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Full Circle

Digging in the Dirt: Jim Ibbotson and John McEuen.

Like its two predecessors, the album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. III features 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 Unbroken album, 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.

"We missed that," Ibbotson says. "We could cover for him in the studio, but people started to realize that we were missing an integral part of the band."

Ibbotson, too, seemed to miss the easy rapport he had with McEuen. The two began performing as a duo in 1995, and their concerts together provided Ibbotson with the kind of musical fulfillment lacking in Dirt Band gigs. "McEuen and I were playing all these beautiful places and singing the songs that we helped develop a style for -- that country rock stuff from the '60s, not that pile of shit we got on Nashville radio in the '80s. Some nights it would feel like it was 1969, and we were in the Troubador on Santa Monica Boulevard in L.A. and things were going really well." Ibbotson and McEuen even recorded an album together, Stories and Songs, released in 2000 on Planetary Records.

Meanwhile, Ibbotson says, the Dirt Band was going "deeper and deeper into the shitter. I finally told them that they either get Mac back or replace me. We needed his excitement, his authenticity." By 2001, McEuen was back in the fold, initially to participate in a series of reunion concerts, and then as a permanent, full-time member. "And things are going a whole lot better," says Ibbotson, who credits McEuen and Hanna with convincing Capitol's Nashville division to reissue Circle with a full blast of publicity. Indeed, it was McEuen who painstakingly remastered the album -- the previous CD version was notoriously muddy-sounding -- and listened to hours of outtakes to find four bonus tracks.

That album -- and the other two Circle discs -- are the subject of an upcoming PBS special featuring the band and many of its musical pals, including Vince Gill, Rosanne Cash, Alison Krauss, Earl and Randy Scruggs and Vassar Clements. And visitors to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville will soon be able to see a Circle display containing such Dirt Band memorabilia as the harmonicas Fadden played on all three albums and promotional materials issued by Liberty Records (which released the first Circle album as a lavish three-record set) in 1973. The most significant item, however, is Ibbotson's fancy, pearl-inlaid Martin D-41 guitar, which he purchased after "Mr. Bojangles" became a hit and played on the first Circle.

Ibbotson confesses that after Circle III came out, he considered selling the guitar, now worth thousands of dollars. "But whatever I would have got for it wouldn't bring me nearly as much pleasure as having it in the Country Music Hall of Fame," he says. "I mean, every time that guitar is touched now, you've got to be wearing white gloves!"

With all the hoopla surrounding the reissue of Circle, the band spent a great deal of 2002 on the road, with mixed results. "We wanted everyone to know we were back and alive," Ibbotson says, "but it almost killed us. We'd play in Toronto one night and Aspen the next, and then go back to Canada to pick up the rest of the tour. We won't do that again this year." The band is slated to perform at the sixteenth annual Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina., which has become one of the premier Americana festivals in the country.

Meanwhile, Ibbotson is enjoying a break from it all at his home in Woody Creek, where he's just finished building a home studio. "I get up every day and record a little bit," he says. "I make these vanity CDs. People seem to like them." (Ibbotson's "homemade" CDs are available by mail order through a link on John McEuen's Web site, www.johnmceuen.com.) He seems downright delighted at the prospect of doing a handful of Front Range shows -- including a Saturday-night stop at Swallow Hill Music Hall in Denver -- with his buddy McEuen, who is once again living in Los Angeles.

 

"I'm looking forward to getting in my car here in Woody Creek, loading up some instruments and an amp, maybe my dog, and playing some small halls, all of them in Colorado," Ibbotson says. "We'll play for six hours if you let us."


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