‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band made some quite good albums in the early 1970s. Contrary to their name, the band did clean California-style country rock. Their greatest hit was Jerry Jeff Walker’s ‘Mr. Bojangles’. 

Then in 1972 they released ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’, a (now) two cd collection of country classics with several C&W greats fronting the band. At the time and for years thereafter, I didn’t much care for the album. Some of the artists – Mother Maybelle Carter in particular – were way beyond their prime. Others weren’t amongst my favorites – Jimmy Martin – and a couple I disliked – Roy Acuff, for one.

As years went by, the album’s reputation grew and grew. So about five years ago, I gave it another listen. To my surprise, I found an addition to my ‘desert island’ list.

It is, almost, a ‘live’ recording. There’s marvelous byplay recorded for the ages. The first meeting between Doc Watson and Merle Travis – again, not a favorite singer – in which Doc tells Merle he’d named his son for him is still moving after many listens.

Not every cut is great. Why did the band choose to have Doc Watson do a mediocre version of ‘The Tennessee Stud’ when the man who made it famous, Eddy Arnold, was still in his prime?

The band’s backups are simply great. They had thoroughly studied the music they were recording and clearly loved it. Nowhere is their professionalism clearer than on their cuts with Roy Acuff.

As a result of ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’, I had to reappraise Roy Acuff. Not only did I like the songs he sang for the album, especially ‘Wreck on the Highway’, his singing, his spirit, his vibrance stand out. And the band responds brilliantly.

Unlike some of his peers, Acuff never hints he’s an old man. Rests? Not for him. And as a former band leader and founder of the hugely successful Acuff-Rose music publishing venture, he seems in charge of his sessions.

How wrong I was about this album! What a gift the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band gave us!