dark," have made music that feels like it needs to be played with other people for nearly 50 years. It's music that carries with it that rustic sensibility, of salt of the earth people with pieces of alfalfa tucked behind ears. It has the feel of passed around guitars, broad smiles and the kinds of nights alluded to above. They are nights when you can hear the green-eyed animals rustling around and getting closer to where you are, getting braver. These are the nights and the men who have the frontier in them and they take them to the point at the end of the darkness when the dew starts to get burnt off of them.