As Told By John McEuen

with Caroline Wright
Photography by William E. McEuen

 

Introduction


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.

 

The Scruggses Stop By


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!’

 

A Confluence of Events

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.

McEuen Pops The Question

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.

 

Setting It Up With The Label

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.

Eggs at Earl’s Place

Staying at Earl’s house in Madison for rehearsals, playing music all day and ping-pong most the night, I thought I had died and gone to Picker’s Heaven.

I was sleeping in one of the boys’ bedrooms — they were relegated to a couch – and one morning I awoke in a daze, bacon smell rolling in from the kitchen. And all of a sudden I hear, really quiet: Tink tink tinka tink, tink tink tinka tink… Earl was sitting on the edge of the bed playing ‘Bugle Call Rag’ really slow, without picks. I rolled over and said, ‘This is the best wake-up call I ever had!’

He said, ‘Well, your eggs are ready!’

Over eggs I found out that as a child Gary would leave the room when his dad played ‘Randy Lynn Rag.’ He’d stomp out and say, ‘Daddy never wrote a tune for me!’ So I named an instrumental I wrote for the album — ‘Togary Mountain’ — after Gary.

“He’ll Do”

I thought we might need several fiddle players to handle the different styles, because some of it was ripping bluegrass and some was sweet old country. I asked, ‘Earl, have you found enough fiddle players?’

‘Ah found one man.’

‘What’s his name?’

‘Vassar Clements!’

Now, I hadn’t heard of Vassar. I’d actually heard his music, but they didn’t have album credits on Jim & Jesse albums and Monroe albums. I asked Earl, ‘Can he handle all the styles?’

And Earl said, emphatically, ‘He’ll do.’In The Studio

[Song selection] was mainly left up to the artists themselves, to pick four or five songs. We wanted to make sure we recorded some original material of the musicians like Vassar and Oswald, so they could get some publishing money. They hadn’t really experienced that before.

Although the Dirt Band had to learn a lot of new songs, Jimmy Ibbotson could really kill ‘Lost Highway,’ and Jeff and Jimmie Fadden really shone on “Honky Tonkin’, and Jeff on ‘You Are My Flower.’ That was one of the Dirt Band songs we brought our take to. To get Vassar to play a little jazzy guitar on ‘Honky-Tonkin’ was really cool. Most people don’t know that was him, all over the scales!

The band got totally behind everything, and that’s why we were able to get most of the songs in one or two takes. ‘Flint Hill Special’ was the only song that took seven takes. The group just didn’t gel! But Scruggs nailed it every time, including one of the hardest endings on any song he’d written. It was really inspirational. Then Roy showed up and said, ‘My policy in the studio is to get it right the first time!’

The King of Country Music

One tense time for us West Coast longhairs was waiting for the King of Country Music, Roy Acuff, to bestow upon us his blessing and consent to record with us. On his scheduled day, the last of the six-day Circle sessions, he walked in the studio and said, ‘Let’s see what you boys have been up to.’

Bill had picked four cuts to play for our Acuff ‘test.’ As they played, Roy sat silently, formulating his opinion. At the end of the last song, gazing silently at the ceiling, he finally broke his silence.

‘Now, just what kind of music do you boys call that?’

‘Uh, well… it’s kind of Appalachian… bluegrass, or traditional mountain… old-timey… American folky…’ my brother stuttered.

Roy responded, ‘Hell! It ain’t nothing but country music… good country music! Let’s go make some more, boys!’ There were cheers in the control room. It was a wonderful moment for us all.


Mother Maybelle

Recording with Maybelle felt like a trip back in time. She never seemed to think of herself as an icon of American music. She had all these great songs, and Earl told me she had only been able to get a job as a nurse in the early 1960’s.

We were in the studio with her, in the middle of starting the fifth song, when the company lawyer from Columbia Records called.

‘I’ve got good news!’ he told me. ‘You guys have approval to do one song with Maybelle Carter!’

After I hung up, Bill asked me who the call was from. ‘Oh, no one important,’ I said. And then I went out to play mandolin next to the musical matriarch.

I took Maybelle her first gold album a few years later. I didn’t know Circle was her first gold until she told me. I thought, ‘Surely you’ve had some before this!’ But her songs and acclaim had come prior to gold records. I’ll never forget her saying, ‘I didn’t know that many people even heard those old songs!’

More Studio Memories

I had a crummy banjo. My good banjo had gotten stolen in Miami 12 days before the sessions started, and I had to buy one in Gainesville on our way to Nashville. I just went into a music store and got the best one they had; I think it was an RB-800. It’s now in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — the banjo that was used on the Circle album!

When I was playing with Jimmy Martin, I had to pick so hard that I actually ripped the strings out of the bridge! Fortunately I got another bridge. I guess I hit it a little too hard. We were doing ‘Walking Shoes.’ Jimmy was dead-on right when he said, ‘Naw, that rhythm ain’t right! Hit it more like THIS! No, like THIS! No, more like THIS!’

I asked Louise Scruggs about Jimmy a few years later. She said, ‘Well, I told Jimmy that if he messed this one up, I was never gonna talk to him again!’ We were told he was holding back. He was to bluegrass what Bob Wills was to swing music. He put me on edge. He put everyone on edge – but it was his edge.

I remember Jeff leaning over Doc’s shoulder to sing harmony, and Jimmie playing harmonica sitting next to Vassar, working out their parts just before recording… and then nailing them. Jimmie Fadden is a magical harmonica player. When he plays harmonica, it sounds like a hit record to me.

It went so smoothly that I felt we were all on a ride we hadn’t foreseen. Around Day Three, when Maybelle said, ‘On that old record, I started it like this…’ I felt we were on that old record, sitting in front of a megaphone, recording like she did in those early days.

About The Studio

We recorded at Woodland Sound. A sixteen track multi-track tape was set up, and we did the first song with the two-track AND the multi-track. But after the first song, it was like, let’s turn off the multitrack! Why create something you have to mix down, when you play back the two-track and there’s nothing to do?

The studio had a doorway next to the left speaker, which acted as kind of a false bass cabinet. When Bill got the tapes back to L.A., the bass was a bit to the right — whereas in Woodland it seemed dead center. Having the bass center helps the other instruments sometimes, and it was also the habit of the day. That was the only adjustment that had to be made, and it wasn’t mixing; it was EQ adjustment.

On The Seventh Day… Playback

We recorded for six days, and on the seventh, we played back. The album was finished August 10, and done the minute we stopped recording; it only had to be edited. Approaching it like a film, Bill was responsible for the creative editing that made this a piece of art, rather than just a bunch of songs with some conversation between them. He built it into a flowing event, with the art, the concept and the title. ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ became obvious as the title after his editing.

Bill found that photograph of General Porter that he felt fit the cover. It seemed to him to capture the North and the South, and the history of America. The album was printed on chrome coat board, very thick. The record company didn’t want to make the cover, but they did. And it got a Grammy nomination!

My sister-in-law, Bill’s wife Alice McEuen, did the calligraphy. It took her about four days. She writes like that to this day.

Playback with the Dirt Band, Doc, Earl, Maybelle, and producer William E. McEuen (in copper shirt); photo by John McEuen

Four Years To Gold

The Dirt Band all got behind it, loving it, though the risk that was taken could have ended our career. The album didn’t chart because the company was so timid about making them. The album cover was the most expensive made at the time]. It had to be printed as a three-record set with great big sleeves. The record company would only make 25,000 at a time, and it cost them about $1.50 in 1971 to make one. That means the cover was costing more than the actual LPs to make!

It would take three weeks to replicate, package and ship 25,000. Billboard would call and say, ‘How many did it sell this week? None?’ Well, that’s because there weren’t any to sell! They’d call again the next week. ‘How many did it sell? None?’ There weren’t any to sell! Three weeks later, there would go another 25,000!

There were all these little breaks, but by the end of six months, it was approaching a couple hundred thousand sold of a three-record set – one of the most expensive on the market. It didn’t take long for it to get to gold status.

Gold and Beyond

Will The Circle Be Unbroken was released in late 1972 and certified gold (500,000 units) in May 1973. It earned two Grammy nominations, provided Roy Acuff with his first chart record in 20 years (“I Saw The Light” and would ultimately be inducted into the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry and the Grammy Hall of Fame. The album was first released on CD in 1986. In 2002, John McEuen remastered a two-CD set of the 30th anniversary edition of the album for Capital. It contains a total of 42 cuts, including four previously unavailable tracks of music and studio conversation. At the end of 2012, EMI/Capital plans to release a 40th anniversary vinyl reissue.

In 2004, Zagat asked more than 10,000 listeners to create a list of the top 1,000 albums of all time, and to name their favorites across more than 20 genres and 80 years of music. Will The Circle Be Unbroken was named the top country record of all time.

The man at the record company, Mike Stuart, who said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll sell ten of these, but I’ll put up the money…’ I talked to him six years ago. He said, ‘John, I’ve got three albums in my office: John Lennon’s first solo album that I put together; Tina Turner’s album; and I’ve got the Circle album.’ Of the hundreds of things he’d been responsible for, Circle was one of his three proudest accomplishments.

If I could only do one thing over, I’d have Merle Watson contribute musically to some of the songs. Merle was instrumental in getting Doc’s attention and telling him, ‘Dad, I think you ought to do this.’ But he stood so far back in the background. He said, ‘I don’t need to be part of this. It’s about my dad.’How It Ever Could Have Happened In The First Place

The age span on that record — I think Randy Scruggs was 16, and Acuff was about 65 or 70. Sixty-five, in that time period, seemed like a hundred! When Earl did that album he was part of the old guard, the Establishment. I am now 18 years older than Earl was when he did the Circle album.

Let me describe something: The country’s in turmoil. There’s war going on. Some people don’t know or care anything about it; some think it’s the most important thing. The right and the left are fighting like they’ve never been fighting. Very few things are getting done. There’s factions in the country that seem to be exhibiting little respect for the other side, no matter what the argument is, or how strong it may be. That’s now.

And that was then, too, in 1970. But the difference then was that the body count was on the nightly news. Kids had been shot on a college campus, churches were being burned, marchers were being killed. Things are better now, though still very difficult. But the Circle album came together at a very difficult time in America, to show that music does transcend politics. Roy Acuff was about as Republican as one can get; we were California longhairs. But it was about the music, and it was about showing that this country is great in things that politicians can’t control: music and culture.

It was just us. It was a confluence of events. It was American music.

 


 

John McEuen is an American musician, a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, CEO of SyndicatedNews.Net and the proud dad of seven children, including sons Jonathan and Nathan, with whom he recently released the acclaimed album The McEuen Sessions: All For The Good (2012, Mesa/Bluemoon Recordings). Visit www.johnmceuen.com or www.themceuensessions.com for info and tour dates.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (2012 lineup: Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter, John McEuen) is currently on a tour of 95 North American cities. In 2009, they released the critically acclaimed Speed of Life on Sugar Hill Records. Visit www.nittygritty.com for info and tour dates.


 

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Reprinted with permission from IBMA’s IB: International Bluegrass; visit www.IBMA.org
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