Will The Circle Be Unbroken -- When The Hippies Jammed With The Hillbillies

Music | June 9, 2021

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Source: (nostalgiacentral.com).

They Began In An Entirely Different Genre

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band started as a psychedelic string band, and after three albums, they had only had one minor hit, “Buy For Me The Rain.” They changed course a bit with their 1970 album, Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy, which introduced “House At Pooh Corner,” and also included a cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles,” which was quite different from the other music being released at the time. “Mr. Bojangles,” a stripped-down country song, was a hit, and the band, a group of California hippies, decided to continue on that path that the song set out for them. 

Earl Scruggs, who really helped to get the project going. Source: (Tumblr).

The Conception Of The Album

When the band stopped at Vanderbilt University in Nashville while out on tour, Earl Scruggs, the pioneering banjo player, came backstage to meet them, and spent a bit of time with them, making the suggestion that they play together sometime. Later, after the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band moved to Colorado, they saw Scruggs play, revived the discussion of recording together. John McEuen’s brother Bill suggested that they work with Scruggs on a broader project. Recognizing the necessity of keeping the roots of country and bluegrass music alive, with the help of Scruggs, they put together a group of legends, including Roy Acuff, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, and Mother Maybelle Carter among others. Acuff described them as "a bunch of long-haired West Coast boys," while the other players were better known from the 1940s and were primarily bluegrass and old-time country players. They invited Bill Monroe to join them, but he declined because he didn’t think his fans would understand his presence with the group; Monroe has an amicable relationship with the group though.

Source: (Discogs)

Creating The Album

The title of the album is taken from the song by Ada R. Habershon and rearranged by A.P. Carter. It reflects the goals of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: to connect two generations of musicians and to bring the musicians and music to a new generation. The album, which was recorded in six days at Woodland Studios in East Nashville, was originally released in 1972 and featured three LPs or three tapes. Each track was recorded on the first or second take, directly to two track masters. The end result captured that raw recording sound. During the sessions, they had another tape which ran continuously, capturing their discussions. On the final record, many tracks include their discussions before the song itself.

Maybelle Carter. Source: (Reddit).

Roots Of The Title Song

In addition to the titular song, the album includes many songs arranged by A.P. Carter, who had traveled throughout Appalachia to find songs to arrange for the Carter family to record. "Mother" Maybelle Carter joined the group to record The Carter Family's "Keep on the Sunny Side" for Will the Circle Be Unbroken. 

Vassar Clements. Source: (Sounds Like Nashville).

The Band Was Not In The Spotlight

Throughout the album, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band allowed the other musicians to take the lead. The full band played on “You Don’t Know My Mind,” which was one of the only tracks to include the electric bass and drums. It did not, however, become a crossover piece,  and they allowed Bill Martin and fiddler Vassar Clements, also called the Father of Hillbilly Jazz, to have the spotlight. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band members did join in throughout the album; the banjo/mandolin player, John McEuen had solos and joined the masters. Hanna sang along with Doc Watson on the chorus harmonies for “Tennessee Stud.”

Doc Watson. Source: (Music Wiki-Fandom).

What Came Later

The album found critical and commercial success, hitting No. 4 on the Billboard country albums chart. In 1974, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performed at the Ozark Music Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, to a crowd of almost 35,000 people. The album was part of a larger movement though, with musicians like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, and Neil Young coming to Nashville; it also inspired people like Bruce Springsteen, whose music is somewhere between rock and country. But it also inspired some other openings between the two genres, as Doc Watson later recorded a rockabilly album, Docabilly, in 1993.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken was certified platinum in 1997. They recorded two subsequent albums as well, Will the Circle Be Unbroken Volume Two, and Will the Circle Be Unbroken Volume III. Volume II won the CMA’s 1989 Album of the Year and three Grammys.

Tags: 1970s Music | Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

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Linda Speckhals


When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.