An Intergenerational Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Marks 50 Years Of Circle
In early June, fiddle player Ross Holmes made his way to an appointment in East Nashville to audition a rare and precious instrument. The violin, of unclear origin, is thought to be at least 300 years old, and it’s weird. Instead of a scroll above the tuning pegs, it has a carved head of a bald, bearded man. The unorthodox woodwork continues on the body, with far more flourishes and filigree than an ordinary violin. But then its most famous owner, the late country/bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements, was no ordinary musician.
Holmes came to play this fiddle, brought out of storage by a private collector, to see if it could be played on stage with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at a commemorative show late this year. Because 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of that band’s most famous and impactful album, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, a 3 LP set that transformed the national conversation around country and roots music in the 1970s. Also, because Vassar Clements emerged as star instrumentalist in the album’s wake. And because Ross Holmes is part of a younger generation in today’s Dirt Band, which is touring hard 56 years after its founding.
“It's going to be a spiritual experience,” Holmes says. “Playing Vassar's fiddle - who was one of my most influential heroes - with the Dirt Band? Those are the fiddle sounds that we heard on Will The Circle Be Unbroken. It's wild. God, it's f***ing wild.”
Circle, as it’s often shorthanded, was the first album that Holmes remembers placing on a turntable as a child in Fort Worth, Texas under the watchful eye of his father. Such memories resonate today, because the album united generations in its creation and its reception. It came about when the NGDB, a country rock band of 1960s/70s California hipsters, earned the trust and collaboration of some of the iconic elders of country and bluegrass music in Nashville. Groups who were thought to be worlds apart in Nixon’s America found common cause in music. The artists involved, their generous empathy toward one another, the repertoire of foundational songs, the warm ambience of Woodland Studio, the extravagant graphic design with its painstaking calligraphy, and the timing of the release all fused to produce a massively important document. It sold well over a million copies and inspired (eventually) two sequels. It was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2005 and its title lyric literally encircles the rotunda in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
“I see the album as sort of a consolidation of the ties that already existed between the counterculture world and bluegrass and folk music,” says musician and historian Pete Finney, author of the Library of Congress essay on Circle. “This album was sort of a manifesto or like a grand statement, not that it was meant to be, but it had the effect of bringing to the surface what already existed.”
Circle remains a thrilling, moving listen, with dozens of performances that set the gold standard for country music mastery. Like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music in 1953 and the multi-platinum O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack in 2001, it opened up a hidden world to countless fans, many of whom became amateur pickers themselves, which is the spirit of this music.
The anniversary will be marked later this year with a coffee table book by Dirt Band alum John McEuen featuring photographs taken by his brother William, who produced the recording sessions and much more. The Dirt Band will perform this September at the inaugural Earl Scruggs Music Festival, celebrating the founding father of bluegrass banjo who enabled the collaboration by being the first Nashville elder to sign on. Also, the Country Music Hall of Fame is planning a Circle-focused performance in its CMA Theater as part of an upcoming exhibit about the California country-rock movement of the 60s and 70s.
The Dirt Band has sometimes been overshadowed in the aura of country-rock bands that had wider followings in the 70s like The Eagles and Poco, but it's had a mighty career, with hit records across several decades and the kind of respect among its peers that led to two multi-artist Circle sequel albums, one of which won two Grammy Awards and the CMA Award for Album of the Year. Their regular and robust collaborations have cast a warm light on the nature of roots and country music.
A JUG BAND GOES ELECTRIC
When folk music swept American popular culture in the 1950s and 60s, the revival took different shapes in different regions. The West Coast, being an immigrant land that’s fond of experimentation of all sorts, became a magnet for folk musicians and rock and rollers who found a lot to build on and an audience that was wide open to novel approaches. The Grateful Dead formed out of a jug band and always stayed close to bluegrass music after all. Venues like The Ash Grove and the Troubadour became hotbeds for local and touring folk and roots stars, while McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica became a meet-up for the community and a source of instruction. Amid all this, The Dillards, an irreverent family band from Missouri moved to L.A. in 1962 and found plenty of work, including a recurring role on TV’s Andy Griffith Show. And it was The Dillards who showed Bay Area native John McEuen his future.
“When I was 17 and a half I went to a club after work,” McEuen said in a June interview. (The work was the magic shop at Disneyland where he started his lifelong friendship with Steve Martin.) A friend coaxed him to the influential Club Paradox in Orange, CA to see The Dillards. “They went up on stage and Doug (the banjo-playing Dillard) started ‘Hickory Hollow.’ And my heart stopped. They were like a perfect combination of the Smothers Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs. And they rocked the house with laughter and music. And that was what I wanted to do. That next year, I started college, and I got me a banjo.”
Nearby, teenagers Jeff Hanna and Jimmie Fadden became friends bonded by music. “I think we met each other in late 1965, early ‘66, maybe. Jimmie’s about a year younger than me. And he's an amazing cat,” Hanna says. “When we started, we were a jug band. You know, you got six guys that played the guitar. I was like, well, who's gonna be the rhythm section? So Jimmie and I volunteered. And I played the washboard, and Jimmie played the jug, the washtub bass, some harmonica as well.” A variety of musicians cycled in and out of the early Dirt Band, including Jackson Browne. When he left, John McEuen became the band’s anchor on banjo and fiddle. The group had a good run in the late 60s, experimenting with varied iterations of old-time and rollicking folk music. They released a string of albums, which included the top 40 hit “Buy For Me The Rain.” They played The Tonight Show and Carnegie Hall. Then, a pause.
“When the end of ‘68 rolled around, we just shut it all down. We were just burnt out,” Hanna says. “We are all of like 20 years (old). But we were pulling in different musical directions. And we just stopped our band. We all thought we were breaking up. It turned out to be a six- or seven-month break. And when we got back together, it became essentially the kind of Dirt Band that people are familiar with now with, you know, the California country rock thing.”
Reconstituted around the classic lineup of Hanna, Fadden, and McEuen plus Les Thompson and Jimmy Ibbotson (all multi-instrumentalists), the Dirt Band found a crafty manager and producer in John's brother William McEuen. Around the time they relocated to Colorado, they made the album Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, where all their strengths came into focus. It produced three successful singles - “Some of Shelly’s Blues” by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees, “House At Pooh Corner” by Kenny Loggins and the biggest hit, “Mr. Bojangles” by Jerry Jeff Walker. That gave the band the leverage with its label to embark on an adventure in Nashville, a half-formed notion to team up with veteran Grand Ole Opry stars to make an album. Their budget all-in was $22,000.
COMMUNION IN NASHVILLE
The project got its green light because of Earl Scruggs. The banjo master grew fond of the Dirt Band through his sons Gary, Randy and Steve, with whom he was having great success as the rocking bluegrass hybrid called the Earl Scruggs Revue. Gary became a fan of the Dirt band and took his folks to see them at a show in Nashville, where they first met. McEuen included “Randy Lynn Rag,” a fleet-fingered banjo instrumental composed by Scruggs on the Uncle Charlie album, and it impressed the father of the five-string banjo. A year later, during an encounter in Colorado, McEuen summoned the courage to ask Earl directly if he’d be willing to record with his band, and Earl uttered his famous words “I’d be proud to.”
A great deal of movement and effort and coordination followed by Bill McEuen, Earl’s wife Louise (his savvy and highly effective manager for decades) and the band. It’s all documented in detail in the forthcoming McEuen book. Yet the story of what happened is also well told in the grooves of the album itself, because Bill McEuen left a separate tape recorder running during the set-ups and arranging of the songs. The resulting spoken word audio - Maybelle Carter considering the right keys or instruments for her songs - Roy Acuff exhorting the gang to watch their tempo – is included between many of the songs, making the three LPs play like an aural documentary as much as a studio album.
Like any great epic, Circle begins with an invocation of the muse. “Grand Ole Opry Song” paints a sentimental portrait of Nashville’s iconic country music show, name checking stars then living and passed on, with Jimmy Martin’s brazen, bluesy voice leading the way. Then Mother Maybelle Carter is heard, relaxed yet regal, evoking the original Bristol Sessions of 1927, when she and her Carter Family trio made some of the first commercially successful country records. Her chiming guitar and rich vocal on “Keep On The Sunny Side” brings comfort, memory and electricity. Then we hear the first of many instrumentals, as McEuen and Scruggs execute the minor-keyed “Nashville Blues” in John’s long dreamed-of banjo duet. Here's where Vassar Clements comes in, doubling the tune's melody with Fadden’s harmonica for a sound uncannily like twin fiddles from a Bill Monroe performance. And Earl’s son Randy is here as well, just 18 years old, with a flatpicking solo that shows his student’s debt to guitarist Doc Watson.
Doc himself makes his big entrance at the top of Side 2 with his definitive version of Jimmie Driftwood’s “Tennessee Stud” and the feisty instrumental “Black Mountain Rag.” Doc was not a Nashville country musician like the other senior artists, but a North Carolina folk singer and guitar player who reset what others thought possible on his instrument. Jeff Hanna names leaning in to sing harmony on the chorus of “Tennessee Stud” as among his fondest memories of the sessions.
Jimmy Martin returns on Side 3 with his own song “Sunny Side Of The Mountain” sung with a microtonal precision and immense passion. It’s a clinic in bluegrass singing. More gentlemanly is Merle Travis, the innovative fingerpicker from Kentucky after whom Doc named his son. “Nine Pound Hammer,” with a light rhythm section from the Dirt Band, is sublime, and we hear Hanna exclaiming how great it was once it’s over. Travis returns later with “Cannonball Rag,” a quick, intricate duo with bass player Junior Huskey that stands out for its spareness. Huskey is the only Nashville session player called in for the Circle sessions and he’s on almost every track with his perfect timing and essential musical foundation.
This just scratches the surface of the resonant music on these six sides. Every tune teaches something about the core art of country musicianship and American song. Vassar Clements takes the lead on his signature tune “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” and solos with the abandon that made him the John Coltrane of bluegrass fiddling. Maybelle sings her most famous song “Wildwood Flower” and backs herself on autoharp, a formative American sound. And while the title song “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” with an ensemble cast joining voices feels like the album’s finale, it’s followed by a heart-filled instrumental arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” by a solo Randy Scruggs. The youngest artist at the session leaves us soothed and thinking about the future of roots music.
That deft sequencing was again the work of William McEuen. His brother John laid out for me all the ways in which Bill assured the longevity of the album. Bill produced the sessions, mixed to two-track, high-speed tape for maximum audio impact, edited in the studio banter as he ordered and mastered the album, designed the album cover with its Americana imagery, and took the studio photos that adorned the sprawling triple gatefold sleeve. “My brother always called this album ‘my masterpiece,’ meaning his masterpiece. And I'd say, ‘Well, Bill, there were other people there too.’ But I've grown to understand that it is his masterpiece. I was just a piece of the masterpiece. And I'm really at peace with that,” McEuen says with a twinkle. “And oh my god, am I glad he did what he did, because if I had made this album, it would have been one record and a picture of me and Doc Watson in front of a bus with the Dirt Band guys around, you know? It just wouldn't have been what it is.”
CIRCLING BACK TO DYLAN
The Circle album secured a place for the Dirt Band in history, but they accomplished much more, particularly in the 1980s when they got in tune with country radio. Starting with “Dance Little Jean” in 1983, they enjoyed a run of 15 top 10 songs, including chart-toppers “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)” and “Fishin’ In The Dark.” All along, Hanna had thought the Dirt Band would leave Circle behind as a one-off that couldn’t be repeated. But on tour in Europe with Johnny Cash and family, June Carter Cash got to reminiscing about her mother Maybelle. “She talked about how much her mom loved our band and referred to us as ‘them dirty boys.’ We got a kick out of that,” Hanna said. “And she was getting ready to leave, and she says, ‘you know, if you boys ever wanted to do another record, John and I would sure love to be involved.’ She left, and we're like, Oh, okay. We can quit resisting now.” The sessions for Circle II included Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Hanna hero Levon Helm and returning Circlers Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements and Roy Acuff. It won the CMA Album of the Year in 1990. They made it a trilogy in 2002.
Today’s band reflects a modern-day refresh. John McEuen, who’d stepped away from the Dirt Band between 1986 and 2001, resigned for good in late 2017, publicly airing complaints about his stature in the group and the band’s musical approach. (Hanna says their rift has been largely repaired.) That’s when Ross Holmes first got called to be a sub musician on dates that were on the books. Holmes was a veteran of extensive touring with Mumford & Sons and Bruce Hornsby, and he was close friends and neighbors with Hanna’s son Jaime, a respected songwriter and guitarist. That evolved into a decision to bring those musicians – both in their thirties – into the Dirt Band as formal members, along with Jeff Hanna and Jimmie Fadden, plus keyboard player Bob Carpenter (who joined in 1980) and bass player Jim Photoglo, author of the hit “Fishin’ In The Dark” and a member since 2016.
When the 2020 shutdown happened, it halted a robust touring schedule and rudely interrupted work on the band’s first new studio recording in more than a decade – a collection of Bob Dylan covers. While there are plenty of strong songwriters in today’s Dirt Band, Hanna and Holmes said the Dylan repertoire, besides being foundational to all of them, freed them to think like an interpretive working band, paving the way for an original studio album later. For Holmes, the sessions, produced by roots legend Ray Kennedy, conjured the immediate ensemble electricity that defined the Dirt Band’s story.
“Part of the reason why we chose ‘Quinn The Eskimo’ and ‘Country Pie’ is because we knew that we wanted to just sit in a circle around a mono mic and record jug band style, just like the Dirt Band did in 1966,” Holmes told me. “It was kind of this pinch me moment. I'm with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, recording Bob Dylan, in a circle, with a glass of whiskey. What a trip.”
Renewal is a fundamental value of folk and roots music. Elders pass on wisdom and bring young pickers into the circle, quite literally, to ensure continuity of the tradition after they’re gone. The Dirt Band – McEuen and Hanna especially – didn’t wait endlessly for an invitation into that circle. They pressed the situation, and the result was the monumental artistic and cultural achievement being celebrated this year. Circle, says Hanna was “the big bang” for his band and for his musical legacy. “It's super significant in that it was a moment in time where we got together and bridged this cultural and generational divide with these folks and got to hang out with our heroes in the studio and make music. And that's up in those memory banks and, you know, occupies a really beautiful place in all of us.”