By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
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Like its two predecessors, the album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. IIIfeatures the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performing songs with an all-star cast of musical legends. This time, the guests include Johnny Cash, Taj Mahal, Jimmy Martin, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris and Doc Watson. Given such high-caliber company, it's no surprise that the Dirt Band takes a back seat for most of the album, essentially playing backup and contributing the occasional harmony vocal. But there are no ringers on Jim Ibbotson's "I Find Jesus," and it may just be the best song on the disc.
"We sang it on Letterman in October," says longtime Dirt Band member Ibbotson (his friends call him "Ibby") from his home in Woody Creek, just down the road from Hunter S. Thompson's place. "And if we're to believe the people who work with him, Dave personally wanted to hear us do that one."
If that's true, then Letterman has a good set of ears. Unlike some of the other songs on the album, which sound a little too forced for their own good (the worst offender being Willie Nelson and Tom Petty's phoned-in version of "Goodnight Irene"), "I Find Jesus" rings true as a bell. And that makes sense, given that the song is Ibbotson's personal expression of faith. "I find Jesus in the darkest night," he sings in his agreeable voice as bandmates Jeff Hanna and Bob Carpenter pitch in with sweet harmonies. "I find Jesus in the morning light/I find Jesus in the face of those/Whose hearts are singing with the heavenly host." If you didn't know better, you might think "I Find Jesus" was some long-lost Carter Family song.
"I wrote that song in a dream," says Ibbotson, who grew up in Philadelphia, the son of a preacher man. "I was down in Costa Rica about ten years ago, living the high life -- surfing, staying in hotels, drinking cold beers. My dad had died a few months earlier, and I was still in the grips. One night I was having trouble falling asleep, and when I did, I dreamed I was the only white face in a black Southern church. I was kind of scared to be there. Everyone was smiling and saying, 'Go on, now. Go on, now.' And I knew exactly what they wanted me to do. They wanted me to stand up and lead them in song. They said, 'Stand up and sing your new song, Jimmy,' and I said, 'What new song?' And I felt someone tap me on the back, and I turned around, and it was my dad. And he was smiling broadly. So I swear to you, I sang that whole song word for word. And when I woke up, I went over to the tape recorder, turned it on and played the exact same song. It was handed to me special delivery. That doesn't happen very often."
Neither does the kind of success the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has been having lately. A year ago, the band was all but forgotten; it hadn't put out a new album since 1999. But last spring, Capitol Records reissued a special thirtieth-anniversary edition of the groundbreaking Will the Circle Be Unbrokenalbum, complete with remastered sound and several bonus recordings. Coming on the heals of the phenomenally successful O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Circle was correctly seen as O Brother's spiritual godfather, and the Dirt Band found itself back in the spotlight. The suits at Capitol took notice and urged the band to go back to the studio for Circle III, which landed on a number of critics' Best of 2002 lists and was recently nominated for two Grammys. (Circle II, which came out in 1989 and featured such questionable guests as John Denver and Bruce Hornsby, is best left forgotten.)
"The band has been rediscovered," says Ibbotson, who joined the outfit in 1969, just in time for its breakout success with a cover version of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles." (A remastered version of the album on which the song appeared, Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, will be released this month by Capitol, along with the band's 1975 disc, Dream.)
About the same time, the band -- Ibbotson, Hanna, John McEuen, Jimmie Fadden and Les Thompson -- pulled up stakes and moved from Los Angeles to Colorado. "For a while, we lived in the old Gotham West Hotel in Denver," Ibbotson recalls, "because we were playing a lot of ski areas. There was a place called Marvelous Marv's in Brooks Towers, with leopard or zebra skin on the walls. We played there quite a bit. I think Chuck Morris was the manager." (Morris, now vice president of Clear Channel Entertainment/Rocky Mountain region, did eventually become the band's manager, a position he holds to this day.)
"I was married and living in Evergreen when we made the first Circle album," Ibbotson says. "The other guys were living here in Aspen."
Thompson left the band shortly after Circle came out. "And I drank myself out of the band in '76," Ibbotson notes. "I was going through a divorce, and I needed some time away. We used to call them sabbaticals." He eventually rejoined in 1980, and the band -- with new member Bob Carpenter, a former session player -- had a string of mainstream country hits in the '80s. ("Dance Little Jean," "Long Hard Road," "Modern Day Romance.") But when McEuen -- the band's ace multi-instrumentalist, who is equally adept on banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin and just about anything else with strings on it -- departed for a solo career in 1986, the group lost some of its rootsiness.