Will It Go Round in Circles?
It’s not surprising that treatments of Capitol Nashville’s 30th-anniversary reissue of Will The Circle Be Unbroken get headline descriptions like “the O Brother, Where Art Thou? of 1972,” and it’s not a bad comparison. It is, however, a limited one. Both albums served to introduce old-time country and bluegrass sounds to the new audiences of their day, but the resemblance largely ends there.
The same holds true in regard to the albums with which Circle is often mentioned, those made by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s colleagues in the California country-rock scene of the early ’70s. Its resemblance to Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, Gilded Palace Of Sin, GP and the rest is, if not quite superficial, not exactly deep either.
In the Carter Family’s original version of the title song, the circle is of family and life, and it will be unbroken by and by, in the sky. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, though, asked the question about a musical circle, and not only answered in the affirmative, but put it in the here and now of 1971.
Even more, they knew where their place in the circle was. They participated in substantive ways, not simply as presenters, but managed to make clear where a listener was to focus through equally meaningful choices. Where Parsons and the Byrds hired country players to back them, the Dirt Band hired themselves as a backup band to a couple generations of country stars.
The guest list, too, was an inspired one. At the time, Southern culture and country music were treated with, at best, a considerable amount of ambiguity. Even within the country music community, it was a younger, louder group of artists than these who were getting the action and attention. Yet here were “longhairs” seeking out not Merle Haggard or George Jones, but the pioneers of earlier, more rural styles: Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin. Offered such heartfelt respect and deference, those stars responded by sharing a kind of down-home intimacy that was especially powerful for its time.
The album’s opening brought out these qualities and more, in an especially satisfying way. We hear Jimmy Martin issue an injunction to the Dirt Band’s John McEuen — “pick the banjer solid, John; you’ve picked one for fifteen years, ain’t you?” — followed by a false start and another Martin comment (“Earl never did do that”). Then the banjo kicks off, Martin’s booming guitar strum crashes in with the rest of the band, and they’re out of the gate with Hylo Brown’s “The Grand Ole Opry Song” — three verses that summon up a dozen artists’ names and trademarks from the venerable show’s glory days. Famous and obscure alike, from Hank Williams to Bradley Kincaid, they tumble out in Martin’s hard country twang, and eventually, you realize that these were, in fact, the friends and colleagues of Maybelle, Roy and the rest. It’s a powerful moment, made even more so by the passage of another thirty years.
The principle, McEuen recalls, was “let’s not overshadow,” and the Dirt Band stuck to it admirably, not only with the five singing headliners (who lead on 18 of the three-LP set’s 22 vocals), but with the instrumental guests, too: Scruggs, fiddler Vassar Clements, Acuff’s dobro-playing sidekick Bashful Brother Oswald, and even the two who came closest in age and outlook to the NGDB, Norman Blake and Randy Scruggs. Jim Fadden, Jeff Hanna and Jim Ibbotson each sing a song associated with Hank Williams, McEuen’s clawhammer banjo makes a nice foil to Scruggs’ three-finger approach on “Soldier’s Joy”, Les Thompson takes a couple of serviceable mandolin breaks, and there are a few other places where the Dirt Band fellows step out; but by the same token, they are absent altogether from several cuts.
Such self-effacement and self-discipline is pretty rare (and was especially so in those self-indulgent times), but those who have made the effort to play traditional music as they found it will tell you that it’s almost always a requirement for doing so.
“We were trying to do a traditional country album. I think we were sort of playing at it,” Chris Hillman (who knew the difference) once said of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, and for better or worse, it shows. In contrast, the Dirt Band put themselves in a position where, as McEuen says, “all of a sudden we had to be at their level.”
By rising to the challenge, they went a considerable distance toward answering that title question with a resounding “yes.” If you want to keep the circle unbroken, they seemed to be saying, you can do it, and this is how: Hang back, listen, learn, and then take your turn.
That was the message I got from it, anyhow, back then — along with rich, full recordings of signature songs I’d mostly heard in lo-fi original versions on scratchy, secondhand LPs. Ultimately, it’s impossible for me to separate my appreciation of Circle as a listener from what I got out of it as a musician. Nor am I alone in this.
Glen Duncan, one of bluegrass and country’s most widely esteemed players for more than twenty years, remembers he got “that weak in the knees feeling” when, at age 17, he came across the LP in his small-town record store. “I learned a lot of fiddle and banjo from that album,” he says. Though I don’t know it for a fact, I’ll bet all of the participants would consider that — multiplied as it is by hundreds of musicians for whom Will The Circle Be Unbroken served as a touchstone and textbook — to be the best answer of all.