The making of the Circle album, and its impact on the music world

John McEuen and Les Thompson discuss Will The Circle Be Unbroken at IBMA Bluegrass Live! 2023

During IBMA Bluegrass Live!, a special session was held midday Friday celebrating the 50-year legacy of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken three-record album. Host John McEuen, co-founding member of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and his brother (William McEuen who passed in 2020), conceptualized and delivered an album that stirred music, influenced generations of musicians in multiple genres, and has stood the test of time for more than five decades. John used a film presentation of his “Circle Band” shows to supplement his talk. He and a panel of a few hand-picked industry veterans (Bluegrass Unlimited editor Dan Miller, radio personality and columnist Daniel Mullins, NGDB’s founding member and mandolinist Les Thompson, and singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale) discussed the making of the album and how it influenced the world. 

John began the session, “I didn’t want to be a musician. I wanted to be a cowboy, but I was allergic to horses. When I was 17, I got my first banjo for my birthday. I formed a group at the McCabe’s Guitar Shop (in Santa Monica, CA), a bluegrass group in high school. It was there I met Steve Martin. We went to high school together.”

Reflecting on their success, Thompson shared, “It was a lot of fun. I never thought we’d make a career together. We were a bunch of teenagers. It took us on a nice trip. We opened for Merle Travis at Ash Grove (Los Angeles’s preeminent roots music venue) and released our first album in 1967.”

John talked about meeting Earl Scruggs and his quest to achieve a sound like Scruggs. “I tried to get my banjo to sound like Earl’s and never did. He played it and it sounded like his. I discovered it’s the archer, not the bow.”

He asked Scruggs to record with the NGDB and when he accepted, they were on their way.

John plunged into the project. “The next night I asked Doc Watson and he agreed.”

Les added, “We said, ‘We’ve got Earl, would you be in it, too?'”

John continued…

“Earl was our conduit. He got Junior Huskey, Vassar Clements, and Mother Maybelle. It happened so fast. It was just eight weeks from when I asked Earl until we started recording. We rehearsed four days with Earl in his home. It was heaven. We recorded the whole album in five days, 38 songs. It was supposed to be a two-record set, but my brother said we’ve got more songs than will fit so it became a three-record project.

The best thing was getting a relationship with all these people. Earl brought Uncle Dave Macon’s banjo for me to frail Soldier’s Joy. Doc Watson and Merle Travis met for the first time in that studio. We worried about holding our own. Jimmy Martin said, ‘Pick it solid now.’ We knew they were the stars.

I asked Vassar, ‘How do you play Uncle Pen? Did you learn that off Monroe’s record?’ He said, ‘That was me. I was 17 years old.’ Les and I were on most all the recordings.”

Thompson chimed in, “I told Vassar I was nervous. Vassar said, ‘Well, why don’t we sit together? You can copy what I’m playing.’ For his 400 notes, I played four!”

 Then he stressed, “We were California surf kids. We didn’t have the access to bluegrass that people in North Carolina had. We listened to Folkway Records that McCabe’s Guitar Shop had.”

Jim Lauderdale noted, “Mr. Bojangles was a huge hit. I was a 15-year-old that had gotten bitten by the bluegrass bug. I was an aspiring banjo player in Due West, SC. A friend had the Circle album and loaned it to me. It was equally as important to me as the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. It turned me on to other things.”

John explained, “The way it was all presented and came together, it gave Earl a huge shot in the arm, Vassar, too. It elevated their careers.”

Lauderdale agreed. “It lit a fire in me. It unlocked so many things in my spirit, imagination, and desire to make music.”

McEuen talked about the process of making the album at Woodland Studios in Nashville, TN.

“The first song we cut was Cannon Ball Rag, with Merle Travis on a two-track recording. It took four minutes. He played it perfectly. He finished his session in 45 minutes. We had planned for four hours!

Roy Acuff said he liked to do things on the first take, that you lose something after the first one. Seven out of ten of the numbers we used the first takes! Flint Hill Special took seven takes. Earl was perfect, but the others didn’t gel.

We went back to simplicity. Move into the microphone when you take your break. My brother’s genius had a separate tape recorder going at the same time (recording the conversations between musicians). My brother shot 105 studio pictures. He was responsible for assembling it.

His wife did all the calligraphy on the cover (it was Grammy nominated). The first time she did it, Bill put it in the oven to give it a yellowed look. It burst into flame. She could have killed him. She did it over and he put the oven on a much lower temperature.

We had a budget of only $22,000 from the record company. Mike Stewart (President of United Artists Records) said, ‘you make a bluegrass album and I’m not going to sell 10 copies of these.’

Bill Monroe refused to play. Earl told him he was making a big mistake, but Bill didn’t want to play with a bunch of long hairs. We asked Josh Graves, but he said that Lester wouldn’t let him play on anything with Earl on it.

It was a landmark album that had six Bluegrass Hall of Famers on it. Afterward, Monroe said, ‘Hey, John, If you ever do another Circle Album, give me a call.””

Will the Circle be Unbroken was the seventh studio album by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, with collaboration from many famous country and bluegrass notables afore mentioned plus Pete “Oswald” Kirby, Randy Scruggs, Norman Blake, Tut Taylor, and others. The album was released in November 1972, through United Artists Records. The original album was certified platinum by the RIAA on November 6, 1997, indicating shipments of 500,000 copies.

“The Circle album would do more than $60,000,000 in sales…and it keeps going,” said McEuen.

In August 2022, John released a coffee table book, Will The Circle Be Unbroken: The Making of a Landmark Album, on its 50th Anniversary. It contains many studio photos taken by his brother, William. He offered his book, along with records, CDs, and t-shirts for sale at the end of the session, personally autographing them for attendees.

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.