Back in 1972, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band wrote country music's New Testament with the album Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
Featuring a veritable Who's Who of country music's most venerable and esteemed instrumentalists, singers and songwriters (several of whom have since passed away), Circle was a real bridge between musical generations. There, in all their fiery glory, were Doc Watson's guitar, Earl Scruggs' banjo, and vintage bluegrasser Jimmy Martin's high tenor. (Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, was a conspicuous omission; he didn't want to be on a record with longhairs.) These elder statesmen were complemented by a host of the era's most ubiquitous younger musicians: John Hartford, Norman Blake, Vassar Clements, and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band members Jeff Hanna, Jimmy Ibbotson, Jimmie Fadden and multi-instrumentalist John McEuen (who was replaced two years ago by long-time Dirt Band utility man Bob Carpenter).
The setting was homey. You could hear the players arranging the tunes, and you could listen in while Doc Watson explained to Merle Travis why he named his son after him, and the picking was fast, informal and stunning. Go to any bluegrass festival these days, and chances are good that you'll still catch parking-lot pickers working out on Doc's version of "Way Downtown."
Incidentally, Will the Circle Be Unbroken went platinum, the record producer's favorite metal.
"How could you follow up a record like Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" asks Jeff Hanna from his home in Nashville. "You couldn't. It was a time that can't happen again. We've changed, the industry has changed. Some of the people are gone."
Hanna is reflecting on the recent release of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume Two, a record which, although firmly planted in the Billboard charts, has been met with a fair share of critical ambivalence. If the original Circle remains unbroken to this day, why go through the motions?
"The new record is definitely not a repetition of the first Circle," Hanna adds. "This time around the Dirt Band is a lot more mainstream, and so is the record. But the basic premise is still there--getting together and making music with people that you don't usually get to play with. At first I kind of fought the idea. I thought that [one] was enough."
If uniting musicians and having a good time making live music were the main objectives of both Circle albums, then each has succeeded in spades. But to a legion of young country music fans around the world, the first Circle was much more than that. The album introduced many listeners to founding parents of country music like Mother Maybelle Carter and Roy Acuff and invited them in to sit and pick a while--albeit vicariously. To these aficionados, the first Circle was almost holy.
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The new record features a number of repeat appearances. Roy Acuff is back, if only to sing one verse on the title track, and Earl Scruggs plays a bit of banjo. Volume Two also has Johnny Cash and Chet Atkins, who would have fit right in on the first one. And then there's New Grass Revival, Ricky Skaggs, and Emmylou Harris. Says Hanna: "Look at all of the changes country music has gone through in the last twenty years. When we did the first Circle, the country rock thing with Gram Parsons and Emmylou was just barely getting started, and these days it's going through a revival of its own."
But the new record doesn't really focus on traditional country music as much as it does on a crew of singers and songwriters who have used the form as a kind of finishing school. The roster was picked by mutual agreement of production and management, and Hanna says he's pleased with the players who show up on Volume Two.
"We got people like Bruce Hornsby and John Hiatt, who may not have belonged there in the context of the first record, but who, in their own way, come out of the same tradition. Plus John Prine, Michael Murphey, even John Denver going back to the kind of stuff he was doing when he first came out in the early Seventies."
In the two decades since, the circle has continued to revolve and expand. Acoustic music died and is in the process of resurrection, along with tie-dye, skateboards and all of the other now-marketable accessories of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Volume Two's version of Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere," sung by ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman and backed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, is getting regular airplay on country radio stations across the nation. According to Hanna, the band's vision is realized with Volume Two. Whether--like the first Circle--it is a vision shared will be determined in bluegrass-festival parking lots in years to come.