I still remember coming home sometime in 1972 — I was a junior or senior in high school — and putting Will the Circle be Unbroken on my stereo. I had started focusing on acoustic music (such as James Taylor) a year or two before, but I was soon exploring more of the roots of folk, which led me to the record bin on that fateful day when I found this record with the funny looking cover by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — a country-rock ensemble I had recently seen in concert. There was a little patter to start the record, which was unusual in and of itself in that era of over-produced rock albums, with Jimmy Martin commenting on John McEuen’s banjo kick-off by saying, “Earl never did do that….” But then Martin, the Dirt Band, and their musical guests were off with a rollicking version of The Grand Ole Opry Song. Decades before O Brother Where Art Thou?, there was Will the Circle Be Unbroken when some long-haired hippies and rockers took country, bluegrass, and mountain music on its own terms and showed how wonderful it could be.
Mother Maybelle Carter was next after Martin, singing the classic Keep on the Sunny Side. Then Earl Scruggs (who invented three-finger-style bluegrass banjo in the 1940s) and the Dirt Band’s McEuen played a terrific double-banjo version of Scruggs’ Nashville Blues. With each song, and the informal talk captured between takes, I was drawn in further and further. I know that it didn’t take all six sides of this 3-disc LP to hook me as a life-long lover of this music.
In fact, I suspect that the first two songs on side two clinched the deal. I had heard a bit of the blind singer and guitarist Doc Watson over the previous year or two, but no one — before or since — quite captures the beauty of Doc’s guitar and the wonderfulness of his spirit the way producer William McEuen did on the Circle album. Side Two opens with Doc doing a terrific version of Tennessee Stud that became a signature piece for him for many years. Then he follows it with a version of Black Mountain Rag, where Doc flatpicks the old-time fiddle tune on guitar and shares the solo spotlight with master fiddler Vassar Clements. By the end of that track my jaw had dropped and I was hooked.
Doc and Vassar were just two of the stellar musicians who were introduced to a much larger audience through the Circle album. Norman Blake, Merle Travis, Bashful Brother Oswald and more were either stars (Travis) or guests sidemen (Blake and Oswald) who were part of the project.
I could go on and on about this album (since it does cover six album sides and was reissued as a double CD set), but just a few highlights in an album that the Allmusic review rightly notes, “Doesn’t have a strained or false note anywhere among its 37 songs”:
- Lonesome Fiddle Blues by Vassar Clements has been covered a million times, but it has never sounded better than the original version here on the Circle album.
- Merle Travis sings Dark as a Dungeon with all the depth and understanding of one who came out of the coal fields of Kentucky. Many years later at a workshop, I heard songwriter extraordinaire Guy Clark play this tune in a session entitled, “Songs I Wish I’d Written.” It is a classic that never grows old.
- Doc, John McEuen, and Vassar tear up an instrumental called Down Yonder that begins with Doc saying, “How does it go, Vassar?” and then we all find out.
- Allmusic says that the conversation between Doc and Merle Travis, where Travis tells Doc his guitar “rings like a bell” and Doc replies, “It’s a pretty good old box — a Mr. Gallagher down in Wartrace, Tennessee made it” is worth the price of the album alone. I have a 1977 Gallagher guitar that I bought from J.W. Gallagher and his son Don as a new guitar. I’ll see Don in a few weeks at Merlefest and we’ll pick right up on our conversation although it has been a couple of years. “Nuff said.
- Jimmy Martin — the King of Bluegrass — knocks ’em dead on both Sunny Side of the Mountain and My Walking Shoes Don’t Fit Me Anymore.
- Scruggs and McEuen, along with bass player Junior Huskey, fingerpick and clawhamer respectively a definitive version of Soldier’s Joy.
The album was all recorded on the first or second take, and there’s a freshness and presence that is impossible to recreate with multiple takes and overdubs.
This video from YouTube is actually just the audio of Nashville Blues, but you can hear the great production work by William McEuen and the musicianship of players that many would dismiss simply as “country.” No less an authority than John Hiatt once listed Will the Circle Be Unbroken as one of five albums he’d take to a desert island. It landed him a guest slot on Circle II and simply confirmed that the man knows great music.
(For Part I in this series, see yesterday’s post)
More to come…