John McEuen Talks Legendary Album “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”

John McEuen (photo: Kevin Smith)

Editors Note: This article was written by Saving Country Music contributor Kevin Smith.

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It’s in the Grammy Hall of Fame. It’s in The Library of Congress. It sold Gold. It sold Platinum. Chet Flippo once said it was one of the most important albums that ever came out of Nashville. Will The Circle Be Unbroken, an album by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, has become over the last 52 years what you might call an essential masterwork in the history of American music.

Recorded in 1971, the album has a timeless and ageless quality to it. It’s an album that has inspired and excited multiple generations of music fans and musicians. One of the central figures in making the album is John McEuen, a 50-year former member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He is a banjo legend, fiddler extraordinaire, multi-instrumentalist, CMA and ACM award recipient, and a producer of a Grammy winning album, among his many accomplishments.

Just this past fall, McEuen and Les Thompson—another former NGDB member and participant in the Circle record—presented a compelling discussion to an IBMA gathering on the story of the album. It was an impressive night, and featured a multimedia slide and video show projected behind them as they chatted with Jim Lauderdale.

This month, John McEuen and Les Thompson are on the road with the presentation and going to listening room venues across the U.S., performing songs from the legendary album and telling stories from its making. I recently caught this presentation at Natalie’s in Grandview, Ohio, and John was ever gracious and granted an interview with me, and a follow-up. He is an amazing man to talk to, and the stories and history he’s been a witness to are stunning.

The bulk of this story is an attempt to encapsulate those interviews with a few other sources, and along the way hopefully provide some little-known details and observations from an amazing six days of time in 1971, spent inside Nashville Tennessee’s Woodland Studios recording what many consider to be one of the greatest musical collaborations of all time.

As John McEuen is also promoting a book on the history of the Circle album, fittingly titled Will The Circle Be Unbroken: The Making of a Landmark Album, coupled with the very recent announcement that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is doing a farewell tour and hanging it up, it’s as good a time as any to take a deeper dive into the story.

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To begin, Will The Circle Be Unbroken was a collaborative concept album put out by a young group of musicians from California, who at the time had finally hit it big with a radio hit of “Mr Bojangles” by Jerry Jeff Walker. The song took the young group who was in search of a greater audience, and gave them a national launching point in country, folk and pop-rock music. The album it was on, Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy, did really well, yielding two other hits, “Some of Shelly’s Blues” and “House At Pooh Corner.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that without this album and that famous interpretation of “Mr Bojangles,” the Circle album would never have happened. You could say it set the table for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s soon to be realized ambitious project, and the success that came with the hit album would ultimately bring the negotiating power the band would need to realize this dream project.

The Circle album was the brainchild of its producer William E. McEuen and his brother John McEuen. William, or Bill, had been producing and managing the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band from their inception. The boys had both grown up with a leaning for traditional music. Their heroes were people like Doc Watson, Merle Travis, The Carter Family and so on.

Of course, Earl Scruggs played prominently in the influence on John’s banjo playing, but its noteworthy that he first heard The Dillards, and that he was fascinated with the banjo playing of Doug Dillard. As John explained to me, Dillard was a devotee of what Earl Scruggs was doing, but he wasn’t playing it correctly at first. In fact, according to McEuen, Scruggs met Dillard and gifted him his first set of finger-picks to be used when doing the Scruggs roll, the technique that revolutionized bluegrass banjo picking, and offered a more dynamic and syncopated delivery than the traditional frailing or claw-hammer style favored by old-timey pickers like Ralph Stanley, Grandpa Jones, String Bean, and others before them.

Through the playing of Doug Dillard, McEuen discovered Earl Scruggs, and from that moment on Earl became McEuen’s main inspiration. He dreamed of the day he could duet with Scruggs on an old-time number called “Soldiers Joy,” a fiddle standard dating back to the 1760s. Little did he realize that in 1971 he would have that opportunity. The importance of Earl Scruggs to this entire album cannot be understated, as will be explained.

As McEuen tells it, he was hanging out in Boulder, Colorado, and managed to meet up with Earl Scruggs. Scruggs was a bit familiar with the band via the Uncle Charlie record, which his son Gary Scruggs had turned him onto. It didn’t hurt that a version of Earl’s song “Randy Lynn Rag” also happened to be on the album.

The encounter led to McEuen being enlisted as a taxi driver of sorts for Scruggs during a week of gigs. Each night McEuen would pick him up and take him to his gigs and then bring him back to his motel. Finally, one-night McEuen worked up the courage to ask Earl if he would consider recording with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. To his shock, Earl instantly said he would be proud to. This was too good to be true, and at that moment the McEuen brothers realized that they had the start of a decent record.

John McEuen with Earl Scruggs

Wasting no time, McEuen asked Doc Watson if he would play, and of course he said yes once he was assured that Scruggs was in. Merle Travis followed. They made a play to land Bill Monroe as well, but that one was a no go from Monroe’s standpoint. If you ask Les Thompson who was in the band at the time, he will tell you it’s because Monroe had no interest in picking with some long-hairs from the west coast.

McEuen, though, has a softer take on this. He told me he feels it was much more due to the fact that “Bill Monroe only listened to Bill Monroe music,” so he was skeptical of anyone he didn’t know, and he didn’t follow popular music of any kind. According to McEuen, Monroe thought there would be electric guitars and snare drums on the record. Interestingly, a mere two years later, McEuen was the opening act for Monroe, and he recalls Monroe walking up to him and saying, “Hey, if you boys do another one of those Circle records, give me a call.” Nonetheless, with the help of Earl Scruggs, a cast of mind-blowing pickers was assembled.

This whole thing on paper must have seemed impossible to pull off, given the times in which it was recorded. No one was doing anything remotely like this. Collaboration album? It wasn’t even a thing yet. It’s a staggering realization to come to when you look at the album’s lineup. Three of the most influential guitarists in country and traditional music were all together on this record for the first time.

Country music pioneer Mother Maybelle Carter, who perfected what was called The Carter Scratch, Merle Travis who brought Travis picking to the world, and Doc Watson who is considered one of the great flat-pickers, they all got to perform on the album. Add in the King of Country Music Roy Acuff, and the King of Bluegrass, Jimmy Martin, and of course banjo legend Earl Scruggs, and you had a representation of the greatest talent to be found in American roots music.

McEuen recalls having a band meeting and mentioning that they were preparing to record as a group in Nashville with Scruggs and Acuff, Watson, and Jimmy Martin, which prompted Nitty Gritty Dirt Band frontman Jeff Hanna to ask, “Who’s Jimmy Martin?” That question shocked McEuen who had been listening to and playing Martin songs for years, but suffice to say, Hanna became quite acquainted with Martin in due time.

At the time Hanna was a big fan of Doc Watson who had enjoyed a resurgence thanks to the mid-60s folk movement. But again, this lineup would never have been possible without Earl Scruggs involvement. He proved to be the glue that held it all together. He alone held the key to accessing these legendary musicians. With his quiet, laid-back demeanor, yet profound virtuosity, he commanded an unbelievable amount of respect from his peers, living forefathers, and for that matter, all who followed him. He clearly did more than just revolutionize banjo playing, he singlehandedly super-charged Bill Monroe’s sound in a startling way.

Additionally, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt went on to innovate and build a worldwide fan base for bluegrass music. Their recordings became bedrock bluegrass standards. It’s also no exaggeration to note that he brought hillbilly music into primetime American consciousness through The Beverly Hillbillies theme song “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” No wonder that McEuen became audibly emotional when he talked about Earl. He choked up as he said to me “I still can’t believe it happened, just because I started playing the banjo, and Earl said yes… and I got to pick with Earl Scruggs, several times.” Clearly 53 years later this still resonates with him deeply. (The two remained life-long friends all the way until Earl’s death.)

One of the first hurdles to overcome was dealing with the record label, United Artists, and figuring out how to sell the concept. Bill McEuen had that unenviable task. From the standpoint of the label, this was a huge gamble. Essentially the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band would follow up a very successful country-rock album in Uncle Charlie, and spend the labels resources on a 3-record concept album with a handful of music legends whose popularity was mostly in the past.

Consider that Acuff hadn’t been on the radio in years, Mother Maybelle had gone back to a day job as a nurse at Vanderbilt hospital a few years before the Circle record, and Flatt and Scruggs had broken up, with each going their own way. Doc Watson’s son Merle was bemoaning the fact that while the folk revival had brought them a newer fan base, it seemed that now the movement was drying up. The night McEuen asked if Doc could play on the album, he and Merle were playing to an audience of 120 people on a Saturday night. Jimmy Martin was looking for exposure as well, and Merle Travis was more or less in the same boat.

The label head Mike Stewart wasn’t optimistic when he awarded the boys $22,000 in total to make the record, saying that he probably would only sell ten copies of the album. McEuen believes that few in the band fully realized just how big the stakes were with this move, and that likely the entire future success of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fell on the success of this album.

I asked John what it was like trying to organize this project with all the players, singers, pickers, personalities, opinions, and so on. How did they keep focused and get this done in one week? The answer was surprising to me. They worked out well in advance what the songs would be, and rehearsal sessions were held in Nashville in houses first: Three nights in Earl Scruggs house, a day at Merle Travis’s house, and a day in Jimmy Martin’s place. Then, they brought the big names in one at a time, and did the albums songs with a surprisingly few amount of takes.

Notably, the album was done live in the studio on a two-track recorder. This meant they were recording directly to a master tape, and the usual process of mixing a large multi-track down to another tape was eliminated. That’s one of the reasons the album sounds so good sonically. The instruments sound crisp, and the recording is clean.

A control room view of the recording session

In the case of Merle Travis, the recordings of “Cannonball Rag,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” and “I Am a Pilgrim” were done in an hour and a half. Merle made zero mistakes, which was quite amazing as his guitar case was very dusty, and by his own admittance during rehearsals, he hadn’t picked in a considerable amount of time. It was an amazingly easy session.

Sometime later, Travis admitted in an interview with Mark Humphrey, “I’ve got a gold record over there of Will The Circle Be Unbroken. I hope William McEuen doesn’t read this, but I’ve got two copies of the album, and I’ve never listened to all of it, so I don’t know exactly what I said to Doc…I will have to dig that out and listen to it sometime.” Travis was making reference to the fact that the dialogue between him and Watson was recorded and put onto the record. It was after all, their first time meeting and playing together.

The chat between Doc Watson and Merle Travis is heartwarming to listen to, and Doc mentions how much he loved Merle’s coal mining song EP, and that he had named his son Merle after Travis. This was one of the genius ideas producer Bill McEuen had, to record the dialogue between songs with a separate mic and recorder, and later splice it into the album itself. This results in the listener feeling like they are present in the moment with the musicians.

McEuen experienced another profound moment while they recorded “Tennessee Stud” with Doc. He shared with me how he literally had the feeling they were recording something truly old-timey. It felt, at least to McEuen, that he was transported back to 1938 and the early years of the music. That moment, and that transformative feeling has never left, and to this day continues to amaze him.

Doc Watson couldn’t have been more thankful for the Circle record, and years later told McEuen that thanks to the recording, he is overwhelmed by audience requests for “Tennessee Stud.” To this day, numerous folks from Hank Williams Jr, Johnny Cash, and Billy Strings have also recorded it, but it was the Doc Watson version on the Circle record that is most influential.

I asked John McEuen in particular about Roy Acuff and Mother Maybelle Carter. Acuff on the surface could at times come across as an intimidating fellow. When he came into the room, he walked with the confidence of someone who knew he was the “King of Country Music.” He was used to the idea that he was a star. I asked McEuen if he saw Acuff as a gatekeeper; he agreed that some folks may think of Acuff in that manner, yet he doesn’t recall a time where Acuff ever blocked someone from playing the Opry, or tried to hamper their career.

Nonetheless, Roy Acuff was opinionated. When he came into the studio, he was a bit skeptical of what the boys were doing. He wasn’t about to commit to recording without hearing a sampling of the music beforehand. Bill played him some songs, and he stood back and remained expressionless while he pondered. One of the songs was “You Are My Flower.” As the last note faded Acuff said, “Very fine, I couldn’t improve upon it. What do you term it is?” Bill responded it was mountain music. Immediately Acuff replied, “It ain’t a thing in the world but country, its as plain as the nose on your face. Hell, its country, even with Earl its country as hell.”

McEuen recalls saying, “Well I guess we passed the test.” Among the songs they did with Acuff, “Wreck on The Highway” remains a favorite of McEuen to this day. As he likes to say, its got hillbillies, blood, alcohol, cars, and death, what’s not to love about it!? They would also record a version of the Hank Williams classic “I Saw The Light,” which Acuff enjoyed singing along with Jimmy Martin, who would trade verses with him.

Jimmy Martin was a huge admirer of Acuff and a bit of a cut-up as well. McEuen recalls Martin coming up to him prior to the recording and whispering “Hey John, I’m gonna sing this verse on ‘I Saw The Light,’ and I’m gonna sing so much like Acuff you won’t be able to tell us apart!” And true to his word, he sang in his best Acuff impersonation, which you can clearly hear on the record. McEuen admits its virtually impossible to tell them apart. Acuff ended up loving what the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did on the Circle record. Not only was it financially lucrative for him, he saw his name again on the charts. The album proved to be a significant boost to his career and his wallet.

Mother Maybelle was a character in another way entirely. As one of the true founders of country music, her influence to this day is staggering, but her humility was equally impressive. I asked McEuen how she enjoyed being in the studio with all those men? What was she like? One quote from that day says a lot. She approached Acuff, looked up at him, and in a voice that would melt any stranger, said “Roy, I wanted to make a record with you for a long time, and I’m glad we’re finally gettin’ together and doin’ it.”

At another point, Mother Maybelle says to the group, “If y’all don’t mind, I’d like to do ‘Wildwood Flower’ in the key of F standard, if ya’ll don’t mind.” When it came to recording the key track on the record, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” she politely told everyone “We’ll do ‘Circle’ in whatever key suits everybody.” In a word, according to McEuen, she was an angel. McEuen asked her one day “Maybelle, what do you do in a concert if you have trouble with a microphone?” Her reply cracked everyone up. “Well I just do what I tell the girls to do when they have trouble with the mic, smile real loud.”

The Nitty Gritty Dirt band members were blown away by Mother Maybelle’s humility and southern charm. In addition to singing and playing her now-famous Gibson L5 guitar at those sessions, she also played autoharp. Her tracks on the record also included another Carter Family staple, “Keep on The Sunny Side.” Years later, McEuen visited Mother Maybelle and presented her with a gift. It was a gold record of the Circle album, and as he explained to her that this award meant the album had sold north of 500,000 copies. She was astounded, and commented she couldn’t believe that many people heard the record.

Doc Watson, Jim Ibbotson, Earl Scruggs, Mother Maybelle Carter, William “Bill” McEuen

That is the power of the Circle album, it brought in a new generation of music fans who were eager to hear the beauty of original first-generation country music.

Another reason the Circle album was so noteworthy according to McEuen is that the sidemen that were in supporting roles to the stars of the day actually got their names on the album cover. Folks like Bashful Brother Oswald, who was always kept in the shadows by Acuff, now got some recognition and exposure due to the record, as did Junior Huskey, the bass player.

Perhaps Vassar Clements best illustrates this point, however. Prior to the Circle album, Vassar was an unknown name to the public, yet his fiddling was all over everyone’s records, from Jim and Jesse, to Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin and numerous others. It was a 17-year-old Vassar you heard fiddling on the now legendary Monroe tune “Uncle Pen.”

But despite all the recording he did for everyone, Vassar Clements got no printed mention. In fact, when they were in search of a fiddler for the album, McEuen asked Earl who he had in mind for the fiddle. Earl said he had indeed found “one man, his name is Vassar Clements.” McEuen, asked, “Can he handle all of it, you know playing all the styles on the album?” Earl’s reply was “He’ll do.”

Vassar Clements was an astounding ear trained fiddler who surprisingly could neither read nor write. Famously, he later put out a series of hillbilly jazz records that attracted considerable attention from the roots music community, and eventually he would play with David Grisman, Jerry Garcia, The Grateful Dead, Peter Rowan, Paul McCartney and many other giant names. These opportunities likely opened up due to the exposure he received playing on the Circle record.

Listen to the entire side four on the album, and you will hear a run of songs featuring Vassar Clements and the others displaying mind-blowing virtuosity. Songs like “Flint Hill Special,” “Togary Mountain,” “Avalanche,” and “Earl’s Breakdown,” as well as a breathtaking version of “Orange Blossom Special,” continue to dazzle listeners even today.

McEuen recalls the complexity of learning “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” on the fly from Vassar, attempting to play it in D-minor while in G tuning and having almost no time to practice it. It was a challenge that to this day he is thrilled to have had. I asked him if any other fiddlers had come along since Clements with a similar level of natural talent. He told me Michael Cleveland probably comes the closest.

The members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band are of course fantastic musicians in their own right, and their playing on this record solidified its success. You might say they were the house band of sorts for the record. Jeff Hanna got to sing with his hero Doc Watson, Les Thompson got to play mandolin with Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, Jimmie Fadden got to play harmonica, Jim Ibbotson got to play guitar, and of course John McEuen got to play banjo and a few other instruments along the way. He also got Earl to record “Soldiers Joy” with him.

But its noteworthy that both John McEuen and his brother Bill agreed from the start that the album should put the primary focus on the legends who had inspired the band. That is part of the genius of the concept. They didn’t set out to fundamentally evolve or alter the music in any way, nor did they attempt to modernize it or somehow make it edgy or more commercial. Instead they presented the music as-is and on the merits of its own unique beauty, allowing the founders of country and bluegrass music to speak for themselves.

In taking this approach, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band showed a deep reverence and respect for their musical heroes; their elders as it were, and that’s one of the biggest takeaways from the entire project. The Circle record remains special. It’s the album that took the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band from mere hit makers to a legacy band that would have a career that lasted over 50 years.

There were two sequel records to the Circle album which also were hugely successful, proving the concept could work again. But what this group of young musicians in their early twenties pulled off in 1971 is still astonishing to this day. Will The Circle Be Unbroken remains at the top of their numerous achievements. It’s a wonderful album. In fact, it’s a national treasure.

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If you are interested in more on the story of Will The Circle Be Unbroken, by all means check out John’s book Will The Circle Be Unbroken: The Making of a Landmark Album, available on Amazon. Or you can go directly to McEuen’s site and order an autographed copy.

Also be sure and catch him out there on tour with The Circle Band when he comes to a venue near you (check dates). And by all means go and see the Nitty Gritty Dirt Bands Farewell Tour happening this year. Many Thanks to John McEuen for providing this information, and granting interviews.

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