The Highly Praised The circle will be unbroken, the seventh and perhaps most momentous album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, celebrates its 50th birthday in November. To mark this golden anniversary, John McEuen is releasing a book detailing the making of the star-studded 3 LP set released in 1972.
Not only was John the Dirt Band’s banjo player, he and his brother William (Bill), who produced the recordings, were the driving force behind the whole project. John I met for a phone interview about the book a few weeks ago. If you ever get a chance to speak to John, it is best to just listen as his memory is impeccable and his thoughts on yesterday and future endeavors are always at the forefront. However, I’d like to share part of our conversation especially with all bluegrass lovers like me.
“This took fifty years in the making. The circle will be unbroken was a collaboration of many famous bluegrass and country western players. In fact, the album played a significant role in bringing Vassar Clements to a much wider audience,” said John.
This book is full of memories from the recording of this album. Stories are shared by John McEuen, Marty Stuart, members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and many others. Photos taken by Bill during the recording sessions are included that have never been seen before.
John shared: “I’ve always wanted to meet two artists. Mother Maybelle and Earl Scruggs. Bill and I traveled to Nashville hoping to see her perform. The old Ryman was sold out that night. People lined up on the west side of the building and peered through the open windows. When it was our turn, Earl Scruggs introduced Mother Maybelle. I stood there watching her and knew I was in the right place.”
The McEuens eventually met Earl and Maybelle, and when they agreed to be part of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s next album, it exploded into a one-off project that also featured the likes of Roy Acuff, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements and Earl’s sons Randy and Gary Scruggs.
So in August 1971, this group of outstanding musicians gathered with the rest of the Dirt Band at the old Woodland studio on a street corner in East Nashville. And magic was captured.
Magic is an apt term when it comes to McEuen, as magic was his first venture into the entertainment world and his path first crossed with fellow banjo player Steve Martin. Both John and Steve were magicians at Disneyland in Anaheim, California when they were younger.
In 1971 the NGDB had a “hippie” look with authentic country/rock sounds overlaid with lots of fiddle and banjo. They had had some success with previous albums, but Roy Acuff described them as “a bunch of long-haired West Coast boys”. In this circle of established country acts, most of the artists were a lot older than these guys, but they all had one thing in common. Her undying love of music, both bluegrass and country. Acuff had reservations about being a part of this album, but later agreed, and his contributions are now the ones that will go down in the history books.
John told me that every track on the Circle Album was recorded on a first or second take, straight to two track masters (which McEuen is proud to have kept).
During our conversation I asked John about a Circle Memorabilia album purchased at a real estate sale in Guthrie, OK (Byron Berline’s hometown) which has confused me since my purchase. It’s a 12″ x 6″ section of an old railroad tie and has a rail tip on top that reads “Will The Circle be Unbroken” and “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band” in smaller letters. The front features a decoupled black and white photo of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. John McEuen wears a leather suit and his reaction to my mention was, “I don’t know how long I wore this suit before I had it cleaned.” On the back of this vintage railroad tie is a black and white photograph of the legendary album cover.
The story of this rare find blew me away. “Do you have one?” John asked surprised. “Bill has always come up with promotional items and this is one of them. I don’t even think I have one like that. He had only made 200-250.”
Will the Circle Be Unbroken – The Making of a Groundbreaking Album should appear in August. Pre-orders are now available from popular online bookstores.
It’s blurred by Richie Furay, John’s contemporary who was a member of Buffalo Springfield and founder of Poco.
“After reading John’s book, The circle will be unbroken (the stories behind the scenes of the recording of the album of the same name), you feel like you were there! The album was truly a historic moment in American music history, and John takes us on a journey of how it all unfolded into reality: you can “meet” the musicians and hear them talk about the project and tell their stories , just as if you were a “fly on the wall” of each session. Listening to the album again while reading the book gave me goosebumps. It’s more than just a musical journey that The Dirt Band has been on – it’s reliving a historic moment in time.”
Hop on the train, read the book and enjoy the ride with John McEuen. He’s clearly a man of many talents.