It was 30 years ago when a young band of longhaired musicians from the West Coast teamed with some of country music’s legendary veterans to record “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a landmark project that crossed boundaries and blended generations. That famed circle expands yet again with the Oct. 1 release of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. III” on Capitol Records.
Just as they did three decades ago, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (NGDB) pulled together a gifted group of artists to collaborate on some roots music treasures. The 28-song project features such “Circle” alumni as Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and Doc Watson alongside younger artists like Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam. Other special guests include such bluegrass stalwarts as the Del McCoury Band, bluesman Taj Mahal, Americana chanteuse Iris DeMent, and rock veteran Tom Petty.
The album was co-produced by the NGDB and Randy Scruggs, who has a long history with the “Circle” albums: He was a teen when he performed on the first collection and won Country Music Association and Grammy Award accolades for sharing in the production of the 1989 release “Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume Two.”
“We had a mark to come up to this time,” John McEuen says, acknowledging that he and fellow NGDB members Jeff Hanna, Jimmy Ibbotson, Bob Carpenter, and Jimmie Fadden were mindful of continuing the tradition of musical integrity associated with the two previous “Circle” albums. (Earlier this year, Capitol released a 30th-anniversary edition of the first “Circle” album.)
“We wanted to leave the edges as they were, like human beings playing and singing,” Hanna says. “I think we achieved that. I just wish we could have done 40 songs, because we could have recorded with everyone we wanted to.”
As it stands, “Vol. III” captures many outstanding musical moments. Petty joins Willie Nelson on “Goodnight Irene.” Krauss revives the Johnny Russell hit “Catfish John.” Yoakam serves up the Gram Parsons/Chris Hillman country rock classic “Wheels.” Ibbotson delivers a poignant performance of “I Find Jesus.” June Carter Cash does “Diamonds in the Rough” and husband Johnny Cash sings “Tears in the Holston River,” one of the album’s highlights.
“Vol. III” also became somewhat of a family affair, as NGDB members Hanna and McEuen’s sons, Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen, duet on “Lowlands.” Watson’s grandson, Richard, plays guitar with him on “Milk Cow Blues” and “I Am a Pilgrim.” Del McCoury and sons Ronnie and Rob kick off the album with the classic “Take Me to Your Life Boat.” The elder Hanna’s wife, singer/songwriter Matraca Berg, sings with Emmylou Harris on the Berg/Gary Harrison penned “Oh Cumberland.”
There is now talk of a ‘Circle’ tour, which would involve the NGDB taking guests from the album on the road with a multi-artist, Down From the Mountain-style show. “Logistically, it’s not easy to do a tour like that, but it would be a lot of fun for us,” Hanna says. “We have three different records to draw from as far as guests and music, and a wealth of wonderful songs.”
All the sessions were filmed with Michael McNamara serving as director, and “Vol. III” will be issued as an enhanced CD with footage of the recording of “Take Me to Your Life Boat.” The label is in discussions about utilizing the footage from the sessions for a TV special or DVD release. There will also be a full hour of the Grand Ole Opry dedicated to the album on Oct. 19.
Excerpted from the Sept.21, 2002, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com members section.
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