The worlds of country and rock music were coming together by the early 70s. The Byrds had done Sweetheart Of The Rodeo; Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash had recorded together; Linda Ronstadt’s solo career was underway; Grateful Dead had done Merle Haggard and Marty Robbins songs; and Willie Nelson was off inventing outlaw country. Yet bluegrass wasn’t really part of the equation – that was a previous generation’s sound. The young folks may have had some Doc Watson and Roy Acuff records in their collections, but few were covering those songs, and nobody was daring to invite those legends into the studio. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band pulled that coup on their classic album, 1972’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken.
The ultimate picking session
Less a band album than the ultimate picking session, Will The Circle Be Unbroken did the impossible by bringing together the greatest of bluegrass players – Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, Merle Travis – with a genuine bunch of hippie freaks. Bill Monroe was apparently the only legend to turn their invitation down.
What’s more, it managed to sell that music largely to a rock-trained audience (in an expensive, lovingly created triple-vinyl package, no less). The album achieved one of its goals by appealing to largely rock audiences who’d come into country via the Dead, New Riders Of The Purple Sage, and the like; people who didn’t already have oft-recorded classics like “Tennessee Stud,” “Wabash Cannonball” and “Wildwood Flower” in their collections.
In one sense, the Dirt Band was unlikely candidates for the job. They weren’t even all that famous… yet. Formed in 1967 (with Jackson Browne as a short-lived original member), they began as a psychedelic string band; their first three albums are weird and wonderful, and only one track, “Buy For Me The Rain,” became a minor hit. They began playing it straighter on their 1970 album, Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy, which included their greatest hit, a cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” But here, again, country-folk and acoustic rock were their touchstones; the same album introduced “House At Pooh Corner,” by the not-yet-famous Kenny Loggins.
“None of us could have predicted it”
The band did know and love bluegrass, though; they just hadn’t had an opportunity to really express it before. “We grew up in Southern California where the typical music being played for harmonies was The Beach Boys,” group founder Jeff Hanna told uDiscover Music. “Everybody was forming rock bands, and we were all into folk music. That’s what we all had in common. When we sat around listening to music, it was very likely we’d have a Doc Watson, Flatt And Scruggs, or a Merle Travis record. And you know how when you meet your heroes, you wind up wishing you hadn’t? That couldn’t have been further from the truth in this case. We wound up developing lasting relationships with all those guys. I think the average age of our band was 23 or 24 at the time – so in terms of lasting influence, none of us could have predicted it.”
Indeed, what stands out on Will The Circle Be Unbroken is how well the Dirt Band checked their egos at the door. From the start, their role was to back – and learn from – the guests of honor, and on a few tracks, most of the band sits out altogether. Jimmy Martin gets to lead off the album with “Grand Old Opry Song,” a tune that promises a very old-fashioned good time, and namechecks many of the artists who show up later on.
The full Dirt Band plays on another Jimmy Martin track, “You Don’t Know My Mind,” one of the only tracks on the album to include electric bass and drums. But they resist any temptation to turn it into a crossover piece, keeping the rhythm section at low heat while Martin and fiddler Vassar Clements get more of the spotlight. Already a 50-ish veteran of Bill Monroe’s band, Clements would move into Grateful Dead’s circle afterwards.
Honoring the essence of bluegrass
This doesn’t mean that Nitty Gritty Dirt Band didn’t get a few good licks in. Their banjo/mandolin player, John McEuen, solos often and holds his own with the masters. And there’s a nice moment on “Tennessee Stud” where Hanna joins Doc Watson for the chorus harmonies, the sound of his voice adding a subtle but unmissable bit of California sunshine. Will The Circle Be Unbroken honors the joyful essence of bluegrass, but the Acuff-led take on “Wreck On The Highway” is a reminder of how chilling pure American music can be – something Bruce Springsteen likely noticed when he wrote a song with the same name.
After Will The Circle Be Unbroken was released, the two worlds were never far apart. The bluegrass artists toured to new audiences and sometimes opened up to new influences. Doc Watson probably wouldn’t have done a rockabilly album, 1993’s Docabilly, before the Dirt Band sessions. The Dirt Band recorded two sequels, mainly with younger country artists, and endure to this day. If you’ve ever heard an electric band cover a bluegrass tune, you can thank this seminal band and album for it.