© 2013 Capitol Records Nashville
℗ 2013 Capital Records Nashville. All rights reserved.
THIS ALBUM DOWNLOAD FEATURES HIGH RESOLUTION COVER ART ONLY. LINER NOTES ARE NOT AVAILABLE.
- Reached #4 on Billboard's Top Country Albums.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken is the timeless 1972 classic by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It features breathtaking collaborations, steeped in tradition while pioneering a new form of Americana. This triple-Platinum album features an array of accomplished country songwriters and musicians including Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin and many others. It showcases thrilling compositions by luminaries including Scruggs, Acuff, Travis, Martin, Hank Williams, Joni Mitchell and more. Will the Circle Be Unbroken united fans of country and rock music, reaching #4 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums. In 2005, the album was selected for the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.
Notes on the album by John McEuen:
The Vietnam war is raging. America is more divided than ever. People are being assassinated, marchers are still recovering from burns, churches burning, Kent State killings were separating factions more as Nixon struck Cambodia. The whole country in turmoil. The president was lying (some things never change), but we had shows to do and a hit radio on the radio. Everything was great.
By fall, 1970 the Uncle Charlie album had three radio hits; the NGDB was out on the road all over. One road night would lead to changing our lives in a way that was unpredictable. That night, thoughts of 1965, pre-NGDB, when my brother and I had driven to Nashville to see the Opry. It was sold out, but I looked in the windows in the back north wall on that hot melting summer day just in time to see Lester Flatt say “Earl and I would like to bring out Mother Maybelle Carter to do the Wildwood Flower”; the place went nuts. I thought ‘someday I will meet those people”, not really thinking it possible.
While setting up band gear with Jimmie Fadden (our ‘other job’ in those early years) in the Vanderbilt Gym for our first Nashville concert, the college stage crew kept saying: "We heard Earl Scruggs is coming tonight”.. “the Scruggs family will be here for the show…". It seemed impossible and implausible, like fat chance/slim chance – why would the creator of bluegrass banjo come see some young picker or his band from California? We continued setting up, excited to be in Nashville, hoping the show would be over in time to see the Opry again, as in 6 years earlier.
Later, in the dressing room, for yucks I put my banjo way out of tune and played Earl’s signature song "Foggy Mt. Breakdown" as poorly as possible, telling my brother Bill “I’d better get ready.., Earl Scruggs is coming.”. Yeah.. just like Dylan is coming, as was often said.
A knock on the door stopped the banjo cacophony.
Playing worse each step toward the door, saying cynically ‘I bet it’s Earl Scruggs ha ha!’, I opened it to stare out at the entire Scruggs family: Gary, Stevie, Randy, Louise, and Earl. Earl grinned and said "Hi". I said, "Oh, Shiiiii.. just a minute" and closed the door. "Hey, Bill. Guess who's on the other side of this door - right now."
I successfully explained the joke as they entered laughing. They seemed to get it. To change the subject, I worked courage up to ask Earl to pick one on my banjo; before I finished the question, he had his picks on, and tore up Fireball Mail - the best I'd ever heard it. Earl made my night when he said, about coming that night that “I wanted to meet the boy who played Randy Lynn Rag the way I intended too”. It was on the ‘Charlie’ album. This was huge for me. My music mentor had come to see me, and I for once felt like I had accomplished something of note.
With the Uncle Charlie album just out that year, the sons played it for their dad - songs with tight two-part harmony, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, washboard, accordion, dobro, acoustic guitars, and .. he liked it! Thanks to our fans for making it popular, we were able to reach him through his eager kids.
The next spring Earl and family (The Earl Scruggs Revue) performed a week in Colorado, and our friendship grew. It was that June, while again driving Earl back to his hotel after their hot club show at Boulder’s famed Tulagi’s, I finally got up the nerve to ask a question I had been thinking about for months. A bit shaky about the possible negative answer, I went ahead:
“Earl.. I was wondering if.. if you think you might.. or would want to. . . or would consider.. if .. you think it could work out.. if .. uhh.. uhh.. could you, I mean, would record a couple of songs with the Dirt Band?” His immediate answer of “I’d be proud to!” made it difficult for me to go to sleep that night, not knowing where that could lead. I remember looking in the rear-view mirror seeing Jeff’s eyes wide with excitement about that.
At Tulagi’s alone two weeks later, Merle Watson (Doc’s son) was excited to hear Earl would record with us, and anxious to introduce me to his dad. We gotten to know each other a bit, the previous month in L.A.. I had gone to meet Doc at an after show party. Did not meet the father that night, but did get to know Merle and told him what I wanted to ask Earl. At Tulagi’s he was excited to involve Doc in a recording with us, thinking it would help improve his dad’s career. The ‘folk boom’ had quieted down considerably by then, Doc now drawing fewer people, and Doc’s music could be exposed to a needed new market… we were both excited about that possibility.
Merle, also a big fan of our ‘Uncle Charlie’ album, told me he had played it for Doc. His dad thought it was good that a group with ‘radio songs’ used mandolin, banjo, harmonica, acoustic guitars, accordion (Mr. Bojangles’ only electric instrument was bass) .. and liked a lot of the music of that bluegrass-laced pop album. Soooo… with more courage than two weeks earlier, and Merle’s great introduction, I said:
“Doc, we’re making an album with Earl Scruggs.. and would love it if you would come pick on it with him and us..”. After his enthusiastic yes to that, I put him on the dressing room phone with my brother Bill, and it was determined that we would proceed. I had just asked a ‘real’ folk hero if he would record with us, and he was going along with it!
I thought back to that night in Garden Grove while watching the Hootenanny show with my mom and dad. Doc was doing a great version of his Deep River Blues and my dad said ‘Now, how a guy like that can get on t.v. I don’t understand” He wasn’t impressed and I was trying to soak up every note. Jeff, Jimmie, and I had spent hours listening to Doc, Earl, Maybelle and others in pre-NGDB years – at the place where we came together – McCabe’s guitar shop in Long Beach, Calif. We never thought it possible to even meet these people.
That night Bill and I talked a long time about who else could be involved, who we would want. Merle Travis, for sure… maybe we could get Jimmy Martin…! And, we’d need some fiddlers…Louise (Earl’s wife) said she would ask Maybelle Carter. We decided to tell the band what was formulating in a week or so. Their early apathy changed to excitement as it came together to include Maybelle, but they had never heard of Jimmy Martin. I had studied all of Jimmy’s records, hearing Vassar without knowing it, and learned as much of J.D. Crowe (his banjo player) that I could. Never thought it possible to pick with him.
Bill got Travis’s number and called him. Thankfully, in our sixth month as a band we spent 10 days opening for Merle Travis at the Ash Grove, two shows a night, and had a great time. Travis said he always wanted to meet Doc Watson, and came on board.
Next, we needed money to make a record, so Bill and I met with the United Artists Records president, Mike Stewart. With the impetus of 3 chart singles from Charlie, we knew he would listen. He sat there listening to the pitch for 20 minutes, with his finger in his nose the whole time. Not a word. We finished, and he said, “I don’t know if I’ll sell 10 of these…an acoustic country-bluegrass-folk album? But, you guys are so passionate about it … I’ll put up the money.” With a budget of $22,000, we set off to make an album that we did not know what it would be. We knew it would be good. This money was to cover tape, studio time, hotels, food, musician pay, travel… less than Madonna spends on a video food budget nowdays.
As plans were being put together I booked rehearsals, hotels, and logistic things as usual (I also road managed the band). Bill handled the studio (Woodland Sound Studios) and decided to bring his favorite engineer from L.A. – Dino Lappas.
Securing a few fiddlers for the various styles of music I had put off to Earl. Called to ask him if he had found the right guys and he said “I found one man – Vassar Clements” to which I asked if he could handle all the styles. I had never heard of Vassar. Earl was a man of few words, and his emphatic answer “He’ll do” – was the most underspoken praise one could get.
I had been listening to Vassar for years without realizing it, as he was on many albums by all the bluegrass greats. Much of the hot bluegrass I loved featured his unique abilities, and now I was going to record with him! No bass player yet. We had 28 shows to do prior to getting to Nashville, and a lot of songs to learn.
We got to Nashville 5 weeks late one hot August afternoon. The night before a week of rehearsals would start Earl took Bill and me to backstage at the Grand Old Opry to meet the bass player, Junior Huskey. Junior was thought of as the best stand-up bassist in town… any town .. and told us “I cut my teeth on a lot of these tunes Earl has been telling me about. Always wanted to record with Vassar .. and Martin… and Mother Maybelle.. and especially looking forward to.. oh.. just a minute” He stopped talking so he could focus on the ending of a song he had been backing Ernest Tubb on, live on the Opry, during that whole conversation. After his last note “looking forward to pickin with Mr. Travis, too. I’ll try to do a good job for you boys. See you tomorrow!” He was obviously the right man. And I was backstage at the Opry with Earl Scruggs.
Staying at Earl's house during rehearsals, now about 7 weeks after asking that initial question, playing music all day, Ping Pong most the night, I thought I had died and gone to picker's heaven. One morning I awoke in a daze, bacon smell daze rolling in from the kitchen, accompanied by faint familiar notes of "Bugle Call Rag" that seemed to be coming from the far away heavens - The notes rolled slowly, smoothly, softly. Then through my bluegrass-tinged fog, I heard Earl say, "John, yur eggs are ready…" as he sat on the edge of Gary's (his oldest son) bed, serenading me with a banjo wake-up call that he played without his picks on. His quiet grin told me everything was okay.
Over eggs Louise said that as a child Gary would leave the room when his dad played 'Randy Lynn Rag' on radio or T.V. He'd get up, stomp out, and say:
"Daddy never wrote a tune for me" and would leave, since it was named after Randy. So, I named an instrumental I wrote for the album - "Togary Mountain," to Gary. (in 2009 I arraigned for Gary to help Steve Martin write “Daddy Played the Banjo” while producing Steve’s album The Crow). After rehearsing a day each with Martin an Travis, we were ‘ready’, not knowing for exactly what.
The sessions start:
First day up was having Earl play Carter style guitar for You Are My Flower and then recording Travis. Starting with the two track tape deck intended to be the only format, there was also a 16 track running catching everything on separate tracks. At the end, playing back the two track, it was obvious we did not need the multi-track, and it would make the finished master that much better (no mixing meant one less generation loss – what we did on the two track WAS the master), so the 16 track was turned off and put away. Travis knocked his songs off in one or two takes each, and before we knew it we had 6 songs done and were ready to do more. Only about 5 hours had gone by, even though we had allowed about 8.
Next day we were ready for Jimmy Martin, the man who put color in to bluegrass. Bill and I had spent months pre-NGDB years playing as a duo in clubs around L.A. About half of our songs were from Jimmy Martin albums, and these moments in the studio meant more to us then than to the others. ‘He is the best’ it was said, most often said by him. But he was right. Jimmy let us know when we were doing it right, and for sure when we were doing it wrong… it was a great time for all. Louise Scruggs told me years later that she ordered him to ‘not blow it’, as he was known to push people a bit far. He pushed us just far enough.
Years later the others realized how lucky we had been to have recorded with Martin, and Jeff became good friends with him. I was always a bit jealous of that.
Pete Oswald Kirby, known as Bashful Brother Oswald, was a real treasure. The man who had made the dobro cry, his sensitive soul came out of his instrument in a way that all admired. Oz had ‘a sound’ that was distinctive. Long in the shadow of Acuff, we wanted to put him in a ‘starring’ position and did a few of his instrumentals. The unusual discovery was that he was illiterate – but only for reading and writing, not music. He signed his contract with ‘his X’. Oswald did not know the notes of his strings, nor how to follow a chord chart, but played with more soul than any of us.
Mid-session, he put on new strings, and when I asked if he needed a ‘G’ note to tune up, he responded ‘I don’t reckon which one that is’. When he put his bar to his strings, though, he made sounds like no other. Later my mother said ‘who is that man playing the dobro? And why is it when I hear him play it makes me cry?” She wasn’t the only one with that feeling.
Vassar was one of the most open, giving, complimentary people you could meet. He spent time working out parts with Jimmie and me, loved Jeff’s voice, and said for the middle of Honky Tonkin’ that he would pick up the guitar for the solo. It sounded like an old hillbilly jazz record! One take later, like most of the cuts, we were done.
I had asked Bill how long we had before doing Vassar’s signature tune, Lonesome Fiddle Blues, and was told about 2 hours. Just enough time to learn a D minor song in G tuning. It had a lot of new notes for me, and about 4 minutes in to Vassar showing me his magic notes, Bill pops out in the hallway and says ‘we have to do that song now”. I wasn’t ready. But, with the magic of Junior, Vassar, and surrounded by the band and Randy Scruggs playing guitar, I made it. The strange thing was, I did not play the end lick to the solo that I wanted, jumping to a couple of notes sooner than planned.. but it sounded better than what I had planned. It later took me a week to learn my own solo.
Bill’s foresight to have a tape constantly running at 7 ½ ips (inches per second for those who don’t remember this format) made it possible to catch all the between song banter, run-throughs, and what was happening in the studio. It was this element that made the Circle album magic, hearing what these people were actually like as they talked between the songs about the sessions.. and life. It also accomplished one major goal Bill and I had in mind: to get the first meeting of Doc and Travis on tape for posterity.
The ‘instrumental day’ was of course one of my favorite, as I was going to be the first banjo player to record with Earl Scruggs! I still am the first. We started with Soldier’s Joy, me frailing (an old-time style), Earl playing ‘Scruggs’ style (duh), and Junior on bass. Just the three of us. Earl had let me borrow Uncle Dave Macon’s last banjo, which he now owned, and I could tell this would go well. (Uncle Dave is considered the first star of the Opry, and started there in 1925. When he died Earl got his banjo, and I asked if I could play it that day. It had the same strings from the last time Dave played it, in 1952) To this day, this simple three instrument song is one of my best recordings, done in one take, and will stand the ‘test of time’.
Then came Earl’s Nashville Blues and the others, including Flint Hill Special, the one with his most difficult ending lick. They had to do it 7 times until all the players jelled, but Earl played it perfect each time. That day we also laid down Togary Mountain, so Gary wouldn’t leave the room if we did it on television.
Recording Maybelle was like a time travel trip. She never thought of herself as and icon of American music, but had made her first recording in 1928 with Ralph Peer. Earl told me that in 1963 the only job she could get was as a nurse in a Nashville hospital, as the music business was ignoring her. In fact, they were ignoring all of these icons, as the Nashville paper said “what the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is doing recording a bunch of old dinosaurs we don’t understand”. They didn’t.
One memorable moment was in the middle of starting her 4th song when a Columbia Records lawyer called to say, “I’ve got good news! You guys have approval to do one song with Maybelle Carter”. After hanging up, Bill asked me who the called and I said “No one important.. nothing to be concerned about.” And went out to play the mandolin next to this musical matriarch.
Sitting at Maybelle’s feet, listening to this quiet angel asking about things like ‘I hope y’all don’t mind if I do Wildwood Flower on the autoharp in the key of F-standard…” was amazing to hear from the woman who had created country’s iconic music. Her songs and guitar style has been emulated since she started, and now she was asking us. It wasn’t until 30 years later I would find out ‘F-standard’ meant up to regular pitch, as she usually tuned down ½ step.
A ‘little bit’ nervous on that first day of recording, it was soon apparent these folks were such fans of each other that we all calmed down. They all also accepted us as qualified to be recording with them, it seemed, as equals. It might have been the mystery of our pop-chart success or that we knew a lot about their music, when it didn’t ‘look like we should’. We were there to make music. When Jeff leaned over Doc’s shoulder for harmony on Tennessee Stud and Way Downtown, with Jimmie’s harp chunking along, me on Uncle Dave’s banjo -what I heard in my headphones sounded like a magic old record being played back. It was.
The one tense time for us young west-coast longhairs during recording “Circle” was waiting for King of Country Music, Acuff, to bestow upon us his blessing, and consent to record with us … and to show up. We weren’t sure he would.
Charlie Collins (hired the week prior as Acuff’s rhythm guitarist) told me 30 years later that earlier in that 1971 week, driving back to Nashville from a St. Louis show that week before the sessions, Acuff told him he didn’t know what he was getting in to, or why he was doing it, and that he really didn’t know “what those boys look like.. they’re all covered with hair and all”. On his scheduled day, the last of the six-day Circle sessions, Acuff walked in the studio, not looking happy, and said,“Let me hear some of this music you’ve been recording! See what you boys have been up to…”.
Bill played 4 cuts for our Acuff ‘test’. The confident stern-faced King of Country Music sat silently, formulating his opinion. Mr. Acuff was known to be the type who believed everyone had a right to his opinion. At the end of the last playback, gazing silently at the ceiling, he finally broke his silence with:
“Now, just what kind of music do you boys call that!” making me feel like in that earlier chapter with Lee Marvin’s Iwo Jima question moment. Bill started answering:
“Uh, well… it’s kind of Appalachian… bluegrass, or traditional mountain… old timey… American folky..” stumbling like a California hippie at a KKK meeting.
Roy’s response, “Hell! It ain’t nothing but Country Music … good country music! Let’s go make some more, boys!” was followed by cheers from all the nervous hippies in the control room. It was a wonderful moment for us all.
We went in and started with Wreck on the Highway, which was when he gave his ‘his policy in the studio’ about “get it right on the first take, and t’hell with the rest of them… ‘cause every time you do it again, you lose a little something…” He was right, and to this day first takes are my target.
Jimmy Martin proudly said on I Saw the Light that “I’m gonna sing this so much like Acuff you won’t be able to tell the difference” I’m still not sure which verse Martin sang. (this recording became Acuff’s first radio chart record in 15 years).
At the sessions’ end, Roy invited me to come by the Opry sometime to see him, an invitation that led to my first invitation to jail.
Taking Roy up on his offer one night, I confidently walked in the back of the Ryman Auditorium, mother church of Country Music, up the same steps where Bill and I had gone with Earl months earlier to enlist Junior. I started wandering around backstage as usual. As any of my oft embarrassed kids will tell you, I have always had a tendency to walk in backstage anywhere and look around. Never needed a stage pass if you knew what to say.
But this Opry night, looking at the stage from the wings, the firm hand of official authority clamped dow on my shoulder, what my children had feared for years:
“Boy, what you doin’ back here? You don’t belong back here. Let me lead you outside and there won’t be any trouble”. Security nazi did not appreciate the California shoulder-length hairdo so popular among my age group at the time.
The truth seemed the only way out: “Well, there was no one around when I came in, and I’m looking for Roy; he invited me to come by,” I confidently stated.
“And just why would Mister Acuff want to see you, boy?” he scoffed, with a “I wish I had my scissors” stare. I peacefully offered again:
“Mister Acuff invited me… I just recorded with him, and he said to stop by, and….” Thinking I was getting through, he cut me off:
“Yessir… uh huh… everyone’s recorded with Mr. Acuff. Boy, I suggest you head down those stairs and get on out of here right now, or you’ll be getting into more trouble than you can handle.”
Confidence drained, and pissed off because this time there was a legitimate reason to ‘go backstage’ at the Opry, I headed down the stairs towards the back door. Thoughts of his “boy” comments, an Easy Rider era scenario in my mind, and with more than usual adrenaline, I flung my hand out to knock the back door open. Not realizing it was 1/4” cheap fiberboard, my fist went right through it, all the way past my elbow.
The guard’s adrenaline visibly soared at this long hair’s destruction of country music’s sacred mother church door. I tried to pull my arm back out of the hole. Like a Chinese handcuff, it closed in around my wrist, keeping me from escape, tightening with every tug for freedom…
“You get free and get back up here now, and you won’t be free for long. I got a call to make so you have a place to stay a few days, boy” . He made it obvious - my arrest was imminent.
Struggling free from the door trap, I trudged back up the stairs to try the truth again:
“Look, wouldn’t you be upset if Mr. Roy Acuff invited you to visit him, and someone kept you from doing it? Before you make any other calls, just make one for me, please. Call Louise Scruggs at 868 2254 (once Earl gave me his number, I never wrote it down… how could I ever forget it?) and tell her my name, and ask if she’ll vouch for me.”
Surprised at such a strange request, he made the call. She was in. A few words were exchanged and he sent me on my way to freedom. Didn’t see Acuff that night. That would happen a few years later, in a later chapter, when I introduced him to presidential hopeful Gary Hart. I was glad Louise was home that night. She later would become a nightowl email IM friend for many years. I miss her.
Overall, that six days of recording made a mark we did not anticipate. Knowing it would be good to capture these icons, and in doing so pay homage to their influence on our lives, within a few years comments were:
Earl: “The Circle album sure put a spark on our bookings for the Revue!’ and he was picked up by our agency for that.
Vassar: “The Circle album gave me a career of my own. It is great not being a sideman anymore.”
Merle Watson: “Daddy has more requests from that album than any. People yell ‘Tennessee Stud’ at us every show”
Oswald: “biggest royalty checks I have ever seen” as several of his songs generated publishing income.
Martin: “Let’s do another one.. people know my name now in places they didn’t before” Jimmy was featured on the following two ‘Circle’ projects.
Bill Monroe: “John, if you ever do another one of those ‘Circle’ albums, give me a call.”
Initially Monroe turned down our request to have him pick with us on Circle. He only knew we were on the pop charts at the time of the sessions, and that was not his kind of music. He got it later.
That we had contributed to their career betterment has been a great feeling of accomplishment. We most likely would not have had a career without their music. The ‘Circle’ has sold ‘multi-platinum’, and continues today as a constant chart album. Strangely, in the time that has passed, it seems we have become what we were emulating.
A couple of years after it was released ‘Circle’ reached its Gold level of sales. I called friend and fan Marty Stuart to go with me to Maybelle’s house, since he knew where she lived, so I could give her a gold record with her name on it. When I told her ‘this means the album has sold 500,000 copies” she responded “well… I didn’t know that many people had even heard those old songs! .. Would you boys like some lemonade?” Marty assured me she meant it, and never realized her impact.
Reviews4 stars out of 5 - "...Revolutionary...deserves a place in the collection of anyone remotely interested in the development of American roots music." - Uncut