HIGHWAY 101 and THE NITTY GRITTY DIRT BAND; in concert at the Salt Palace; Aug. 16; one show only.Times change.

At the Republican convention, commentators say Barry Goldwater - Mr. Conservative - is now seen as too liberal by the new right.

At the Salt Palace Tuesday night, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - once the purest acoustic band cutting records - proved to be a touch too progressive for the Grand Ole Opry.

Twenty-two years ago the Dirt Band went to the bank on Jeff Hanna's vocal twang and the John McEuen's twangy fiddle and banjo licks. Now the band has gone . . . wait for this . . . synthesized.

Bobby Carpenter is the centerpiece of the new Dirt Band. Seated at a synthesizer about the size of a foreign car, he rolls out the bass line with his left hand while tossing off jazzy calliope-like leads with his right.

No banjo. No fiddle. No bass guitar. Not even on "Partners, Brothers and Friends."

At one point the band even toyed with some new-age "aural wallpaper" sounds. Give them credit. Not content to be seen as country music's elder statesmen, Hanna, Jimmy Ibbotson (rhythm guitar) and Jimmie Fadden (drums) are like those guys in commercials who eat a box of cereal and start acting like teenagers again. At one point the front of the stage was packed with screaming young girls too young to even know Hanna's son, Jamie.

The obligatory tunes were there, of course: "Fishin' in the Dark," "Mr. Bojangles," "Modern Day Romance," "Plain Dirt Fashion," etc. etc. But the encore cover of Del Shannon's "Little Runnaway" was the show stealer.

They're rock 'n' rollers with bluegrass hearts, now.

Highway 101, on the other hand, is a group of country musicians with rock 'n' roll hearts. The band members showed again why they won the Vocal Group of the Year award: Paulette Carlson's vulnerable vocals, Jack Daniels' incredibly versatile guitar leads, Cactus Moser's John Cougar-style drums and the syncopated bass of Curtis Stone. This band is not a lead singer backed by four happy-face buttons. This band's a band.

Fashion footnote: As Southern California, especially Bakersfield, becomes the center of today's freshest country music (much like Willie Nelson's Austin in the '70s), as norteno accordions and Cuco Sanchez double-stop leads find their way into country music, more and more musicians are going to the salsa look on stage. Tuesday, Carlson showed up in a toreador outfit from hat to heels, and Jeff Hanna sported a trendy, spangled charro jacket.

Welcome to the Grand Ole! Opry.