In August 1971, a group of musicians spent six days circled up in the old Woodland Studios building on a corner street in East Nashville, Tennessee. Amid the sticky late-summer heat, they merged genres and generations, recording around 40 bluegrass and country tracks to create a landmark album.
Released the following year, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” was the seventh album by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a California country-rock group formed in 1966. The West Coast Dirt Band members collaborated with some of the top bluegrass and country artists of the time to create this multi-platinum record, which has been inducted into the Library of Congress and the Grammy Hall of Fame as “one of America’s most important historic recordings.”
In celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary, musician and former Dirt Band member John McEuen has assembled a crew called “The Circle Band” to share the music and memories of this iconic record.
McEuen’s ensemble of string-playing storytellers includes former Dirt Band members Les Thompson and John Cable and his 25-year music partner Matt Cartsonis.
“We do our favorite Dirt Band songs, and we tell a lot of stories from the ‘Circle’ album with those songs, and I’ve got video running behind me and old photos from our recording sessions — the video will talk for a little and then we play,” McEuen said. “I want to make sure people know we’re there with a special show. Every song has a purpose.”
The Circle Band is bringing its multimedia-music performance to Colorado the first week of April, taking the Ute Theater stage in Rifle on April 1, followed by shows in Denver, Boulder and La Veta.
McEuen, who lived in Colorado from 1972-92, said he “always feels at home” when he returns. The musician especially looks forward to celebrating “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” on Colorado stages, as he initiated the making of this album at the old “Tulagi” tavern and performing venue in Boulder over 50 years ago.
“I knew Earl Scruggs was going to be playing at Tulagi, and so I went and I asked him if he would record with us,” recalls McEuen, who was the young banjoist in Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at that time. “And Earl said, ‘Yes.’”
McEuen describes a similar conversation his younger self had with American guitarist Doc Watson at Tulagi a couple of weeks after Scruggs.
“One of my dreams getting into my early music career was to record with Doc and Earl — they sounded real,” McEuen said. “A few years later, we were in the studio all playing live together for six days… I think there was one day we made 10 or 11 songs.”
Recording live on a two-track machine in the small Nashville studio was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band joined by Watson, Scruggs and a handful of other country and bluegrass legends like Roy Acuff, “Mother” Maybelle Carter and Jimmy Martin.
During the process of bringing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to life, McEuen recalls that while there were maybe a couple of songs the talented group recorded two times, most of them were first take — “no fixes, no overdubs” — just the collective energy of making original music.
“By the way, this album was put together in Aspen,” McEuen said. “Most people don’t know about that.”
The musician laughed, then mentioned how back in the day before digital, “when you moved something onto a tape, you had to actually move it.”
He explained how his brother, Bill McEuen, photographed their recording sessions and produced “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” spending about five months editing and putting it together in a studio in Aspen.
“It’s about the music, and the stories of what happened in those studio rooms when we were recording,” McEuen said. “You know, a lot of time was spent in those six days of recording together, and for these shows, we’ve only got about an hour and 45 minutes.”
McEuen left the Dirt Band in 2017 to pursue more of his own music, storytelling and multimedia shows, like The Circle Band performances coming to Colorado next week. He was inducted into the American Banjo Museum Hall of Fame the same year and published his first book “The Life I’ve Picked” in 2018. His second book about the making of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which he said includes 150 archive photos taken by his brother, will be released in August.
McEuen was the initial spark behind the Circle’s historic collaboration, and now at 76 years old, he continues to celebrate the legacy of these musicians and the moments they all shared encircled together in the recording studio.
“It’s hard to say why people do this — why am I going to Rifle? — because this show is important to us, to take people back to a great time and give them relief from the world, reminding them about great music,” McEuen said. “You know, there were no political boundaries in the studio when we did the ‘Circle’ album, three dif generations and we all came together and it still comes together on-stage.”