The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band “Symphonion Dream”
Symphonion Dream was the last album recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band before Jim Ibbotson left and the band began to move away from its traditional jug band/bluegrass roots. The big question is why in 1975, when the rest of the First Division of country-rock practitioners – the Eagles, Poco, Souther-Hillman-Furay et al – had been travelling for some time in the direction of simplified, stadium-friendly AOR, the NGDB went the other way and produced what I think is the best, and surely the quirkiest, psychedelic country album ever. The tunes are the band’s usual mix of originals and highly personalised covers; however this time the tunes are wrapped up in a sonic kaleidoscope of sound effects, seaside amusement park soundtracks, studio backchat, disconcerting segues, fade-in/fade-out interludes and odd instrumentation. So many familiar tunes, so many unfamiliar and occasionally unsettling treatments.
The album is bookended front-and-back by the eerie screech of an Aeolian harp, with a lonely tolling bell as prologue, finally fading out to the silvery chiming of the Symphonion – a large Victorian musical automaton sounding like an orchestra of musical boxes. The original songs feature some truly offbeat ideas, with John McEuen picking Flamenco on solo banjo – perhaps influenced by Bernie Leadon’s banjo opus Journey Of The Sorcerer on the Eagles’ One Of These Nights – and hammering the same banjo to produce steel band-like tones on the calypsoish Joshua Come Home. The more conventional tracks move smoothly from Hey Good Lookin’, played Bob Wills-style with Linda Ronstadt duetting Ibbotson on vocal, via a roistering Texas honky-tonk rendering of JD Souther’s The Moon Just Turned Blue, to the straight-ahead country-rock, all Telecasters blazing, of Bayou Jubilee. However, perhaps more memorable are the swampy, drone-laden treatment of that hoary old standard, The Battle Of New Orleans, replete with coda of marching drums and bagpipes, and the thumping bluegrass version of the Everlys’ maudlin (All I Have To Do Is) Dream, which revisits the Dirts’ version of Mike Nesmith’s Some Of Shelley’s Blues. Musicianship and harmonies throughout are as accomplished as we’ve come to expect from these guys, with McEuen’s fiery five-string banjo usually well to the fore, and production by Bill McEuen (any relation?) is faultless.
Exactly what the Dirts were trying to achieve with this album escapes me – perhaps a belated country-rock Sergeant Pepper? There is no conceptual theme as such, though the first four tracks on what was the second side seem to purposefully convey an atmosphere of the southern California coastline. Whatever: I enjoy eclectic albums that display a multiplicity of styles within, or even across, genres. This one never escapes being country-rock, but boy, does it stretch the boundaries.
“The Battle of New Orleans”