Thirty Years Later, The Circle Still Rolls

Crowds did not gather in twittering clumps along Music Row nor did local saloons and coffee shops buzz with anticipation when the youthful and pop-oriented Nitty Gritty Dirt Band came to Nashville in 1971 to record with some of country music’s most-esteemed old masters.

“The talk on Music Row was kind of less than excited,” recalls Dirt Band guitarist Jeff Hanna, then a lad of 24, “because the [country] acts that were [to be] on the record were kind of out of favor with radio and the current record machinery. … A better way to put it is that there was a lot of head scratching on Music Row.”

Before the head scratching stopped, the Dirt Band had achieved musical history. Recording at Woodland Sound Studios (off Music Row) from Aug. 6-11, this quirky assemblage of West Coast and down home players created Will the Circle Be Unbroken, an ornately packaged, three-vinyl-disc album that introduced such seminal performers as Mother Maybelle Carter , Roy Acuff , Earl Scruggs , Merle Travis , Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson and Vassar Clements to a new generation of fans.

“Our view of the folks on that record,” says Hanna, “was that they were absolute heroes. It was Mount Rushmore for us.”

Capitol Records has just released in a two-CD set the 30th anniversary edition of the album. It offers a total of 42 cuts, including four previously unavailable tracks of music and in-studio conversation. The original album came out in late 1972 and was certified gold (for the shipment of 500,000 units) in May 1973. It also earned two Grammy nominations. The album was first released on CD in 1986.

Hanna credits revered guitarist and songwriter Merle Travis with smoothing the way with the locals. “When we got in the studio that first day,” Hanna explains, “the first sessions we did were with Merle. That was great for us, because Merle was the one act on the Circle record that we had actually worked with before. Back when we were a jug band, back in about ’67, we had opened for Merle in a club in L.A. for about four days. So the comfort level with him was there from the get-go. It was good for us because we were all just shaking in our boots. It was, as I’ve described it before, kind of a combination of adrenaline, fear and joy.”

Acuff was initally skeptical of the undertaking, Hanna says. “Wesley Rose, at Acuff-Rose Music, had set up a meeting [with Acuff]. I think that Roy was pretty unimpressed. I think he thought that we were going to do something weird with his music — like bring in a stack of Marshall amps and a wah-wah pedal. When we left the meeting, we didn’t feel that it had gone particularly well. We were on our best behavior, but he looked at us and we were these freaks from the West Coast.

“Then he showed up at the studio a couple of days later, and we played him the tracks we had done with Merle — I think ’Nine Pound Hammer’ and ’I Am a Pilgrim’ — and he basically said, ’Well, that ain’t nothin’ but country. Let’s make some more.’ It was kind of like, ’I’ll be here tomorrow morning, ready to sing at 10.’ He sort of threw down the gauntlet and said, ’You’d better be ready too.'”

The Dirt Band had hoped to have Bill Monroe on the project, according to Hanna. But that never worked out. “It was never totally clear to me why he chose not to do it,” Hanna muses, “although I heard that he didn’t think his fans would understand and that he was just leery of what we were going to do with the music.”

Monroe’s one-time sideman, the feisty Jimmy Martin, was heavily involved in shaping the album. “I’m really glad that we got Jimmy,” says Hanna. “I think his contribution to that record was really phenomenal. Music needs people who have personalities, and they gave Jimmy an extra plateload. … He was sort of our taskmaster. He had us out to the house and gave us a quick course on being Sunny Mountain Boys [the name of Martin’s band]. We rehearsed with him a couple of days. He guided us through how to sing those harmonies right.”

Watson’s presence on the album was another “real serious high point,” Hanna notes. “We were all huge Doc Watson fans. We all tried to learn how to play ’Black Mountain Rag’ when we were little folk puppies. Of course, only one or two of us could, but we tried really hard.”

William McEuen, the Dirt Band’s manager and brother of its banjoist, John McEuen, produced Circle. Although McEuen had songs in mind for the band to cut, Hanna says the other artists picked their own tunes. “Most of them brought in the stuff they really loved or wrote or whatever — music that was familiar to them. Which was great for us. There was no A&R gig on that record. … It was pretty simple. We didn’t pore over thousands of songs and wonder how they’d test at radio.”

Hanna says that Clements and bass player Junior Huskey did a lot to make the younger and older players feel at ease with each other. “The music was great and, of course, we were having a ball. Every day was like Christmas.”

In spite of the fact that the Dirt Band spent a week jamming and communing with country legends, they were not invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, which has since become a common promotional and honorific ploy. “I don’t think we played on the Opry until the ’80s,” Hanna says.

Once Circle was recorded, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band returned to touring the country-rock circuit. “The album came out several months later,” Hanna recounts. “The reviews were great, but there was no marketing.” United Artists, the band’s label at the time, did release the single “I Saw the Light” to country radio. Featuring the band with Roy Acuff, the single stayed on the charts for six weeks, but rose only to No. 58.

“The album had no impact on the pop charts,” Hanna continues, “which was kind of where we lived in those days. There were no rock or alternative charts. So we didn’t feel the impact. There was no giant spike in sales on this record. We sold the albums 25,000 at a time. Slowly.”

United Artists had given the band $22,000 to record the album, but the big expense was manufacturing. “[T]he packaging itself cost as much as a Volkswagen,” Hanna jokes. “So the label was like, ’We’re only going to make 25,000 of these at a time because they’re so expensive. … I don’t think they understood that people really wanted them. [Fans] would buy them as fast as they would print them. Finally, we came to an impasse at the end of ’76, and [the label] just took the record off the market. … That was a drag for us, obviously. What the record company wanted to do at that time was to eliminate one of the discs and turn it into a bi-fold record. Our position was, ’You can’t just fillet this thing. It would be like Will The Circle Be Unbroken’s Greatest Hits.'”

Hanna contends the album “had a lot of impact” on other musicians. “I rarely met a musician,” he says, “who didn’t have a copy of that album. Later on, I started talking to ’civilians’ who said they all had it. It was a particularly popular item in college dorms. I spoke to a guy last week who said, ’Yeah, in my dorm people would have the Circle album and Led Zeppelin right next to it.’ So it wasn’t just about bluegrass. It was what kids wanted to hear at that point. It was kind of an underground success.”

The wealth of stylists who came together those six days in August 30 years ago still causes Hanna to marvel. “The Circle album to a lot of people is a bluegrass record. But just from the standpoint of a guitar player, which is my general role, having Mother Maybelle Carter, who invented an entire style of guitar, ’the Carter scratch,’ Merle Travis, who invented ’Travis picking,’ and Doc Watson, who was probably the most influential flatpicker ever to pick up an acoustic guitar, all on one record was just mind-boggling. It was Hall of Fame time.”

Those long ago sessions spun friendships, Hanna says, that have continued to this day. Long close to Scruggs, the band also remained on warm terms with Acuff. Although they hadn’t even heard of Clements until they began recording with him, he later toured with the band “for a couple of years,” and two of the members played on his most recent album. Scruggs, Acuff and Martin returned to do guest spots on the Dirt Band’s 1989 sequel collection, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2.

Hanna says the band still does songs from Circle in its stage show and will probably do more now that the album is being spotlighted again. He rejoices that banjoist John McEuen has re-joined the band after an absence of 15 years and is helping bring back the sound the group created during the Circle sessions.

“I’m glad the climate out there is the way it is for this kind of music,” Hanna concludes. “It’s great that people are rediscovering it.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to