The highly-celebrated Will The Circle be Unbroken, the seventh and perhaps most consequential album released by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, will celebrate its 50th anniversary in November. To mark this Golden Anniversary, John McEuen is releasing a book that details the making of the star-studded 3-LP set released in 1972.
John was not only the banjo player with the Dirt Band, he and his brother, William (Bill) who produced the recordings, were the driving force behind the whole project. John I sat down for a phone interview a few weeks ago about the book. If you ever get the opportunity to talk to John, it’s best to just listen as his memory is impeccable, and his thoughts of yesterday, as well as his future endeavors, are always foremost on his mind. However, one part of our conversation is what I especially want to share with all bluegrass lovers, like myself.
“This has been fifty years in the making. Will the Circle be Unbroken was a collaboration of many famous bluegrass and country-western players. In fact, the album played a significant role in furthering Vassar Clements to a much wider audience,” said John.
This book is filled with memories showcasing the recording of this album. Stories are shared by John McEuen, Marty Stuart, members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and many more. Photos Bill had taken during the recording sessions are included, which have never been seen until now.
John shared that, “I had always wanted to meet two artists. Mother Maybelle and Earl Scruggs. Bill and I traveled to Nashville in hopes of seeing them perform. The old Ryman was sold out that night. On the west side of the building, people would line up and peek through the windows, which were opened. When it was our turn, Earl Scruggs was introducing Mother Maybelle. I stood there as I watched her, and knew that I was in the right place.”
The McEuens eventually did meet Earl and Maybelle, and when they agreed to be part of this next Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album, it exploded into a once-in-a-generation project that also featured luminaries like 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 stellar musicians assembled with the rest of the Dirt Band in the old Woodland studio, which was on a corner street in East Nashville. And magic was captured.
Magic is an apt term when it comes to McEuen, as magic was his first stab at the entertainment world, and where his path first crossed with fellow banjo player Steve Martin. Both John and Steve were magicians at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA when they were younger.
In 1971, the NGDB had a “hippie” look with authentic country/rock sounds, layered with plenty of fiddle and banjo. They had seen some success with earlier albums, but Roy Acuff described them as “a bunch of long-haired west coast boys.” In that circle of established country acts, most of the artists were much older than these boys, but they all had one thing in common. Their 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 ones for the history books.
John told me that each track on the Circle album was recorded on a first or second take, straight to two track masters (which McEuen is proud to have retained).
During our conversation, I asked John about a Circle album memento I had acquired at an estate sale in Guthrie, OK (the hometown of Byron Berline), which had bumfuzzled me since my purchase. It’s a 12” x 6” section of an old railroad tie, and on the top is a rail spike with “Will The Circle be Unbroken” stamped on it, and “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band” in smaller letters. On the front is a decoupaged black and white photo of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. John McEuen is donned in a leather suit, and his reaction to my mentioning it was, “I don’t know how long I wore that suit before I had it cleaned.” On the back of this old railroad tie is a black and white photo of the iconic album cover.
The history of this rare find blew me away. “You have one of those?”, asked John in surprise. “Bill was always coming up with promotional items and that is one of them. I don’t even think I have one of those. He only had 200-250 made.”
Will the Circle Be Unbroken – the Making of a landmark Album is set for release in August. Pre-orders are enabled now from popular online bookstores.
It is blurbed by Richie Furay, John’ contemporary, who was a member of Buffalo Springfield and the founder of Poco.
“After reading John’s book, Will the Circle Be Unbroken (the behind-the scenes stories of the recording of the album of the same name), you get the feeling you were there! The album was truly a historic moment in American music history, and John takes us on the journey of how it all unfolded into reality: you get to ‘meet’ the players 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 afresh while reading the book brought goosebumps to me. It’s more than just a musical journey the Dirt Band was on—it is reliving a historic moment in time.”
Jump on the train, read the book, and enjoy the ride with John McEuen. He is clearly a man of many talents.