The Most Influential Americana Album: Will the Circle Be Unbroken - The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

When asked what album best symbolizes the dawn of the Americana genre folks with a long memory, or a deep knowledge of music history, might choose The Band's "Music from Big Pink." Bob Dylan's once touring band released their debut in 1968 to critical acclaim but poor sales but later historical acclaim.

Others might select the more recent roots music foray into popular consciousness, the soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" The Cohen Brother's Depression-era, satirical ode to Homer’s Odyssey provided the perfect format for singer/songwriter/producer T Bone Burnett to weld his sepia alchemy. Burnett gathered bygone era bluegrass, country, gospel, blues, and folk music and shaped a platinum-selling, Grammy-winning soundtrack that payed more than a backdrop, but played more of a sonic companion to the film.

And then someone might choose any one of Gram Parsons' solo works as well as his work with The Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and International Submarine Band.

All the above are exemplary works of cross-genre efforts that laid the groundwork for this mutt genre we call Americana.

My choice would be Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Will the Circle be Unbroken."

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was founded just south of Los Angeles, in Long Beach, California, by singer-guitarist Jeff Hanna and singer-songwriter guitarist Bruce Kunke. The two performed together in local bands and neighborhood jam sessions brought guitarist/washtub bassist Ralph Barr, guitarist-clarinetist Les Thompson, harmonicist and jug player Jimmie Fadden and guitarist-vocalist Jackson Browne. After a few months Jackson left for a solo career and was replaced by John McEuen.

After some moderate early career success the band their fourth album, "Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy,"in 1970. The album leaned more on a  traditional country and bluegrass sound, and yelled the band's best-sellng and best-known single, a cover version of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles."

During a Boulder, Colorado, jam session, involving none other than Earl Scruggs and his band, the idea was hatched  to head to Nashville to record with some of the living legends of country music.  Soon after, the scruffy long-haired California band arrived in conservative to Nashville to collaborate on the album later known as "Will the Circle be Unbroken." With Scruggs help the the band recruited Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Pete "Oswald" Kirby, Norman Blake and Mother Maybelle Carter.

The performances have a feeling of ease and informality , much like the jam sessions that led to their creation. Some of the greatest songs to music history by Hank Williams ("I Saw the Light," Honky Tonkin'," "Honky Tonk Blues") Jimmie Skinner ("You Don't Know My Mind,")  as well as compositions by the performers themselves and well-known traditionals.

All the tracks on the album was recorded on the first or second take straight to two-track masters.As great as the music is another tape that ran during the sessions captured the colorful, enlightening,  and after hilarious, dialog between the performers.

Before breaking into his "The Precious Jewel," Roy Acuff confides to his accompanying musicians his  "Secret of his policy in the studio." "Whenever you once decide you're going to record a number put everything you've got into it, because..Don't say "Oh we'll take it over and do it again." because every time you go through it you lose a little something....let’s do it the first time and to hell with the rest of them”

The band then goes on to take his advice and nails the rollicking weeper in one take.

The band egg each other on, kid around and discuss song arrangements and origins. Then there's one-of-a-kind moments like the first meeting of folk legend Doc Watson and the equally legendary Merle Travis, after whom Doc Watson's son, Merle, was named.

The album was nominated for two 1973 Grammy awards including Best Country & Western Vocal Performance - Duo Or Group for the A.P. Carter title song. More  importantly it bridged generations across geography, culture and politics and laid the groundwork for the music that reminds us of our shared heritage and nourishes our souls.

Originally posted at Twang Nation.





Views: 3560

Tags: Band, Dirt, Gritty, Nitty

Comment by TenLayers on July 16, 2013 at 9:35pm

Damn, that second video says it all.

Comment by Dwight Schrutte on July 20, 2013 at 2:24pm

I have always felt the same way about this great record -- it was such an important record for my own musical journey. Today an album like this would be about marketing, cramming as many guest artists on to a record for the sake of that alone. This was instead a real meeting of two worlds of music. The NGDB treated the greats with respect they were due, and they in turn were trusted because they also knew their chops. I have to think I wasnt the only one who was drawn into the bluegrass explosion of the 1970's by this album. As big as many of the greats were - this album helped the popularity skyrocket as well.

Comment by chris sweeney on July 20, 2013 at 6:37pm

TenLayers - ditto

Comment by Will James on July 20, 2013 at 7:46pm

No doubt. I still cherish my original tri-fold three-record set. My favorite story about this album: I was listening to it In My Room, and when I came out my mother inquired with some intensity what I was playing (and singing along to). She was specifically asking about Roy Acuff's "Wreck on the Highway" that I loved and had been singing along with. She was amazed and somewhat horrified. When as a Northerner she lived in Pensacola, FL during the war, less than a hundred years after the Civil War (or War of Northern Aggression, depending on your point of view), with a husband who was teaching flying some 14 hours a day, she heard this song blaring from many radios in a neighborhood still living a century earlier. Needless to say, I never heard "country" growing up in Buffalo. My appreciation of this song (and much else that began to replace rock emanating from my room) I think put her own experience in a new context, coming full circle, unbroken, and perhaps expanded her horizons, as it did for an entire generation.

Comment by on July 20, 2013 at 7:48pm

Great comments! Thank you all!

Comment by Skot Nelson on July 20, 2013 at 10:43pm

I have this on vinyl. Most definitely influential but I'm not sure it's the "most influential." The Band's impact was much broader and farther reaching.

Comment by Eric Sutter on July 23, 2013 at 5:29am

As a music lover, I feel bluegrass and Americana was a progressive movement through a 10-15 year window of time where it became more accepted through artists such as The Byrds, The Band/Dylan and the Flying Burrito Brothers.  I do agree Nitty Gritty Dirt Band helped popularize bluegrass with "Will The Circle Be Unbroken."  Up until that time, it was not as popular unless you went to folk festivals.  After hearing special music programs in college radio dedicated to the style, I turned my ear to the old time artists.  They had a Country, Blues and Bluegrass program out of WMUA in Amherst, MA that helped the genre greatly.  More local bands incorporated country instrumentation in their repertoire.  It became a slow progression of sound that infiltrated our consciousness about bluegrass. Local and regional bluegrass festivals came into being that promoted live performances that further impacted the popularity of the sound.  Eventually, country/bluegrass music was as popular as rock music.  It still adds a dynamic dimension to my listening repertoire.  Look how Dierks Bentley has popularized it with "Up On The Ridge."

Comment by Allan Sizemore on July 23, 2013 at 5:48am

No one ever mentions Neil Young, although I've said forever that he IS the quintessential Americana artist (even if he is Canadian). Pick any of his early albums. Everybody Knows this is Nowhere? He was making Americana music all along, song styles and genres hopping around on each album but always holding together. Right through Hawks and Doves no one better personifies Americana than Neil, he doesn't get enough credit in the community. This is a great album too, I remember when I bought it on vinyl, still have it.

Comment by Eric Sutter on July 23, 2013 at 6:10am

I agree with Allan... Neil Young has added to the sound of Americana!  Mellencamp as well...


Comment by Paul M. Harty on July 23, 2013 at 6:16am

The "Circle" albums (especially the first three-LP edition) put bluegrass and acoustic country on young peoples'  radar nationwide. I hadn't  heard much Roy Acuff or Jimmy Martin or any Vassar Clements at that point.  One of the things I liked best was the studio chatter.  It humanized both the "icons" and the hippies.  The respect shown by the Dirt Band was palpable, and you could hear that the older artists appreciated that.  It was too bad Bill Monroe didn't participate, but as it was, what the Dirt Band and the Scruggs family achieved in conceiving this project and following through was surpassingly great art and it remains so.       


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.