Photography by William E. McEuen
Over a six-day period in August 1971, an elite group of bluegrass and traditional country legends joined a band of long-haired West Coast folk/country-rock musicians at a very special Nashville studio to create an unprecedented, groundbreaking recording whose extraordinary success and cross-generational appeal could not be anticipated.
For everybody involved, it sure did take some nerve.
It also took the suspension of many things -- disbelief, political agendas, musical xenophobia, and egos, just for starters -- that wouldn’t serve this recording at all, and might even have prevented it, had they not been set aside for the sake of the music.
In this story, John McEuen, a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, talks at length about the origins of Will The Circle Be Unbroken, his memories of the six-day session at Woodland Sound in Nashville, and his impressions of some of the artists who gathered there: Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Mother Maybelle Carter, Vassar Clements, Merle Travis, Roy Acuff, Bashful Brother Oswald Kirby, Jimmy Martin, Norman Blake, and Roy ‘Junior’ Huskey.
The album is recognized as an American classic, and McEuen is eager to tell the story of its origins. “A long list of things happened to make this album come about, a whole confluence of events. I think it’s important to relate them as best I can, for the record. It’s the most important recording I’ve ever done in my life,” he adds simply.
In his own words, here is John McEuen’s story of the Circle.
In October 1970, Jimmie Fadden and I were setting up in the Vanderbilt Gym for our first Nashville concert. The stage crew kept saying, ‘We heard Earl Scruggs is coming tonight!’
In the dressing room, for yucks, I put my banjo way out of tune and played ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ as poorly as possible for my brother Bill [producer William E. McEuen]. There was a knock at the door.
Playing worse with each step toward the door, I said, ‘Okay, I’m ready to meet Earl Scruggs!’
I opened it to stare out at the entire Scruggs family.
Earl grinned and said ‘Hi!’
I said, ‘Ohhhh! Just a minute!’ and closed the door. ‘Hey, Bill,’ I said to my brother. ‘Guess who’s on the other side of this door right now?’
I invited them in and tried to explain the joke. I worked up the courage up to ask Earl to pick one on my banjo. Before I finished the question, he had his picks on, and he tore up ‘Fireball Mail’ -- the best I’d ever heard it.
He made my night when he said he’d come to see the band because he ‘wanted to meet the boy who played “Randy Lynn Rag” the way I intended to!’
I had found out about Earl Scruggs as a 17-year old following Doug Dillard around in Southern California. Sometimes he’d play something unusual for me backstage and say, ‘Check out Earl Scruggs! Check out J.D. Crowe! Listen to Eddie Adcock!’ Doug was my conduit to the door that Earl opened.
We wouldn’t have had Will The Circle Be Unbroken if Jeff Hanna hadn’t heard ‘Mr. Bojangles’ one night, driving home from rehearsal. We were rehearsing for Uncle Charlie [Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, Liberty, 1970] and we needed one more song. Jeff came in the next day and said, ‘I heard this song on the radio!’ Jimmy Ibbotson had Jerry Jeff Walker’s record of the song under his spare tire, all covered with rusty water. We cleaned it off, Jeff learned it and taught it to the rest of us, and we recorded it.
Uncle Charlie had a bunch of eclectic acoustic sounds on it. ‘Some Of Shelly’s Blues’ (which starts with frailing banjo), ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ ‘Clinch Mountain Backstep.’ Those are the songs I was told Merle Watson played for Doc, the songs Gary and Randy played for Earl. ‘Hey, Dad! Listen to this new band from California! They’ve got mandolins and harmonicas and banjos and fiddle…’ It was the sons. They had been made aware of the group by their sons, and that definitely gave us credibility.
The Earl Scruggs Revue was performing in Boulder, CO by the following spring, and our friendship grew. That June, while taking Earl back to his hotel after his show at the famed Tulagi’s, I finally got up the nerve to ask a question I’d been thinking about for a month.
‘Earl.. I was wondering… if you think you might… or would want to… or would consider... if... uhhh... Could you -- I mean, would you -- record a couple of songs with the Dirt Band?’
I remember looking in the rearview mirror, seeing Jeff’s eyes widen with excitement. Earl’s immediate answer -- ‘I’d be proud to!’ -- made it difficult for me to go to sleep that night.
Two weeks later Doc Watson was playing the same club. I was a little bolder. I said, ‘We’re making an album with Earl.’ We weren’t really making anything yet. Then Doc said yes!
That night my brother told me he’d just read where Roy Acuff said in an interview he’d make real country music with any one, any time. We asked Earl if he could get us in touch with Acuff. We wanted Merle Travis, for sure… Maybe we could find Jimmy Martin… And we’d need some fiddlers. Louise Scruggs, and Earl, had said they’d ask Maybelle Carter; Louise also promised to pull in Jimmy Martin in for us.
From the time that first question was asked, it was seven weeks later we started recording… and six days later we were done.
At the end of June 1971, Bill and I had a meeting with Mike Stewart, the president of United Artists, to get the money for the recording. Thankfully, Jeff Hanna had picked songs for Uncle Charlie that got on the radio, and that gave us success, and credibility with label. We were going in from a position of power, rather than just coming with an idea of making a bluegrass album.
Mike said, ‘Well, I don’t know if I’m going to sell ten of these! But you two seem really passionate about it.’ The budget was $22,000. That covered studio time, tape, hotels, food. I did the contract filing and hotel booking; my brother booked the studio; rehearsals were arranged. Everybody made contributions.
Five weeks later, a week before recording, we got to Nashville.