Most veteran country acts, were they forced to identify themselves by a particular recorded accomplishment, would point to a mass appeal, mainstream achievement: several years of consecutive radio hits, an identifiable country single or maybe a massive pop breakthrough.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has all those things: a string of 15 top 10 singles that made the act a key country-radio presence from 1983 to 1988; a 1987 chart-topper, “Fishin’ in the Dark,” that still appears in some gold rotations three decades later; and the million-selling 1970 pop single “Mr. Bojangles.” But if there’s one studio achievement that most defines the band, it’s arguably the album Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
This week marks 50 years since the band recorded the 38-track set in six focused days at Nashville’s Woodland Sound Studios. Originally released on three vinyl discs in the fall of 1972, it never spawned any actual hit singles, though it did peak at No. 4 on Billboard‘s Top Country Albums chart. People heard about it through word-of-mouth, Dirt Band concerts and significant critical attention, given in great part because it was a grand experiment that managed to cross multiple gaps — generational, cultural, stylistic and geographical — in an era when America was divided by urban violence and the Vietnam War.
“I have close friends that said, ‘You kind of helped bridge that gap between my dad and me; we would put this record on, have something in common,’ ” recalls founding member Jeff Hanna. “Those are really profound things to hear about a record.”
A cover of “I Saw the Light” with Roy Acuff logged a Grammy nomination in 1971, while the entire album made the final ballot a year later. And artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Bruce Hornsby have told Hanna that Will the Circle Be Unbroken was a gateway for their understanding of American roots music.
The Dirt Band members — John McEuen, Jimmy Ibbotson, Jimmie Fadden, Les Thompson and Hanna — were all 23 to 25 years old when they arrived in Nashville from the West Coast to cut the album in an unlikely series of collaborations with numerous country and bluegrass figures who were past their commercial primes: Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis and Jimmy Martin.
But hits were never the point. It was about a younger generation paying homage to the music and the artists who inspired them, even if the elder artists were somewhat skeptical. Scruggs and Travis had both met the Dirt Band previously, but others needed persuasion. Acuff was resistant, and even after the sessions, he admired their musicianship while struggling with their appearance.
“They are very nice young boys,” he told The Tennessean. “But if I ever saw them again without their hair, I’d never know them. I don’t even know if I would recognize them if I saw them again just like they are.”
Bill Monroe declined entirely, dissuaded apparently by their California history, hippie fashion and recent top 40 status.
“He didn’t think his fans would understand us playing whatever that was that we played,” says Hanna. “I don’t think he realized at the time that we weren’t going to come in the studio with a full drum kit and Marshall amps and wild pedals.”
Fortunately, everyone else locked into Scruggs’ belief in the project, and the work progressed steadily beginning Aug. 6, with the Dirt Band taking one day off amid a daily schedule of nine to 13 hours of recording. The group even took a side trip on Aug. 12 to cut more material at the Columbia Recording Studios for the Earl Scruggs Revue album I Saw the Light With Some Help From My Friends.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken allowed the California kids to join their heroes on a raft of signature titles, including The Carter Family’s “You Are My Flower,” Acuff’s “The Precious Jewel,” Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon,” Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues” and the much-covered “Orange Blossom Special” and “Soldier’s Joy,” the latter featuring McEuen playing the banjo of late Grand Ole Opry icon Uncle Dave Macon.
“That was the stuff that really got our blood going when we were kids,” says Hanna. “So for me to be able to lean over Doc Watson’s shoulder and sing harmony on ‘Tennessee Stud,’ that was priceless.”
Manager-producer William E. McEuen envisioned the Circle concept, patterned after a 1960 blues album, Down South Summit Meetin’, that featured Brownie McGhee, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Joe Williams and Sonny Terry playing their material with interstitial chatter from the studio floor included.
In that format, hearing Watson and Travis meeting for the first time at Woodland or having Acuff stress the importance of nailing a song on the initial take (“Let’s do it the first time, and the hell with the rest of it.”), Circle makes the legends as real and as workmanlike as the blue-collar, life-and-death songs that form the album’s backbone.
Circle had a significant long-tail effect. It went gold in 1973, platinum in 1997, and earned induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. Additionally, six of the album’s tracks were heard during episode six of the 2019 PBS documentary Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns.
Adding to the album’s place in Dirt Band lore — and in country music history overall — the band compiled two more volumes, in 1989 and 2002, snaring two Grammys and five additional nominations in the process.
The durability of that album continues, too, particularly since the Dirt Band has landed a foot in several different genres, spurring curious fans who might not have otherwise been exposed to investigate the album, and in turn learn about the icons the band was celebrating. Because of that, Circle reaches its 50th anniversary having introduced scores of fans and musicians to country music and Americana.
Says Hanna: “It casts a mighty big shadow.”