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, McEuen discussed how the idea for the album came about and how they got the legends together. In this second part, he discusses selling the concept to the record label, the historic meeting between Merle Travis and Doc Watson, and personal memories of Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, and other artists on the recording.
You mentioned that this is a record in the sense of recording an event and that leads to something that I think is really special for a lot of people on that album is that you recorded that first meeting between Doc and Merle Travis. And I think today, in the age of the cell phone, take for granted that any musician can meet any musician can just pick up a phone and through agents they'll get it. But in those days, here's this man who named his son after Merle Travis and he'd never met him!
Right. It didn't seem like something he could make happen. It was just a matter of picking up the phone but he didn't know who to call. It was harder to find people in those days. And Doc didn't even know if Merle knew who he was. So we knew that was going to be a cool thing so my brother had the foresight to run a 2 track tape that recorded the whole thing. All the mics were open and the tape recorder was constantly running, so that's how all the conversations were picked up.
So Doc was getting ready to record a song and Merle walked in, I had to run over there with a mic to get it to Merle's mouth and fumbling around and getting him to talk so we could get it on tape. Bill went out and shot some pictures and the band was just sitting around watching all of this go down. And some of the tension the band was feeling throughout this went away because these people were such big fans of each other. You could hear when Doc and Merle meet “I've always wanted to meet you!” And when Roy and Maybelle met he said “I've always wanted to do a recording with you” and “Roy, I don't know how it's taken this long for us to get together!” Same with Vassar playing behind some of the people. Junior Huskey had probably played with all of them at the Opry, but he'd never recorded with them. It's like we had a party and a bunch of people came over and we didn't know they knew each other!
When you took this idea of the rock band recording with a bunch of old time country singers that a lot of our fans never heard of to your record company how did it go over?
My brother and I went to talk to Mike Stewart, President of UA, and he listened to the pitch of us talking about it for a half hour and he said “I don't know if I can sell 10 of these, but you guys are so passionate about it, I'll put up the money.” So he gave us $22,000 to cover studio time, musician costs, tape, hotel rooms, food, all of it except the art work. That's what the album cost.
There wasn't a concept or an album yet. We just told him we were going to record these people who had been such an influence on our music. Jeff wouldn't be singing like he does without some of these people, and Jimmie wouldn't play harmonica like he does, and I wouldn't playing the banjo like that if not for Earl Scruggs. Jimmy Ibbotson was excited because he knew he'd get to sing “Lost Highway” with a fiddle player who had probably played with Hank Williams!
So there were two sides of it. The company side was “well, if this is the album you're going to make, we'll put up the money.” But it only happened because the band guys had picked the right songs to put on the album that got us on the radio. It gave us any kind of power at all, in a day when record companies were more inclined to listen.
So it all came together and everybody was learning what they needed to do on the way to Nashville. We got there about a week before the sessions so Jeff could rehearse with Jimmy Martin and we could go over stuff with Vassar and Earl and it was a wonderful week of rehearsal, going out to Jimmy Martin's house and having him say “let me play you a tape of me at the Grand Ole Opry, listen to how much they loved me at the Opry!” and I was so excited because I was going to hear something no one else heard, but it was just 2 minutes of applause. No music! “I just did an encore there. That's how much they liked me. Why they won't let me back on, I don't know!”
It seems like Earl Scruggs was really one of those forward thinking guys on capturing the new generations. Obviously he worked with you guys and I've read a lot from the Newgrass Revival guys that he was a big help to them when they got a lot of flack from traditionalists.
Earl was a definite influence on forward thinking. He didn't think out of the box, he built a whole new box and put himself in it. For him to record “Hey Jude” on the banjo, one of my favorite solos, and some of the work he did with his sons with the Earl Scruggs Revue put that banjo in some different spaces. And that's a good thing, I think.
Do you guys have any tour plans around “Circle?”
Well, we're going out on the road. Last year we did 90 cities. This year, we'll probably do the same. This year we're kicking it off at Merlefest. We're headlining Saturday night. That's a good place to kick off I think!
Here are some other memories John McEuen shared about the album and the legendary artists who appeared on it during the course of our discussion.
One of the exciting things about the “Circle” album was watching Jimmie Fadden draining notes off Vassar's fill. And Vassar would say “try this. Let's do this together!” To hear the harmonica and fiddle together in a way that hadn't been done as a driving instruments pair instead of twin fiddles was really fun. It pushed Jimmie to the limit.
I would get to play the frailing banjo, which is an old timey banjo you're hearing a lot more of these days, and have Earl play his picking banjo. To get recognition for him from the things we were doing at the time was something we wanted. He had a lot of recognition and well deserved on his own, but we had a lot of people asking in '69, '70, '71 “where'd you learn all those songs?” People didn't know Hank Williams or Flatt & Scruggs or Maybelle Carter. You might learn “Wildwood Flower” but you didn't know Maybelle wrote it.
When we were in the studio with Maybelle Carter and she said “if you don't mind, I'd like to do 'Wildwood Flower.” And we're thinking “if we don't mind? You're Maybelle F-ing Carter!” How could this lady be so humble? But she was.
A few years later, I took the Gold album of “Circle” to her. It turned Platinum later but she'd died by then. But I took her the Gold album and said “Maybelle, this means 500,000 people bought this record.” And she said “I didn't even know that many people heard these songs.” And she meant it! She had no idea. I have been told that by John Carter Cash, Johnny and June's son, who spent a lot of time with his grandma. He said “yeah, she never knew. She always lived in this little house and thought she wrote little songs people would like around the neighborhood. She just didn't realize.”
I was talking to Duane Allman's daughter a couple of weeks ago because she's working on this anthology she's putting out of her dad's work and she's trying to learn more about her dad. And one of the things she said was “my dad taught my mom to play 'Wildwood Flower' on the guitar.” What an impact is that? Can you imagine Duane Allman playing “Wildwood Flower” and teaching his wife? How strong that was? There's something magic about that music.
Oswald, the dobro player, Oswald Kirby, and this isn't meant with any disrespect, he didn't know what the notes and strings were. I said “I'll help you get tuned up. Here's a G.” And he said “which one is that?” He didn't read charts. He didn't know anything about music from the technical or learned side. He played straight from the heart. He didn't play notes on a chart or that were written down. He played notes that fit that other people weren't going to find. I remember my mom saying “when that man plays that dobro it makes me cry!” He was just pure soul. That was a lesson.
Vassar Clements was the same way. Some days we'd finish playing his songs and he'd say “What key is that in?” He knew the keys of some things, like when he wanted to change it for something different. But these guys were the real masters that really made you think. How did they just know that? I have to learn it note by note! -laugh-
The thing about the “Circle” album music, I think this music will be alive 100 years from now. The melodies that Maybelle came up with. Those instrumentals. The style of playing guitar that Merle Travis created. Doc Watson's voice. When we were doing “Tennessee Stud” it felt like we were listening to a broadcast from a record in 1932. It felt like we were making an old record. It was just wonderful.
That concludes my discussion with John McEuen about “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, but not the interview itself. McEuen spent more time speaking to me about a wide range of subjects from his solo projects to growing up with Steve Martin and his thoughts on why banjo music is making a big comeback on the charts today. Click Subscribe at the top of the page to get this bonus interview, as well as all the latest Americana music news and reviews, delivered right to your inbox.