Concert Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen @ The Linda, 03/17/2023
Dave Van Ronk called academia’s fascination with folk music in the early ’60s “the folk scare.” He sarcastically claimed the best folksingers of the era were those who interject the pops and scratches that vinyl records make into their live performances.
Until Dylan plugged in, folk fiends fundamentally were listening to artists that were covering regional indigenous styles of music performed on the back porches of Appalachia in the case of bluegrass and chitlin circuit night clubs in Mississippi and Arkansas for blues. The idea that a bunch of long-haired hippies from Long Beach, California, could appeal to students hanging out in Boston and Harvard Square coffee houses where folk music was building a much larger demographic was too outrageous to be considered.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did just that. And almost six decades since they formed, founding banjo player John McEuen brought their sound to the Linda in Albany for a crowd that could sing the entire chorus of The Beverly Hillbillies’ theme song. In the late ’50s, the popular tv show featured bluegrass music by The Foggy Mountain Boys led by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, two bluegrass artists adored by the folk movement. The tv show was number one in the ratings for two of its eight seasons, and The Foggy Mountain Boys had a hit with the song.
“What I try to do is not nostalgia,” McEuen told me in an advance interview. “I do some new music. I do some new music on my Made in Brooklyn album that I recorded for Chesky Records, and it won a couple of awards.”
It was clearly nostalgia that turned on the 100 or so fans at The Linda. That said, banjo picker McEuen, standup bass player Les Thompson and mandolin picker Brian Cole played fantastic bluegrass music as “authentic” as anything I ever heard in my days in Harvard Square at Club 47, the Cafe Yana on Boston or Caffe Lena in Saratoga.
The aforementioned Earl Scruggs was the first old-school bluegrass artist that The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band approached to record with them on their 1972 three-record set Will The Circle Be Unbroken. That multi-million-selling album also featured several other older-generation bluegrass stalwarts like Doc Watson, Merle Travis, and Mother Mabelle Carter, the matriarch of the Carter family that invented country music in 1927 and included June Carter, Johnny Cash’s wife.
The album brought bluegrass into the mainstream for the first time since the folk scare, and McEuen’s performance, while featuring a few contemporary tunes, was a nostalgia feast for us old-guard folkies. Running throughout much of the show were films and photos that John’s brother Bill, producer of the album, had taken during the taping of that album.
Songs played included: “Paint Your Wagon,” “Uncle Charlie,” “Mister Bo Jangles,” “May The Circle Be Unbroken,” “Blue Ridge Cabin Home,” “Wild Wood Flower,” “My Walkin’ Shoes,” “I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” and “Sunny Side.”