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NGDB's circle remains unbroken

Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, September 14, 2015

Reviewed by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

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The evening was an anointed one as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, joined by a holy host of others who had been a key part of their musical career, unofficially kicked off this year's Americana Music Association Conference and Festival with a 50th-year anniversary celebration concert.

Dirt Band leader Jeff Hanna said, "About 5 or 6 years ago, we realized we'd hit this mark, and we wanted to do something to mark the occasion." The organizers asked Hanna to think about whom he would invite and make some phone calls. Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Byron House joined the core members of the band for the evening, adding a rich dimension to the sound.

Nashville stalwart Vince Gill, who seems to show up almost everywhere these days, introduced the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, recalling what heroes these guys were for him when he first heard "Mr. Bojangles" on the radio.

The band then kicked off the show with a rollicking version of Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," featuring solos by Bush on mandolin and Douglas on Dobro. Hanna, emcee for the night, introduced Steve Goodman's "Face on the Cutting Room Floor," by recalling their days of playing Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and getting to know Goodman.

Following the band's version of the Goodman song, the band's friends each took turns sharing their songs with the band. Hanna recalled that they ran into their first guest about the same time they ran into Goodman, and Hanna introduced John Prine, whom he called "one of the greatest songwriters in the world."

Prine performed two of his most beloved songs, "Grandpa Was a Carpenter" and "Paradise." NGDB soon performed the instrumental "Walkin' Shoes," featuring McEuen on banjo, after which McEuen thanked "Earl Scruggs for giving me a life."

Calling Gill the band's "little brother," Hanna invited him back out to perform "Tennessee Stud." Gill recalled that he was a freshman in high school when "Mr. Bojangles" came out. "I played the banjo a little bit back then. There was a rock band in our area; they were the coolest thing ever, and I was a dork because I played the banjo. They were gonna do 'Mr. Bojangles' in their show at school...and they asked me to play banjo with them on 'Mr. Bojangles.' It was one of the coolest things that ever happened to me, because I was accepted."

Bush followed with "Nine Pound Hammer," from the first "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" album before the band came back together to play a little Hank Williams' "Honky Tonkin'" and "Workin' Man." Hanna recalled that the band first got together in 1966 and put out their first record in 1967. "We met up with this great songwriter named Steve Newman," he recalled, introducing Newman's "Buy for Me the Rain."

Newman introduced the band to a young songwriter named Jackson Browne that same summer. Browne was a member of the band for the summer, "playing washboard for hours," he said. "This is one of the songs from my 16-year-old brain," Browne recalled, as he launched into a touching version of "These Days," with Douglas on Dobro and singing a new second verse, as he's been doing in his own shows this summer. Browne also performed "Truthful Parson Brown," a song his father taught him and who told the young Browne it was about his family, he chuckled.

Hanna and Bob Carpenter offered "The Broken Road," which Hanna called a "love letter to our wives," before Alison Krauss walked onstage and performed "Keep on The Sunny Side" and "Catfish John."

Introducing Rodney Crowell, who would play "An American Dream" with Krauss, Hanna said, "We first met Rodney back in Colorado when he was a member of Emmy's Hot Band but then we kind of lost track of him, and then one day we crossed paths again, and he gave us this song that was a big hit on the radio."

Crowell told the story of how his "Daddy always wanted to be on this stage here, but it wasn't his destiny; this song is for him, wherever he may travel tonight." Crowell launched into "Long Hard Road."

Appropriately, the band performed "Cosmic Cowboy" before introducing Jerry Jeff Walker, their favorite cosmic cowboy. Walker, who penned "Mr. Bojangles," recalled that "he wrote this song about an old dog and a drunk in jail, and I didn't think it would go anywhere, but then these boys got a hold of it." "I'm going to play it my way," he said, "and then we can see how they do it," he said, as the crowd roared with laughter.

Former member Jimmy Ibbotson, who left the band for the second time in 2004, joined the band for five songs: "Dance Little Jean," "Ripplin' Waters," "Fishin' in the Dark," "Bayou Jubilee/Sally Goodin'," and "Jambalaya." Ibbotson remarked that he hadn't been on airplane in years, but that he couldn't pass up this opportunity.

Browne, Gill, Krauss, Prine, and Walker joined the Band back onstage for a rousing sing-along encore of - what else? - "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"