Thirty years before
T-Bone Burnett gathered a bunch of excellent musicians
in a Nashville studio to re-create early country music
for the O Brother soundtrack, the Nitty Gritty
Dirt Band enticed such legendary country artists as Mother
Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Doc Watson,
Earl Scruggs, and Jimmy Martin to join them in the studio
for a week of sessions playing country music. The result
was the landmark three-record set, Will the Circle
In addition to turning
on an entire generation to country musicians they might
not have paid attention to, the album served to give the
Dirt Band, who were coming off a pretty big hit with "Mr.
Bojangles" and were considered a good but not great band,
something they strongly desired, credibility.
Recently reissued by Capitol
as a two-CD set complete with the mandatory bonus tracks,
the album more than holds up. In fact it possibly sounds
more vital now than it did back then. Assisted by some
of the best session pickers at the time such as bassist
Junior Huskey, Pete "Oswald" Kirby on dobro, the amazing
fiddle player Vassar Clements, guitarist Norman Blake,
and Randy Scruggs, who was just emerging as a guitar ace,
theres a natural ease to the playing that results
not only in a celebration of this music but of young getting
together with old to keep the tradition going. It is clear
with every note that all the musicians are having one
hell of a good time.
The music encompasses the
various genres within country with a healthy dose of bluegrass
instrumentals, which on the original release took up almost
an entire side of the album. Bluegrass for the most part
means fast, and the combination of Earl Scruggs on banjo,
Vassar Clements on fiddle, and Norman Blake or Randy Scruggs
on lead guitar is hard to beat. The Dirt Band werent
slouches either, and John McEuen on banjo and Les Thompson
on mandolin easily hold their own with the masters. And
as much as this speedy picking is often about showing
off, on this album it is done without flash, always with
taste, and the result is pleasurable and amazing.
While the legendary singers
did their classics, whether it was Maybelle Carter doing
"Keep on the Sunnyside" and "Wildwood Flower," Merle Travis
on "Dark as a Dungeon" and "Nine Pound Hammer," Jimmy
Martins "Sunny Side of the Mountain" and "You Dont
Know My Mind," or Acuff with "Wreck on the Highway" and
"I Saw the Light," they never come off as set period pieces,
they come off as alive. Whether the original recording
of the song was better or not never comes into question.
It seems silly now, but
at the time this record was made, the Nitty Gritty Dirt
Band were more or less hippies, particularly in the eyes
of Nashville, and many of the musicians, Acuff in particular,
were as right-wing as you could get. According to the
new liner notes of the reissue, Acuff said in an interview,
"Ill play real country music anytime, anywhere,
with anyone," and producer Bill McEuen wanted to see if
hed live up to that statement. Acuff more than lives
up to it. His singing on this album is so real its
If theres a problem
with this album, it is the overuse of between-song conversation.
While it gives you the feeling of being live in the studio
feel, much of it is superfluous. One exception is when
Doc Watson first meets one of his great influences, Merle
Travis, telling him how he named his son after him, making
Travis guess what his favorite Travis album is. The most
unnecessary of these tidbits is only on the reissue as
a bonus track, where theyre figuring out the arrangement
to "Keep on the Sunnyside." That it doesnt lead
into the song itself makes no sense and ultimately it
is a one-time listen.
While the Dirt Band for
the most part leave the singing to their guests, the vocals
of Jimmie Fadden, Jim Ibbotson, and Jeff Hanna on a trio
of Hank Williams songs fit right in.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
ended up fading out of the limelight once this albums
impact had passed, but they are still together, and in
fact touring this summer. Still, they deserve not only
credit, but also thanks for bringing this incredible group
of musicians together and making it work. Those who may
have recently discovered real country music on soundtrack
albums should absolutely check this album out. Will
the Circle Be Unbroken is about playing music, and
playing music is what its all about.
When she was
well into her late 70s, my grandmother, who as far
as I knew never listened to music except to watch Lawrence
Welk every week on TV, blew my mind one day by saying,
"I saw Doc Watson on TV the other night, and he played
and sang beautifully." That Doc Watson appealed to my
grandmother shouldnt be surprising. Perhaps the
only "real" folksinger to emerge from the 60s folk
movement, hes a good, almost always pleasant singer
and of course one of the greatest guitarists alive. What
is surprising is that after more than 40 years, Doc Watson
is still pretty much in the folk camp, playing colleges,
small halls, and clubs. Hes never been signed to
a major label, but maybe he wants it that way.
On Round the Table Again
(Sugar Hill), which reunites him in concert with his (late)
son Merles band Frosty Morn, he is introduced as
a "national treasure." That description couldnt
be more accurate.
If age has caught up with
Watson (who was supposed to retire from performing several
times), its not evident. His voice may be a tinge
huskier, but thats it. His crystal clear picking
is as fluent and astounding as ever.
His repertoire has always
been intriguing. At this show, he goes from traditional
country such as Clarence Ashleys "Coo Coo Bird,"
to Merle Haggards "Working Man Blues," to Jimmie
Rodgers, Blind Boy Fuller, and for better or worse the
Frosty Morn are joined
on this album by Merle Watsons son Richard, who
shows during his occasional solos that hes inherited
both his fathers and grandfathers guitar talents.
Frosty Morn provide subtle but not necessarily stellar
backing for Doc. However, when they take over the singing
for a few originals, Mance Lipscombs "Sugar Babe"
and a useless version of Dylans "You Aint
Goin Nowhere," it seems like an interruption more
than anything else. The one exception is the bluegrass
gospel original "Court on High."
Watson gives a lengthy
explanation to "Nights in White Satin," saying he never
thought he would do it on stage, and even though he pulls
it off, one has to wonder why he did it. More successful
is his cover of the Moonglows hit, "Sincerely."
The album ends strangely
with an unlisted bonus track collage of various (rehearsal?)
outtakes with snippets of songs on the album and some
that arent. While the good moments are very good,
this album is for die-hard Doc Watson fans only.