40 years ago, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band turned the world of country and rock upside down by bringing legendary stars from the Grand Ole Opry era together with their own California folk rock sound to record their landmark album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
The album served to introduce an entire new generation to artists like Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, and Maybelle Carter. Its influence can be seen today in everything from “CMT Crossroads” to Top 40 hitmakers like The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons.
Now “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is being re-released in a special vinyl packaging for its 40th anniversary, complete with brand new liner notes, photos, and a poster. I spoke by phone with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founding member John McEuen about the re-release of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” as well as his memories of how this monumental album came together. In part 1 of this 2 part interview, McEuen talks about the decision to re-release the album and how such a diverse group of artists came together for this historic record.
What made you guys decide to re-release “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” at this time?
Well, since the CD came out, we've had so many people say “hey, are you going to put it out on LP again? I've got the LP and I've worn it out!” And it was such a beautiful package that it just couldn't be turned down. The 40th year seemed like a good time so about a year and a half ago we started to request that we get it done. EMI went along with it even though there had been massive changes within the company, having been bought by Universal. But it survived those difficulties.
You mentioned the release on LP. Are there any additional special features not on the original?
There's a poster, some additional photos, and liner notes talking about how it happened. It's the original package with some pluses to it.
Have you guys been surprised the album had the kind of legs that would support it for 40 years?
After a few years of that record being out, it became apparent that there was something that was a magic event. This is a record in its old application of the word, the record of an event. An event with people getting together to do something they've never done before. After about 10 years, it was like “wow, this doesn't seem to be quitting.” It kind of became the “Dark Side of the Moon” of country music, always on the charts somewhere. It's a pleasant surprise. It's something that you always hope for, making something long lasting.
Walk us through, if you would, the process of how you guys decided to get this rock band together with a bunch of classic country artists and see where it goes.
Well, you have to sort of back up before it a little bit. It actually goes back to Jeff Hanna and Jimmie Fadden and Jimmy Ibbotson and I, picking the right songs for my brother to produce “Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy.” That was the album that had 3 pop chart records on it, “Mr. Bojangles,” “House at Pooh Corner,” and “Some of Shelly's Blues” which kept us on the radio for nearly a year. That led to Earl Scruggs coming to see us in 1970 at Vanderbilt, which was a big honor and a big shock for me because he wanted to meet the banjo picker on this album his sons had been playing. In a sense, because of the sons of Earl and Jimmy Martin and Doc Watson all playing this new band of guys who are all 19-23 years old, it is kind of like when my kids had me listen to this new band called Phish and me saying “Oh, they're pretty good. They're better than pretty good. They're interesting. I like it.” So when Earl and Doc and these people were first approached with the question, it was a music they were already familiar with because of their sons.
After Earl came to see us in Vanderbilt we got to know him a little bit. He was playing Colorado 8 months later, in 1971 now, and taking Earl back to the hotel that night I asked him if he'd be interested in recording with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He said “I'd be proud to” and I could see Jeff's eyes light up in the back seat of the car at that answer! Trying to get the nerve up to ask the guy who gave me a reason to play music to record with us was kind of a daunting question.
About a week and a half later, Doc Watson was playing at the same club and Doc's son Merle said “my daddy really likes your music. He likes that mandolin and banjo and harmonica and the songs. He says 'those guys sound like the Everly Brothers.” So Merle introduced us to his father and Doc said “well if Earl's going to be there, I've got to come pick” or something to that effect. So with Doc and Earl on board, my brother Bill said “I think we should try to get Merle Travis.” Merle Travis was our first big job in 1966 in L.A. We played with him for 10 days at the Ash Grove. Well, Merle Travis said “that sounds like a good thing to do. I've always wanted to meet Doc Watson.” And when Doc found out Merle Travis was going to be there he said “he's the man I named my son after!”
So we were talking to Earl and asked him if he thought he could get Jimmy Martin. So then Jimmy Martin signed on. Then Maybelle Carter, then Earl found Vassar Clements. And Earl introduced us to the bass player Junior Huskey which was dead on, that was the right guy to do that.
Then Earl and Louise set up the meeting with Roy Acuff. Keep in mind, we started the second week of June. The 2nd week, Earl says yeah. The next week Doc, the next week Merle. We're up to about week 4 and Roy Acuff says “I'd like to meet the boys.” Bill had read in a newspaper interview that Roy said “I'll record real country music with anyone, anywhere, anytime” so Bill said “I'm going to see if Mr. Scruggs will introduce us to Acuff. And Mr. Acuff was into it... kind of. We wondered because a week after we met him he was quoted in the Nashville Tennessean saying “I don't know if they're old men or young boys or what, they're all covered with hair!”
So Mr. Right Wing Republican Roy Acuff, the flag waver during the Vietnam war, wanted to play with Earl who had been to D.C. during the peace march and wanted to play with Jimmy Martin, who put the color in bluegrass. Jimmy Martin was the flamboyant bluegrass guy. And then Vassar Clements could handle any of it. So it was a convergence of efforts that these people, by week 5, had been lined up. By the end of the 8th week after asking the question, the album was done!
We recorded for 6 days. 2 track... straight into a 2 track which means we were recording right onto a master, no tape generation loss. It was amazingly quick. We didn't record 10 hours a day. Merle Travis came in, we laid down 3 songs with him and he laid down his instrumental. Most of those songs were 1st or 2nd take, mostly 1st take. When you play a 3 minute song on the first take, you're done in 3 minutes! So there was a lot of time to sit around and chat. Jeff got to ask Merle Travis questions. I got to see him play “Cannonball Rag” up close.
Next we moved in Earl and Jeff and Gary Scruggs layed down vocals on “You Are My Flower” with Earl on guitar. The sessions just kind of unfolded as the days of the programmed person came by. They went so smooth, it was like it was meant to happen. I wish it had been that easy over the next 10 years, I don't think we ever had it that easy again! -laughs-
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the interview where John McEuen discusses selling the idea to the record company, the historic first meeting between Doc Watson and Merle Travis, and more in-depth memories of the legends who participated in the making of the album.