Listening: Circle turns 50

The sessions for the album Will the Circle Be Unbroken wrapped up 50 years ago Sunday on Aug. 14, 1972. The finished three-LP set begins with a false start and a tasty rendition of “The Grand Ole Opry Song,” then a couple minutes of conversation as they set up for “Keep On the Sunny Side.”

The banter between young and old artists continues throughout the album except for my favorite side, Side 4, which is a cascade of bluegrass instrumental bliss.

My first reaction to the massive set was being impressed by the cover design by Dean Torrence and his Kittyhawk Graphics: All the photos and information including articles about the sessions from Rolling Stone and the Nashville Tennessean, a listing of the musicians for all 37 tracks, and the way the middle record is enclosed in a pullout tab that inserted into the gatefold. The design acknowledges what a historic recording they had produced, and it was packaged as such.

Putting the vinyl on the turntable, I was initially disappointed that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took a back seat and put the spotlight on the older musicians, but then I heard Doc Watson sing “Tennessee Stud” (“Jimmie Driftwood wrote this thang”), and throughout I began to notice this wonderful fiddler named Vasser Clements, and I couldn’t help but notice how much fun it sounded like everyone was having.

As Randy Scruggs’ solo guitar cover of “Both Sides Now” faded out, I remember thinking it was an extremely nice album but not as good as Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy, the Dirt Band’s awesome LP of a year earlier. Through the years, though — through the years! — I’ve come to more fully understand what a moment this album was in the history of what has come to be known as Americana music, bluegrass, and country music in general, and how lucky we are that someone thought to gather these giants of the earliest times to play with an appreciative group of young musicians. Together they created something special and magical and enduring.

OK, I still listen to Uncle Charlie more often, but when I haul out these three venerable disks that I have carefully preserved for nigh on 50 years, and listen to the growing warmth between the old pros and the starstruck youngsters — well, it’s goosebumps and awe and appreciation.

A half-century later, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band are the seasoned old pros who continue to collaborate with their fellow musicians. Their new album, Dirt Does Dylan, features a handful of guest musicians, young and old, and is their most compelling studio album in decades.

I have always championed the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as one of the most underrated and under appreciated bands of my lifetime, but in recent years it’s begun to dawn on folks what an essential contribution these guys have made to the genre. I would argue that Circle wouldn’t have happened had Uncle Charlie not opened the eyes of the veteran players that these kids knew and respected their music, but yes, Will the Circle Be Unbroken put them in the category of legends as they played joyfully with the older folks and held their own.

(P.S. I don’t have a memory or receipt to say how much a three-record set cost in 1972, but I’m fairly sure I brought this home for around $10, which was quite a pretty penny then.)

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