IBMA benefit concert comes full Circle

IBMA benefit concert at the Station Inn (12/11/23) – photo by David Morris

More than 50 years after he helped create the legendary Will The Circle Be Unbroken album with his colleagues in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and an all-star lineup of musicians, John McEuen brought the magic full circle Monday night at Nashville’s Station Inn.

If you weren’t lucky enough to be in the studio in 1972 for the creation of a major piece of acoustic roots music history, being part of the audience for the show benefitting IBMA and its related charities wasn’t a bad consolation prize.

The 78-year-old performer clearly enjoyed himself, especially with some of the pickers who weren’t even born yet when Circle made its debut. “Play that again,” he commanded after a powerful mandolin break by 14 year old Wyatt Ellis, saying the young man played like he was 50. 

And he was clearly enamored with the fiddling of Ellie Hakanson. “She’s good,” he gushed during one of her melodic interjections.

McEuen’s fingers might not be as nimble as they once were, but his grasp of the music, and the importance of his contributions, was demonstrated as he closed the show at the venerable club.

By the time he took the stage, a nearly full house had already witnessed a full night’s worth of magical performances (more on that in a bit). So when he joined Missy Raines and Allegheny for the closing act, a chunk of the nearly full-house crowd had already slipped out the door. Those poor folks don’t know what they missed.

McEuen blended his picking on guitar and banjo with detailed stories from the Circle studio sessions, and from other travels along the musical highway. 

The show, which benefitted IBMA, the IBMA Foundation, and the IBMA Trust Fund, played out against a somber background, given the widespread destruction from a tornado that tore through Hendersonville and other nearby towns just two days earlier.

McEuen gave a shoutout to Hendersonville as he and the band launched into Keep On The Sunny Side, which turned into a rousing audience participation number. Then he brought down the house by inviting the rest of the musicians back to the stage for Will The Circle Be Unbroken. He, Jim Lauderdale, reigning vocalist of the year Greg Blake, and Hakanson took turns on the verses, and everyone joined on the chorus, giving the song a We Are the World feel.

McEuen’s new project is due out on Compass Records in February or March. You can bet the benefit will have more ears waiting for it.

Other highlights of the star-studded event included:

  • Jana Mougin, joined by husband Stephen, singing Christmas songs in her native Slovak. Then they performed Silent Night in English, with Mojo taking the high harmony on the last verse.
  • Rob Ickes, who has won IBMA’s resophonic guitar player of the year so often it should be named after him, who also contributed a stellar rendition of Silent Night.
  • IBMA Executive Director Ken White (under the stage name Kentucky White) and his wife Robin Macy, performing a touching song they wrote. If music ever goes south for them, Robin can probably pay the bills through standup comedy, based on her stage banter.
  • A stage-filling song from the Belmont University Bluegrass Band, which featured six or seven vocal combinations and helped demonstrate that the future of bluegrass is in good hands.
  • The stage clothes worn by Deanie Richardson. Check out the picture. Words can’t do it justice.

A special shoutout is owed to Missy Raines, her band, and her bass for keeping the show going as countless musicians shuffled on and off the stage. When her classy old bass wasn’t in her hands, Mike Bub, or reigning bass player of the year Vickie Vaughn were thumping it with authority. Kudos, too, to Mr. Missy Raines, Ben Surratt, for running sound.

Missy and her new band kicked off the show with a couple of songs from their upcoming release. One of the songs, Blackbird, written by Nathan Bell, made me wish I could buy it now.

I also wish my mind had a replay button. I’d love to see and hear this incredible evening again every once in a while. 

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.