The 1971 collaboration of legendary Nashville bluegrass musicians and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a Southern California country-rock-jug group, was the genesis of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which Rolling Stone magazine would declare "the most important album to come out of Nashville." In this definitive, beautifully illustrated book, McEuen gives an inside look at the making of a landmark album, covering each of its thirty-eight songs and sharing previously unseen photographs taken by the author and his brother Bill McEuen, who produced the recording.
The story of the album begins after the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's cover of "Mr. Bojangles" became a surprise hit, when McEuen invited Earl Scruggs to join the band on a new project. Scruggs said yes—as did Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, and other country stars. For six days in the summer of 1971, the musicians sat in a circle facing one another, recording country and bluegrass standards in East Nashville's Woodland Studios. Out of that magical collaboration came one of the most iconic albums in American history, one that melded musical worlds, bridged generations, and captured the essence of Americana. Now, after fifty years, John McEuen invites readers to join him in the circle, hear the stories, and listen to the music.
Multi-instrumentalist John McEuen, best known as a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, is a key figure in the history of American folk music. Born in Oakland, California, McEuen grew up outside of Los Angeles and began playing the banjo at age seventeen. He won a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 2009, performed on his old friend Steve Martin's The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, and received the 2016 Independent Music Award for Best Americana Album for his own solo project, Made in Brooklyn. He was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2017.
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken is like a musical time machine. It takes me back to La Jolla, California, in the mid-1970s when I was learning to play banjo, cutting my teeth at bluegrass jams about one hundred miles south and fifteen years after the beginning of John McEuen’s banjo journey. There’s no telling how many times I listened to the Circle album, but when I revisit it now I realize that those tracks became a part of my musical DNA. Listening again to Earl and John’s gorgeous double banjo rendition of ‘Soldier’s Joy,’ I realize that I’ve spent most of my career trying to record a banjo duet as cool as that—and I’m still trying!”—Alison Brown, Grammy-winning American banjo player, guitarist, composer, and producer
"If one were to choose the most influential country record album of all time it would almost certainly be Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Fifty years later we now have this remarkable book, which not only chronicles how this pivotal moment came to be, but also fills out the saga with fascinating detail and backstory. Add to that the remarkable photographs—a great many never-before-published—which capture the interaction of these young men with the country music legends they so admired. Will the Circle Be Unbroken was, and is, a treasure. So is this book."—Ranger Doug, Harmony Ranch
“The Will the Circle Be Unbroken album was just as influential to my career as Sgt. Pepper’s. I remember like it was yesterday as my band was riding through downtown Louisville, Kentucky, after a gig, hearing a cut from the album. The Dirt Band had found a way to bring to light this music for an audience that had been unaware of it for too long. I thank The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Circle album for paving the road that I so happily traveled. The circle is infinite.”—T Michael Coleman, bass player for Doc Watson
"Will the Circle Be Unbroken defied record store placard definition. Was it country, rock, popular? The Circle was all of those. Countless bands, young in 1972 or new in 2021, connect with the Circle album. Every listen, you return. Now with these rare photographs, you see this event unfold."—Steve Martin, radio host of “Unreal Bluegrass”
“After reading John’s book Will the Circle Be Unbroken (the behind-the-scenes stories of the recording of the album of the same name), you get the feeling you were there! The album was truly a historic moment in American music history, and John takes us on the journey of how it all unfolded into reality: you get to ‘meet’ the players and hear them talk about the project and tell their stories, just as if you were a ‘fly on the wall’ of each session. Listening to the album afresh while reading the book brought goosebumps to me. It’s more than just a musical journey the Dirt Band was on—it is reliving a historic moment in time.”—Richie Furay, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee for Buffalo Springfield, founding member of Poco
“Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Vassar Clements, Merle Travis, and more. The Circle album, actually a bountiful three-record set of informally brilliant music-making, was a seismic acoustic event, the Dirt Band’s way of honoring their bluegrass and country heroes. It revived some careers and allowed the progenitors to reach a new and much wider audience. As someone on the festival scene in those early ‘70s, I saw the outdoor gatherings proliferate and found larger crowds to play for thanks to the vision of the Dirt Band and the willingness of their heroes to embrace a unique and unifying concept.”—Tony Trischka, renowned banjo player, recording artist, and educator
“One of my most cherished bluegrass possessions—which hangs framed on my office wall at the International Bluegrass Music Association headquarters in Nashville—is a well-worn copy of the album Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The album had a significant impact on my musical and professional journey, without question. And it stands as a seminal work that was important in developing the International Bluegrass Music Association and the lives of our members.”—Pat Morris, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association
“The Circle album was one of my very favorite albums ever recorded. It was absolutely magical from start to finish. I literally wore it out. The bass playing by Junior Husky and Ellis Padget formed much of the style I play today. I had to learn Padget’s break on ‘Lonesome Fiddle Blues’ as soon as I heard it. This album may be one of the main reasons I got into the music business.”—Terry Smith, three-time nominated and IBMA award–winning upright bass player for The Grascals
“For music fans who were ecstatic when they discovered the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken album in 1972, this book by John McEuen will be a real treasure. John fills us in on the making of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, from how he asked Earl Scruggs to be a part of the music project to stories from the studio. He also includes nearly a hundred never-before-seen photos from these 1971 recording sessions. John has done a great job in sharing more of its history, telling the story as only he can, from the memories of someone who was there when the idea for the album was born.”—Vernell Hackett, music journalist and former editor of American Songwriter magazine who has written for Billboard Magazine, Country Weekly, TheBoot.com, Reuters, and SoundsLikeNashville.com.
“The recording projects and the song Will the Circle Be Unbroken have been and continue to be a beautiful timeless centerpiece of country and bluegrass music. When I think of the many artists who contributed to both, it warms my heart as I remember it as a landmark project that displayed the ultimate comaraderie between artists and the talent that came together to create a historical album that continues to inspire fifty years after its creation.”—Rhonda Vincent, American bluegrass singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist
“This album affected virtually every string band musician, one way or another. Celebrating the prime movers of bluegrass and country music spotlit our heroes and their music, with benefits still coming to the whole community. The fellowship was palpable, a precious part of what naturally attracted a new generation of musicians worldwide—learning the songs, learning to pick. It sure helped me get banjo students, which led me to write an instruction book, which sold so well I quit my job and became a full-time musician. Still am! Thanks John, Earl, Doc, et al., and all the Nitty Gritties!”—Peter Wernick, Grammy-nominated banjo player, educator, and founder of Country Cooking and Hot Rize
"I've always believed the Circle record from 1972 was one of the most pivotal albums in country music history—not unlike the Ray Charles record Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, when someone outside the normal circle of our music loved it enough to want to put their stamp on it. It always seems to have an even deeper impact. For those long-haired California boys to reach back to the kings and queens of our music, like Mother Maybelle, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, his sons Randy and Gary, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, and Vassar Clements, shows their reverence and knowledge of the greatest that came before them. This is one of the most authentic recordings I've ever experienced."—Vince Gill, Grammy-winning musician, Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, and guitarist for the Eagles
“Thank you, brother John McEuen, for ‘reacquainting’ me with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken. What an impact these recordings have had on American music! Revisiting the musical journey of the Dirt Band has reopened up my own life’s musical influences and interests as a young boy growing up in households with parents and grandparents from Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, and California. Along my path as a musician, artist, engineer and producer, I hear their influences. These musicians and performers continue to inspire me to play, sing, and write my own music.”—Jim Messina, co-founder of Poco and Loggins & Messina, member of Buffalo Springfield
"The first classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken album was a substantial bridge between the first generation of bluegrass and my generation of Baby Boomers, many of whom were city kids who did not grow up in the South or with the music being played in their homes. But we were passionate about it, as we had been in general about the early '60s Folk Music boom, when many of us learned to play, and the curious sought out our elders on record and in concert. Bill McEuen did a masterful job of bringing together first-generation bluegrass and folk icons with their faithful disciples, and capturing many magical performances."—Bernie Leadon, founding member of the Eagles and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken is one of the most important musical recordings ever made. It is the generational bridge between the genius of Earl Scruggs, Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Doc Watson, and Jimmy Martin and the delightful new exposure Vassar Clements, Norman Blake and Bashful Brother Oswald received in the rock and pop world. These recordings just keep helping traditional country and bluegrass music survive and furthering the dignity and importance of the musicians featured.”—Sam Bush, American mandolinist, member of New Grass Revival, and International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame inductee
“Will The Circle Be Unbroken was like getting handed American music on a silver platter. I listened to it a thousand times, and so did many of my musician friends. The duet on ‘Soldier's Joy’ introduced me to the possibilities of instrumental harmony in traditional music, which became a centerpiece of my life's work. Did this record influence me? Hell yes!”—Michael Miles, banjo player and educator at Old Town School of Folk Music
NetGalley Review: 4 stars
Last updated on 14 Apr 2022
"My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher Rowman & Littlefield for an advanced copy of this new musical history on the making of a classic album.
Rock and popular music was going through some real birth pangs at the beginning of the 1970s. The Beatles had imploded, Manson was a scary recent memory, corporations were starting to look at record labels as places that minted money, and the music itself was in flux. A peaceful easy feeling was beginning to make strides in the California scene, and a lot of the kids and musicians were discovering or rediscovering country. In this atmosphere a young up and coming band, met up with a master of bluegrass. Compliments were made, plans discussed, and a classic album was set on the path of creation. Will the Circle Be Unbroken: The Making of a Landmark Album, 50th Anniversary is a telling of the music sessions and history of the making of said album written by multi- instrumentalist and member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band John McEuen, with photos by Bill McEuen.
The book begins at the beginning of the band, telling of the various members, their musical apprentices, influences and highlights. The success of their album Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy gave them a wider audience, and let to a meeting one night with banjo maestro Earl Scruggs. Known for his three finger style of playing banjo, Scrugs had been in many bands and was a huge influence on many that followed. Praise was passed, idle plans to record were made and from there the sessions grew. In addition to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Earl Scruggs, other musicians include Doc Watson, Merle Travs, Vasser Clements and an additional who's who of musicians. The album was recorded quickly, in only six days with songs done in only one of two takes. A three- set album was released and the rest is music history.
The book is a narrative history, with many pictures about the early days of the band, the players and sessions. There are plenty of behind the scene stories, jokes, tricks and fun little asides, that really make the book come alive. I enjoyed reading the book as I listened to the album, imagining what he sessions must have been like. There is a bit of repetition in the stories, some stories get told a lot, but if everyone is repeating it, well the story must be worth it. The writing is good, and the stories are fun and informative, not too much about the gear, though there are stories about guitars and instruments, but more about learning these songs from people the band respected, and the awe they felt most of the time playing.
A fascinating book about an album that well didn't make bluegrass cool, but brought it more into the stage lights. Music ebbs and flows, this one just caught the wave right Recommended for fans of the band, bluegrass and country music, and for people who like to read books about creativity and never being old enough to learn, and listening to those who have gone before and learning their lessons."—Dan O'Leary, bookseller