By Mark Kemp
“What in the world are you listening to in there?”
My mom was confused. It was the early 1970s and she was hearing acoustic guitars, banjos, and fiddles blaring from the wooden stereo console in our living room. Ordinarily, mom would have been fussing at me for cranking the Rolling Stones’ “Bitch” at full volume. (“You don’t even know what a bitch is,” she’d once told me, with a grin. “It’s not a nice word.”) At best, she would hear me happily singing along to hits by the more acceptable Beatles or Jackson Five.
But on this day, mom was hearing the “Grand Ole Opry Song”—and it was telling her story over music that was as familiar as the collard greens we’d have with Sunday dinner:
It’s time for Roy Acuff to go to Memphis on his train
With Minnie Pearl and Rod Brasfield and lazy Jim Day.
Turn on all your radios, I know that you will wait
To hear Little Jimmy Dickens sing, “Take an old cold tater and wait.”
Joan Carlton Kemp knew Little Jimmy Dickens. She knew Roy Acuff. As a little girl, my mom had lived in Nashville for a spell, before the textile industry sent my grandfather to a mill in North Carolina. Her older siblings, Carolyn and Evelyn, had been members of the Grand Ole Opry, where every Saturday night they’d performed onstage as the Carlton Sisters. In those days, the Opry family would regularly hold picnics out in the country. On one such occasion, according to family lore, Acuff saved my mom’s life when she wandered into a bull pen, her red-and-white checkered dress flapping in the breeze, teasing one of the hulking animals. Acuff jumped the fence, grabbed my mom, and brought her to safety.
I didn’t know any of this at 13, when I went to my hometown record store and bought the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark 1972 album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. All I knew of this band of Southern California hippies was that they’d had a hit with “Mr. Bojangles,” their new album featured a bunch of old people from Nashville—and everybody was talking about it. To be sure, the music on this album was pretty jarring to me. Mom feigned embarrassment. “I don’t like that stuff,” she said, scrunching up her face at the twangy chaos. “They called us hillbillies. You can go back to listening to the Rolling Stones now.”
It was clear to me, though, that my musical choice that day had made my mother happy. She laughed, told more stories, and helped bring me closer to the music of my own region and bloodline.
I will be forever grateful to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for that.
Beneficiaries of the ‘Circle’
“I can’t tell you,” John McEuen begins, and then pauses. “I literally can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard your exact same story, with just a few details changed.” The Dirt Band’s fiddler, banjo player, mandolinist, and guitarist has been talking with me for an hour about the unintended chain reaction he and his group set off when they decided it would be cool to record with Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, and other Nashville greats. “It was a very magical thing that we didn’t predict,” McEuen says.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken did not come about by magic, though. It took a lot of hard work, lucky breaks, and a great career risk for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a tour the group kicked off in September 2015 at the Opry’s most well-known home, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The sold-out show, which will air on PBS in March, featured a string of famous admirers, including singer-songwriter John Prine, singer-guitarist Vince Gill, fiddler Alison Krauss, mandolin player Sam Bush, and early Dirt Band member Jackson Browne.
“I was a freshman in high school,” Gill told the audience as he joined the Dirt Band onstage at the Ryman show. “‘Mr. Bojangles’ had come out, and it was a huge hit. And I played the banjo a little bit . . . . There was a rock band in our area in Oklahoma City that was the hottest rock band—they were the coolest things ever. I was kind of a dork, because I played the banjo . . . . Anyway, they were going to do ‘Mr. Bojangles’ in their show at the school . . . and they asked me if I would come and play the banjo on ‘Mr. Bojangles’ with them. It was one of the coolest things that ever happened to me, because I was accepted.”
McEuen, speaking by phone from a plane about to take off for Canada, laughs appreciatively at all the stories he’s heard about the Dirt Band’s impact. He reels off a few more memorable quotes: “‘I was in my room, 16 years old, playing rock ’n’ roll, and I put the Circle album on, and my dad heard it and opened the door and said, “Son, what are you listening to?” It was the first time we’d talked in three years and we’ve been best friends since.’ And, ‘I was playing classical violin until I was 23, and then I heard Vassar Clements on Circle and I never picked up another sheet of music again.’’’
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 triple-disc milestone. Unlike other classic American albums of the rock era—such as Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On—Circle is exponentially larger than the artist name on the record spine. Its casual and genial musical communication among a group of young California hippies and older Nashville veterans was healing in a way that no amount of introspection or public protest could be during those difficult years of Vietnam War demonstrations, civil-rights struggles, and labor union losses.
“I think what came out of those sessions is that there were these two gaps that were bridged—a generation gap and also the cultural gap,” Dirt Band singer and guitarist Jeff Hanna said in a video interview at the time of Circle’s 30th anniversary edition. “You know, there were peace marches and Nixon—the country was divided.
“This was also around the time of the film Easy Rider,” Hanna continued. “So, we’re thinking, ‘Man, the [rednecks] that shot Peter Fonda [in the film] look just like those guys we’re going to Nashville to record with.’ Of course, the element that wiped out all of that misconception was the music. It helped take away some of the prejudice on both sides.”
The Nashville musicians were getting pushback, too. “I know that there was a lot of explaining for the Scruggs family and for Mr. Acuff and for the Carters,” Hanna said. “People were saying, ‘What are you doing making music with these scruffy dudes from the West Coast?’”
Circle was also the culmination of a perfect musical storm. By the early 1970s, country and bluegrass already had begun to seep more and more into popular music, sometimes as parody, but more often as tribute. The Dirt Band played a big role in this. Though rock bands had long flirted with country—in 1965, the Beatles released a cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” as the flip side of “Yesterday,” and that same year, the Byrds released a shimmery folk-rock rendition of the Porter Wagoner country hit “A Satisfied Mind”—few were doing the kind of bluegrass hoedowns heard on the Dirt Band’s self-titled debut album. Released in 1967, the record produced a minor folk-rock hit, “Buy for Me the Rain,” but it also included lots of jug-band novelty songs and the McEuen-penned bluegrass instrumental “Dismal Swamp.” McEuen had been inspired by the Dillards, a more traditional bluegrass band that made inroads into the rock world via the folk boom of the early ’60s.
“I was captivated by the Dillards,” McEuen says. “I was playing the acoustic guitar, learning how to play ‘Freight Train’ and things like that—fingerpicking guitar, you know—and six months into that, I saw the Dillards and thought, ‘Golly, Doug Dillard—he’s really something. That looks exciting!’”
Between 1967 and 1970, the Dirt Band continued to explore old-time country music, while in the larger music world, others were doing the same thing. In 1968, the Byrds released Sweetheart of the Rodeo, featuring Florida-born Gram Parsons, who’d left an earlier proto-country-rock outfit called the International Submarine Band. With covers of songs by the Louvin Brothers and Merle Haggard—and a classic Parsons tune, “Hickory Wind”—Sweetheart put country music front and center in the hip rock world. The following year, Parsons formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, which released another country-rock classic, The Gilded Palace of Sin.
By 1970, the Dirt Band had pulled out all the stops and gone full-fledged country and bluegrass on Uncle Charlie and his Dog Teddy, although much of the album was still well within the folk-rock idiom. It included gorgeous renditions of Mike Nesmith’s “Some of Shelly’s Blues” and Kenny Loggins’ “House at Pooh Corner” (both released as singles), alongside old-time and bluegrass tunes such as “Chicken Reel,” “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” and Earl Scruggs’ “Randy Lynn Rag.” But the highlight of Uncle Charlie was the cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” that rocketed to the Billboard Top 10.
All of that helped when McEuen and his brother Bill, the Dirt Band’s manager and producer, walked into the office of Liberty Records’ president Mike Stewart to make a case for doing an album of purely traditional bluegrass and Appalachian folk with a star-studded cast of veteran Nashville players.
“When we went in to make the pitch, Mike Stewart listened for about a half an hour and then said, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to sell this, but I’ll put up the money.’ And he did. He put up $22,000.”
A Small Circle of Friends
The future members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band didn’t have 22 cents among them when they first met as teenagers hanging out at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Long Beach, California. They did have a mutual love of folk and jug-band music, though. They’d flop down in the six or seven chairs around a coffee table inside the store and jam on acoustic instruments. “Everybody hung out at this place,” McEuen remembers. “We’d look at the records on the racks and try to figure out how Doc Watson played ‘Black Mountain Rag’ and ‘Deep River Blues,’ or how to play banjo songs by Earl Scruggs or the Dillards or whoever.”
The “everybody” who hung out at McCabe’s included a young Jackson Browne, guitarists Hanna and Les Thompson, and harmonica and jug player Jimmie Fadden. Those four formed what would become the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, rehearsing in Hanna’s mother’s Long Beach garage. On May 13, 1966, the group landed a gig at the Paradox club in Tustin, an hour east in Orange County. “The Dirt Band started playing at the Paradox, and I’d be there,” McEuen remembers. “One night I sat in with them—this was before I joined.” He laughs. “I mean, it was no big deal or anything. I figured I’d rather be standing onstage than be in the dressing room waiting to go on. So I’m like, ‘I’ll go play a song with you.’”
That gig marked the official beginning of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Before then, they were all just kids messing around, hanging out at McCabe’s playing jug-band songs, or at the beach, surfing occasionally. But now, they were onto something. Browne left to focus on a career as a solo singer-songwriter, and McEuen was in. “You gotta understand, we were really young,” he says. “I was in my first year of college, one guy was a junior in high school, another was a senior in high school, another was trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. I think everybody still lived with their parents. I was over in Garden Grove, some of the other guys lived in Long Beach. It was just a bunch of kids from Southern California.”
McEuen’s brother signed on as manager and got the band its deal with Liberty. Within a year, the Dirt Band had released two albums, a self-titled debut and Ricochet, and performed its Top 40 hit “Buy for Me the Rain” on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. In 1968, they appeared as a jug band playing at a party in the movie For Singles Only, starring Mary Ann Mobley. That led to a role the following year in the western Paint Your Wagon, in which they churned out a ramshackle song called “Hand Me Down That Can o’ Beans” in a rowdy scene featuring a drunken Lee Marvin dancing and singing along, and a typically cool and collected Clint Eastwood watching from the sidelines.
But the members of the Dirt Band weren’t satisfied with the pop sound Liberty was imposing on them, and the band took a breather after the initial whirlwind. Everything changed when they returned to the studio to record Uncle Charlie. They’d recruited multi-instrumentalist Jimmy Ibbotson and gained a tremendous amount of creative freedom. Most importantly, they’d picked a great batch of songs to cover: Walker’s “Bojangles,” two Nesmith songs (in addition to “Shelly,” they recorded his moody “Propinquity”), four Loggins tunes (along with “Pooh Corner,” they recorded his bluesy, rocking “Prodigal’s Return,” the fiddle-fueled “Yukon Railroad,” and the breezy “Santa Rosa”), as well as an acoustic-guitar-based version of Randy Newman’s aching, poetic piano song “Livin’ Without You.”
Uncle Charlie was a bona fide masterpiece. But the following year, when the group attempted to repeat its success on All the Good Times—with covers of Browne and Hank Williams—it seemed forced and came off more like a subpar Poco album than prime Dirt Band. No matter. McEuen had bigger fish to fry. He was busy doing some serious negotiating with bluegrass royalty.
Forming the ‘Circle’
“Earl Scruggs came to see us at Vanderbilt University in November of ’70, and by 1971 we’d kind of become friends,” McEuen remembers. That year, Scruggs and his sons, the Earl Scruggs Review, played a five-night stand at the storied Tulagi club in Boulder, Colorado, and McEuen aimed to talk to the three-finger banjo stylist. “I went to see him every one of the five nights, and I’d take him back to his hotel,” McEuen says. “Jeff [Hanna] came one night and I told him, ‘I’m going to ask Earl if he’ll record with us.’ Jeff doesn’t ask questions like that. But he was in the car, in the back seat, on the way to the hotel after the last show.”
That’s when McEuen got up the nerve to pop the question.
“I said, ‘Earl, do you think maybe . . . uh . . . would you record with the Dirt Band?’
“He said, ‘I’d be proud to!’”
The Circle was beginning to form. A week later, Doc Watson played at the same club in Boulder, and McEuen was back, ready to pop the question to the famed flatpicker. “I’d already talked to his son, Merle, a few months earlier in Pasadena, and it turned out Merle was a big fan of the Dirt Band. I had wanted to meet Doc that night, but ended up just chatting with Merle. He said, ‘You’re with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band? Cool, man!’ I told him, ‘Well, I’ll see you in Colorado.’ I didn’t say anything else to him other than, ‘It sure would be great to record with your dad someday.’”
In Colorado, McEuen told Doc that the Dirt Band had already enlisted Scruggs, and that was all the guitarist needed to hear. “He got excited when I told him Earl was in, so I put Doc on the phone that night with my brother. Then later on that night, I talked to my brother on the phone for hours, and he said, ‘I’m going to get Roy Acuff and Merle Travis.’ And I said, ‘Maybe we can get Jimmy Martin.’ And that’s pretty much how it all came together.”
The big catch was getting the matriarch of modern country music (and inventor of lead guitar), Mother Maybelle Carter. “Earl had done an album in 1963—which had a big influence on me, by the way—that was a tribute to the Carter Family,” McEuen says. “He knew them, you know, so we asked him if Maybelle Carter might want to be part of this, and he made it happen.”
The project came together quickly. “From the time that I asked Earl if he would record with us, to the start of the recording session, it had been eight weeks,” McEuen says. “It came together so fast it’s hard to believe now. But the times were very different then—this could not happen now. I don’t know if these types of people are even around anymore.”
By August 1971, the whole cast—Scruggs, Watson, Martin, Acuff, Carter, Travis, Pete “Oswald” Kirby, Norman Blake, and fiddler Vassar Clements—were holed up with the Dirt Band at Woodland Sound Studio in Nashville. The atmosphere was positively electric. They recorded 33 songs in six days, including now-classic performances of Martin doing “Grand Ole Opry Song,” Carter singing “Keep on the Sunny Side,” Acuff moaning “The Precious Jewel” and “Wreck on the Highway,” Travis picking and singing “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Nine-Pound Hammer,” and Watson flatpicking and telling the story of the “Tennessee Stud.” As they played and sang and talked, 105 photos were snapped.
“We ran a tape recorder the whole time to capture all the between-song stuff—all that great talking,” McEuen says. “And that really makes the album.” He’s referring to such golden moments etched into music history as Doc Watson’s very first meeting with Merle Travis. Between “Lost Highway” and “Way Downtown,” you can hear Watson telling Travis that he’d named his son Merle after the inventive fingerstylist. There’s also the endearing moment just before the group launches into “Tennessee Stud,” when the good-natured Watson instructs Vassar Clements on when to take his solo: “Now, your fiddle break comes right after I get back and wup her brother and her paw and sing a chorus.”
In 2002, when McEuen was remastering Circle for its expanded 30th anniversary release, he discovered more gems. “I went into the runoff tape and I found Vassar and Jimmy Martin talking, and more stuff from Maybelle. It was so much fun going through it again,” McEuen says. He adopts a Southern twang to imitate a Martin and Clements exchange:
“‘Vassar, now who wrote ‘Uncle Pen?’
“‘You wrote the bridge, Jimmy.’
“‘I know, thank you very much.’”
McEuen’s fondest memories of the Circle sessions are incidents that could never happen in today’s music world, in which record company executives keep close tabs on every minute an artist participates in a project that’s not associated with his or her label. One such incident happened when Carter was at the microphone. “She was in there getting ready to start one of her songs and I took a phone call in the control room,” McEuen remembers. “It was a Columbia Records attorney, who was calling to say, ‘OK, you’ve been approved to do one song with Maybelle Carter.’ And I went, ‘OK, thank you very much. I’ll let everybody know,’ and I hung up.” McEuen laughs. “We were starting the fourth song.
“My brother turned to me and said, ‘Who was that?’ I said, ‘Nothing. Doesn’t matter. Not important.’ I mean, could you imagine telling Picasso, ‘Hey Picasso, only this much blue—no more’? It’s a good thing there were some hippies behind the glass.”
Hanna, in the video interview, recalled Carter as the glue that kept the proceedings grounded. “What Maybelle brought to the session aside from her wealth of talent was just this great, sort of spiritual calming. She was just like [adopts a serene look], ‘Boys, this is no big deal.’”
Years later, Carter’s daughter, June Carter Cash, told Hanna that her mother had a fond way of referring to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. “She used to call us ‘them dirty boys,’” Hanna said. “That’s what June told us, which I loved! She said, ‘You know, mama always called you guys ‘them dirty boys.’ I thought that was the sweetest!”
When Circle came out the following year, it did better than anyone could have imagined, inspiring young rock fans around the world to explore traditional music more deeply. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band went on to do many other things: In 1974, the group released a live album, Stars and Stripes Forever (whose humorous between-song banter I memorized as a teenager); briefly changed its name to just the Dirt Band in the late ’70s and began playing more predictable soft rock; switched to mainstream country in the 1980s; and returned to form in the ’90s with Acoustic and two more volumes of Circle that were good, though not monumental. If the members had stopped after the original Circle project, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band would have more than made their mark on music history.
“When we got together, we wondered if we would be together after ten years as a band. That’s kind of a long run, actually,” Hanna recently told Billboard. “But 50 years is a run.”
The ‘Circle,’ Unbroken
Two days after my interviews with McEuen, I’m driving to the Acoustic Guitar office when the phone rings. It’s McEuen. He’s back from Canada.
“I just wanted to make sure you got everything you needed from me,” he says. “I got a voice message from you and didn’t know what day it came from.”
“I’m good,” I tell him, and pause. “Well . . .”
I feel a need to tell McEuen how much I appreciate the Dirt Band for bringing me closer to my mother, to my family’s connection to the Grand Ole Opry, to my personal connection with our shared musical roots. As a reporter, I’m also feeling a little silly about this. It’s not exactly the ideal objective distance from my subject. Besides, I’m sure he’s heard it a million times. Still, this is important to me.
“I just want to thank you for doing Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” I stammer. “To me, it is absolutely one of the most important albums ever recorded, and yet it wasn’t even on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums list. I don’t think you guys have gotten enough credit for spurring the whole country-rock thing. The Byrds rightly get a lot, and so do Gram Parsons and the Burrito Brothers. You guys are easily as important to that music as those artists, particularly in terms of bridging the gap between generations. Without that, there would be no Americana movement still inspiring so many artists of all ages.”
“Hey, man, that’s what it was all about,” McEuen says. “And everybody involved deserves credit. It happened because Jeff and Jimmy picked the right songs to release as singles from our earlier records—songs that got us on the radio. It happened because my brother and I told the record company we wanted to make an album of traditional folk music, and the record company trusted us enough after Uncle Charlie to let us do it. And it happened because all those musicians agreed to record with us. Roy Acuff and Maybelle Carter didn’t have to do this, but they did. Because of the band’s success with Uncle Charlie, we were able to do Circle and have it be heard by kids like you and so many others.”
There’s a moment of silence before McEuen speaks up again. “Hey, do you mind saying that in your story—you know, the stuff about us being as important to this music as those others?”
Former AG editor Mark Kemp is the author of Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South (Simon & Schuster, 2004; University of Georgia Press, 2006).