Jeff Hanna talks Will The Circle Be Unbroken albums and how they resonate 50 years on

Those that have studied the evolution of bluegrass, traditional music, and the history of Americana music in general need not be told the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s impact on the arc of that trajectory. And the means by which they brought the past to the present courtesy of their landmark album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken and the subsequent sequels that followed. With that initial three-LP volume, released in 1971, the band introduced such legendary forebears as Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Earl and Randy Scruggs, Roy Huskey Jr., Norman Blake, Vassar Clements, Jimmy Martin, and more to a contemporary audience, and ensured a bond that some never before thought possible. That is, a connection between the iconic originators of the form and an audience of long-haired, counter cultural music enthusiasts who had made it their practice to defy the establishment. 

As a result, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band can be credited with a fusion of form that has remained intact from those origins a half century ago clear to the present and towards the future. 

It was only natural that the band should take the role of headliners at the first Earl Scruggs Music Festival over this past Labor Day weekend. It was after all, a homecoming of sorts, an event that they were largely responsible for in terms of having initiated the current surge of popularity that bluegrass has enjoyed over the course of the past five decades. Bluegrass Today had opportunity to speak with Jeff Hanna, the band’s co-founder and a continuing mainstay, and ask him his thoughts, not only on the festival, but the integral role the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has played in making it all possible.

BLUEGRASS TODAY: So Jeff, you’re a modest individual, but clearly you can claim credit for this festival in a great degree. Had it not been for the Circle album and the crossover it generated in its wake, festivals like this may never have been imagined.

JEFF HANNA: I’m just grateful for the association with Earl, and all those other folks, including Merle Travis and Roy Huskey Jr. and Jimmy Martin. Whatever our role was in all that, maybe exposing some of these great artists to another generation and another sort of creating a cultural crossover with a different bunch of folks, it was a great to have been part of it because those folks are amazing. And their legacy is as well. There’s no stopping it. 

But obviously, you deserve so much credit for bringing that legacy forward and for making people aware, because that’s what you did with that album. Being in this environment, that connection that you guys nurtured really resonates. The circle is in fact coming around again.

Thanks, man. I appreciate it. Being at Earl Scruggs’ namesake inaugural festival is so cool for us, and so is having a guy like Jerry Douglas, who has been playing on our records since 1984, being here as well. He played on Long Hard Road, which was our very first country hit. Jerry played dobro on it. And he played on Will the Circle Be Unbroken part two. He also played on quite a few tracks on Circle three. And when we did the Circlin’ Back special and record for PBS, he was all over that. He’s just such a natural, and we’re really good friends as well. So getting on stage and picking with him is just fascinating. You just wanna watch Jerry in his element, because he embodies everything that this music is about. He’s always smiling, and it’s totally not fake. He’s that guy. And it’s also really cool to play with Alison Brown. It’s the first time we ever got to play on stage with her. She’s so cool, man. And she’s such a great player.

So this is where it really hits home. I’m not a banjo player, nor a dobro player, nor a fiddler. I’m a passable rhythm acoustic player when it comes to bluegrass. But I love singing it and I have a deep appreciation for it. To have been part of something that influenced people like Béla Fleck and Sam Bush and some of those other great people is amazing. They’re all people that I admire, and I’m a fan of all of them. So to know that the music we made really mattered to them, and had some kind of impact and got them into that music, it’s really cool.

Did you have any idea it would evolve this way?

I’d love to say yeah, we had it all planned. We did not. It was a great example of the planets aligning. Jimmy and I were talking about it earlier today. We did the Uncle Charlie album and that had Mr. Bojangles on it. Yeah, sure. It’s also got Randy Lynn Rag, this instrumental piece that Earl wrote and that John played a great banjo bit on. His banjo playing is just fantastic on that. And that really caught Earl’s ear. But what really got Earl’s ear was his sons Randy and Gary. They were fans of us because of Bojangles. It was all on the same record, right? So here comes the family’s interest, and as a result, Earl made the first gesture. He said, “I’d love to record with you guys.”

Wow. So the impetus came from him?

That was later on. There was a secondary aspect to it. When we met up at Vanderbilt University in the fall of 1970, a bunch of conversations took place behind the scenes, and with Bill McEuen, John’s brother, who ended up producing that record. Bill called us all up and said, “Man, I got this idea. Earl Scruggs wants to record with you, so what would it be like if we got folks like Doc Watson and Merle Travis to come and play?” Then Earl brought in Mother Maybelle Carter. I’m not saying it wasn’t a lot of hard work, but they always say that hard work and talent only gets you so far. Then there’s luck. Well, this was a situation where we were simply lucky. We were lucky that somehow that record, Uncle Charlie, found its way into Earl’s family’s hands. And that got the ball rolling. But Bill had this bigger idea of having us and our influences together in the studio. 

So what was your reaction to that idea?

We were just like, heck yeah, because these were among our favorite artists. We admired those artists so much. Plus, we got to hang out and hopefully become friends. And we did. And those those friendships  all lasted a lifetime. I mean, Earl, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements… they all played on all three Circle albums. And we did bunches of gigs with them over the years, and Randy Scruggs, of course, produced both Circle two and three. There are those are chunks of your life you never forget. Vince Gill has a great line. He says you get this really great stretch of life, and I agree with all of that. So yeah, coming here is like honoring that legacy once again. 

So what was Earl like?

He was a genius, an innovator, and the coolest guy you’d ever want to know.

So when you did the first circle album, obviously you were in awe of all these great people you were playing with. Did you realize what a momentous situation that was, and what it would lead to as far as the crossover was concerned, and the fact that it would become one of the great landmark albums of the century?

Yes, when we finally got to hear it, because it was recorded in a whirlwind. We did it in six days and it was all done live. We recorded 30 some songs. Bill McEuen took all those tapes. He ran an additional tape machine that picked up all those great conversations. He took all of that back to Los Angeles or Colorado, I can’t remember. He was living in LA and in Aspen, Colorado. And he assembled it all. He found these gems, how Doc named his son Merle after Merle Travis, and they were together for the first time in the studio. It’s just all this stuff, which is like priceless. And he sat us all down and played it for us. And we were like, “holy cow!” We were blown away by the record. But as far as knowing the impact, no, we didn’t. We were just real proud to be part of the project.

But as far as knowing how important this was going to be? For example, when we did Circle two, I had read somewhere that Bruce Hornsby said it would be one go his “desert island discs.” I didn’t know he was a bluegrass fan. So somehow I got his number, and I cold called him and I said, we’re doing a second Circle record and would you like to take part? He didn’t even take a beat he said “when?” We won a Grammy with Bruce for the bluegrass version of The Valley Road.

In a bigger generic sense here. bluegrass has come a long way in the public eye, and when you consider that its original go back over a century, it’s impressive how vital it remains.

And it’s so diverse. I love that about it. I remember when we played a festival withThe Carolina Chocolate Drops. I just love them — Rhiannon Giddens and Don Fleming.

I’m a big fan of his. I love that connection so much, and I love that bluegrass bands are starting to look like America, It’s not just a bunch of white guys as well. Plus, women are such a strong part of it. Alison is so great. And of course Alison Krauss as well. Just take those two women. Then you got folks like Molly Tuttle and Sierra Hull. I’m huge fans of theirs. It’s just so great. It’s so deep. And then there are kids like Billy Strings. It just blows my mind, and the McCoury boys. It’s just so deep and so wide. And I feel like every day I’m hearing about somebody else, like bands like the Stringdusters, like our old buddies, Leftover Salmon, all of whom are carrying on that jam grass thing, you know?

From an audience point of view, what do you think has brought these younger folks into the fold? And  finding the older folks who are just continuing to just love it?

I think that I think now, I feel like our work here is done in that regard. The next generation, which was Béla, Sam and all those guys… the path that they forged did such an amazing job of keeping it vital, and establishing the influence they’ve had. That’s where you get your Sierra Hulls and Molly Tuttles and Billy Strings. It’s like, this torch has been passed. I hold them in high regard for the fact that there are some really extremely super progressive musicians in that bunch that I just named. And they have absolute respect for the folks that came before.

It’s amazing to me how they sort of toe the fine line between bowing to the traditional, but still putting their individual touches on it and moving it forward the future. The traditionalist might stick his nose up at that, but they’ve managed to do a balancing act. And that’s what’s so remarkable as far as I’m concerned.

I think one thing that’s so amazing about Jerry Douglas and Alison, who are going to play onstage with us tonight, is that hey love all kinds of music. They can sit you down and play you a reggae song or some jazz or blues. And then pivot to like Led Zeppelin and then pivot to like, straight back to Flatt & Scruggs. I love that. That’s the environment that we grew up in, in Southern California. There was an FM station called KPFK years ago, and I remember literally hearing Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs back to back with Jimi Hendrix. It’s just great music, but that’s the point. It, kind of blew our minds a little bit.

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.