1972’s “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” is the sound of longhaired Californians making old style country music with some of the people who invented the genre. It shouldn’t have happened- they agreed on nothing- not the right way to dress or live, not on sex or drugs- but the one thing that they had in common was a deep love for the tunes which form the traditional country music canon, and a desire to keep it alive.
In some ways, it’s a more important work than anything that any number of Byrds have come up with over the years, and yet it involves a fairly average West Coast country rock band and old folk whose careers were probably just about over for the second time- the early Seventies saw the Folk Revival turn into the singer-songwriter boom, and it was the likes of Carole King, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell whose commercial success persisted, and not any of the people on this record.
It was these unlikely and unpromising circumstances, however, which gave rise to the easy atmosphere- all the chat between the musicians was kept, and essentially, what we have here is a 42 song “seisun”.
The NGDB had sold enough records by this point for United Artists’ president Mike Stewart to hand over $22,000 for them to make the record, but even he thought of it as a pet project of the band, with little chance of success: “I don’t know if we’ll sell one copy, but you guys are so intent….this must be important.”
And it certainly was.
Just to be clear, some of those “old folk” were (and still are) regarded as legends- Roy Acuff, Vassar Clements, Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Merle Travis and Doc Watson. It’s a Who’s Who of the 20th Century Aristocracy of roots music- people who took the old songs from England, Ireland, Scotland and Appalachia and fashioned them into a whole new way of doing things for the proud new nation that their forefathers created through their blood and sweat.
From the youthful point of view, Dirt Band guitarist /songwriter Jeff Hanna recalled (in an LA Times article last year): "We were just a bunch of kids, all in our early 20s- the whole experience of recording it was so quick—it took less than a week to make—that it seemed at the time like kind of an exciting blur. But as time has gone on, the scope of the project has taken on a much bigger meaning. It's become more important to a lot of people, because it spanned generations and cultures."
The selection of songs is breathtaking- we kick off with “The Grand Ole Opry Song”, a raucous party tune if there ever was one, and “Keep on the Sunny Side”, the Carters’ amusingly ironic tune which is traditionally sung as if you are really quite miserable. Maybelle has all the dignity of age, a cracked emotive timbre from smoking and somehow, all the youthful delight and charisma with which she first played in the 20’s.
“Dark as a Dungeon”, lead by Merle Travis, is as good as Johnny Cash’s famous live version, if a little mellower; you really get a feel of the “lust” for the mine, in a time when the wages were more than any rural kid had ever dreamt of, but the working conditions led to death and mishap more often than not.
Roy Acuff leads a barnstorming “I Saw the Light”, at about three times the speed of Hank Williams’ original, but with harmonies intact and sense of joyful religious fervour; there’s also a hint of world-weariness which suggests that this isn’t the first time the singer has seen the light, and he just keeps forgetting where he put it.
Pete Doggett, in his book “Are you ready for the Country?”, summarised the essence of the project this way: “the Dirt Band imposed none of their own personality on the music they were chronicling. The album was the last gathering of the tribe who had once defined country music, but who were gradually being eased to the margins of the picture. It documented the passing of a torch…”
Therein lies the direct connection to the modern Americana movement- all of this happened before punk, and yet as Doggett observes in the same book: bands from the Long Ryders to the Jayhawks to Uncle Tupelo “viewed country music through the prism of punk”. Well, if it hadn’t been for this record, and mutual respect between the conservative traditionalists and the hippies, no one might have even remembered what this type of music sounded like by the time punk had burned out.
If you’re looking for the origins of our music, by all means look at what all the other country rockers did- but without the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Alt Country and Americana would sound completely different; the tunes, melodies and words of generations are preserved here for ever- yet they sound as fresh as the moment they first were first played or sung.
Socially and politically speaking, it’s also a monument to putting aside your differences and making something work together- maybe everyone concerned had listened to the Byrds in 1965 when they pleaded in “Turn! Turn! Turn!” for peace and reconciliation between the established order and the counter culture.