Speed of Life is the first studio album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in five years and celebrates the group's 43rd anniversary with three of its original members still intact (and no, the number 43 was not a typo). It also finds them reduced once more to a quartet with the departure of multi-instrumentalist Jimmy Ibbotson. That said, the band has lost none of its immediacy, power, or expert presentation of both original material and songs from some of Nashville's finest. Released by Sugar Hill Records (who distributes their NGDB Records imprint), the group recorded the set live in the studio. Produced by veterans George Massenburg and Jon Randall Stewart, this set sounds inspired, fresh, and like the NGDB has been utterly rejuvenated. It combines the old-/good-timey feel of their concert performances -- without adding American folk or country standards -- and the poignancy of their best studio recordings. Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter, and John McEuen were aided on this set by bassist Glenn Worf, guitarist Richard Bennett, and drummer Vince Santoro, as well as backing vocalists such as Matraca Berg (who also contributed a pair of songs to the album), Jessi Alexander, and Jaime Hanna.
The set opens with an electric dobro and shuffling harmonica introducing "Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble to Me," but these are quickly accented by acoustic guitars, mandolins, a popping snare, and McEuen's ubiquitous banjo. On the deeply moving "The Resurrection" -- written by Berg with Alice Randall -- Hanna's vocal is world-weary and bears its weight on his shoulders. There's hope in the waste, however, with images that are simply unforgettable -- such as a fired minister saying grace with a bunch of the lost and broken at a local diner. There's an unexpected bluegrass cover of Canned Heat's classic "Goin' Up the Country," that's done with the Dirt Band empathy, innovation, and rootsy elegance. Theirs is also a brief but haunting banjo interlude by McEuen called "Lost in the Pines," and the title track, written by Gary Scruggs is pure NGDB roots-country-soul. "Earthquake," written by Carpenter and McEuen, is a shuffling back porch country stomper. One of the album's big surprises is near the end in "Tryin' to Try" co-written by Fadden and Guy Clark. The lyric and feel are pure Clark, but the waves of guitars, mandolins, accordions, and that old-timey bassline is authentic, timeless NGDB.
Ultimately, Speed of Life proves that the NGDB have reinvented themselves once more. Nothing here is of the slick Nashville variety. It feels as organic as their mid-'70s recordings, but the material is quite listener-friendly. It will certainly endear old fans -- and perhaps amaze them that 43 years later, they are still not only viable, but able to innovate, create, and shine through in a scene dominated by young stars who may not have even heard of them. These old dogs still have plenty of shine on them, plenty of country-soul to impart, and plenty of tricks to teach the kids. ~ Thom Jurek