Album #8: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’

During a long reporting trip to Washington and Baltimore in 2002, I began listening to WAMU, which at that time played a lot of bluegrass — not the sort of thing I normally liked (or so I thought). But as I was driving around from interview to interview, I started to enjoy what I was listening to. After I got back home, I started listening to the WAMU internet stream on occasion.

That led me to check out  the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a 38-song compilation starring some of the great bluegrass and old-time country stars of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. As this Wikipedia article explains, many of these folks’ careers were on the decline, supplanted by the slick Nashville sound that eventually morphed into (God help us) contemporary country music. By contrast, there is a real sense of authenticity to “Circle,” an album of traditional music about God, death and heartbreak, with a backdrop of virtuoso playing by guitarist Doc Watson, banjo player Earl Scruggs and fiddler Vassar Clements. Many of the songs are instrumentals, and the musicianship is so stunning that it sounds like bebop from an alternate universe.

The album cover is a real period piece, depicting the American and Confederate flags and a picture of an unnamed military officer. Obviously that would never fly today. But in the ’70s, there was still quite a bit of Confederate nostalgia infecting the culture, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — a country-rock band from Southern California — was not immune. Around the same time, the Band was recording “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” an ode to the Confederacy that was an enormous hit for Joan Baez, just to give you an idea of how pervasive it was.

Of all the guest stars on “Circle,” my two favorites are Mother Maybelle Carter, from the original Carter Family, and Roy Acuff, who leads on two of the strangest, most intense songs on the album. “The Precious Jewel,” which Acuff wrote, is a weeper about a young love who’s gone on to her reward in heaven. “Wreck on the Highway,” written by Dorsey Dixon, and first recorded by Acuff in 1942, is even wilder. Here’s a taste:

There was whiskey and blood all together
Mixed with glass where they lay
Death played her hand in destruction
But I didn’t hear nobody pray

Acuff’s singing is a revelation — a ragged, full-throated yowl that stands in contrast to the polite vocalizing on most of the album. Bruce Springsteen was so impressed by “Wreck on the Highway” that he wrote a completely different song by the same name — one of his finest, which captures the bleakness of its predecessor if not its weird mixture of piety and violence.

Maybelle Carter was a member of the first and second iterations of the Carter Family as well as the mother of June Carter Cash. She’s the only woman on the album, and her participation gives the entire project the feel of a last roundup. She takes the lead on “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” “Wildwood Flower” and, of course, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” She also plays autoharp, which isn’t something you hear much of these days.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band itself pretty much disappears on “Circle,” providing little more than some background accompaniment. They released a second volume in 1989 that fails to recapture the magic despite the presence of Johnny Cash and John Prine. A third, released in 2002, is better, and features the likes of Alison Krauss, Willie Nelson, Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris, June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash and Dwight Yoakam as well as old standbys Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and Jimmy Martin.

Oh, and you can still listen to Bluegrass Country. I had it tuned in Sunday morning, when they played several hours of gospel music by the Stanley Brothers.

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