(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
The vinyl reissue of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band ’s epochal Will the Circle Be Unbroken three-album set after four decades has a special place in my heart. I spent part of my honeymoon at that recording session and ended up actually singing on the title track.
Let me explain. My wife-to-be Martha and I were both in graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. After she proposed to me, we decided to get married and, further, decided to go to Mexico to get married. What the hell. You’re only young once. Right?
We both loved country music and bluegrass. Martha came from the mountains of Kentucky, and our first date had been to a bluegrass festival in East Texas where Ralph Stanley was headlining.
So we eloped to Mexico with two of our best friends, got hitched and stayed around for a couple of days to celebrate and then headed off to Kentucky for Martha to present me to her unsuspecting parents. Along the way I stopped off to check in with my editor at Rolling Stone. I was working, while still in school, as a contributing editor for the magazine and liked to stay in touch. So I checked in, told my editor where I’d be for the next couple of weeks.
He said that since I would be passing through Nashville, I should stop and check out an odd recording session that the Nitty Gritty Dirt band was having with some country “old-timers.” That’s all he knew about it. I said, “Sure,” and off we went.
We walked into Woodland Sound Studios to an amazing sight: the entire Dirt Band sitting around with some of their elders. There was country matriarch Mother Maybelle Carter , folk music giant Doc Watson , the king of bluegrass Jimmy Martin , guitar pioneer Merle Travis , the king of country music Roy Acuff , bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs , fiddler extraordinaire Vassar Clements and bassist Junior Huskey. To me, they were musical icons.
A Nashville newspaper columnist dismissed these recording sessions as being a bunch of California longhairs cutting with some country dinosaurs — so called because they were no longer being played on country radio or having their records released on major record labels. Sound familiar? But they remained steadfastly true to their music. It’s all in the viewpoint, I guess.
The elders were quite warm and welcoming. Although Roy Acuff initially was a bit standoffish — I guess because of my ponytail and leather sandals (although he was already friendly with the “California longhairs”) — we became quite friendly once he discovered that I knew his music inside and out. Of course, he had just decided to record with a longhaired bunch of California hippie musicians. The big reason that Jimmy Martin was on the album was that bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe had turned it down with no explanation.
Mother Maybelle Carter was an absolute delight. A salty old grandmother you have to love. Especially after she and Martha figured out they were related, she just drew us to her figurative bosom. It was Maybelle who insisted that Martha and I sing background vocals on the album’s title track.
All 42 tracks on the entire album were recorded live in one or two takes. All the pickers and singers played and sang live in one studio, straight to a master tape. No overdubs, no do-overs and with minimal rehearsing. It was a marvel to be a part of.
Watson turned out to be a born bandleader, Scruggs was an instrumental genius, Acuff turned out to be a team player, Martin was an ebullient cheerleader, Huskey provided a solid foundation with his rock solid bass and Maybelle’s elegant voice floated above the fray.
It didn’t surprise me that the album turned out to be enormously influential after its release in 1973. And it didn’t hurt that it helped the careers of all involved. And it still sounds terrific. I have the original vinyl set from 1972, and it’s just as crisp and bright as it sounded in the studio.
So I got my gold record for my first and only time behind a studio microphone. Now that Circle has sold platinum, I should ask for an upgrade.