Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972) is an important document in interpreting early bluegrass and country music, an invaluable piece of Americana that far outshines anything else the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has ever been involved with (a possible exception may be their tearful version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles”). As a matter of fact, the Grit Band takes a back seat, and appropriately so, to the old-time country performers who make this such a special recording.
It must have been a humbling and edifying experience to be in the studio with so many longtime icons of the country genre, as well as a matter of pride that this Long Beach, California, band was indeed “good enough” to jam with the best. Let me put it this way: “I reckon ‘em long-haired fellers from out west t’weren’t jes’ good, them thar fellers was hot!” Or, as Grit Band banjoist John McEuen noted with obvious aplomb, “I am proud that the Washington Post’s great review mistakenly said Earl [Scruggs] played ‘Foggy Mt. Breakdown’.”
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took a leap of faith when inviting performers to record with them on this album, ignoring the preeminent country stars of the period, like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty, etc. Instead, they skipped that generation of country musicians altogether and dipped into the wellspring of the Grand Ole Opry: Maybelle Carter (Cash’s mother-in-law), Roy Acuff, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, fiddler extraordinaire Vassar Clements, and guitarists Jimmy Martin and Merle Travis – peers and contemporaries of Hank Williams and Bill Monroe (who declined an invitation to record but deeply regretted his decision after hearing the completed album). Yet armed with faith in their mission and winning the older generation with their talent and intense passion for the music, the Grit Band struck gold.
There are no overdubs or multitracking here; these are all unadulterated first or second takes taped straight to two-track masters. You feel like you are breathing in the coal dust, smelling the pine tar, and hearing the lonesome train whistle’s mournful call from the tracks just up the road. If there were no stereo separation or digital remastering, you would swear Alan Lomax was sitting on a porch somewhere in West Virginia or Tennessee taping some local players — damned good local players, and all in tune — but that is beside the point. The scope of this recording is staggering and there is something here for everyone, whether you enjoy bluegrass instrumentals or real country singing before it acquired the slick Nashville studio patina that I, personally, find irksome and overproduced.
The standout tunes on this remarkable album (I am referencing the remastered double CD 30th anniversary edition for the purposes of this review) are many and thick as bees on a honeycomb. Of special note are Doc Watson’s fiery picking on “Black Mountain Rag,” Vassar Clements’ wicked turn on the fiddle on “Orange Blossom Special” and “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” (no need to search further to hear where Charlie Daniels lifted the main harmony for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”), Merle Travis’ “Cannonball Rag,” Roy Acuff’s wonderful renditions of Hank Williams’ Honky Tonkin,’“ “I Saw the Light,” and “Honky Tonk Blues,” Earl Scruggs’ banjo on “Nashville Blues,” “Flint Hill Special,” and “Earl’s Breakdown” – oh bloody hell, I could tick off nearly every song on the album!
But it is not merely the stellar songs that endear one to Will the Circle Be Unbroken; the dialogue between takes by the great country musicians of the past is both hilarious and insightful: Maybelle Carter demurely indicating her preference to play autoharp on “Keep on the Sunny Side,” because she’d already recorded it “about twelve times” on guitar; Doc Watson joking with the band before plowing into “Tennessee Stud”; the banter between Doc Watson and Merle Travis when they first met up at the studio – the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band wisely maintained the vitality of a live session throughout the recording, and the precious bits of dialogue are entertaining intros to many of the songs.
You don’t need a couch on the front porch and a bottomed-out Chevy truck laying in a ditch in the front yard to enjoy this album; whether you are new to bluegrass and first-generation country or a diehard fan, the virtuosic musicianship alone is worth a listen. And there certainly is virtuosity here, a fact that is often lost on critics who ignore or sell the country music genre short. This is not merely a great album, it is essential from a musicological point of view.