Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen Reflects on 50th Anniversary of ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’

Banjo player to perform on Nov. 6 at Kent Stage

click to enlarge John McEuen. - Courtesy of Michael J. Media
Courtesy of Michael J. Media
John McEuen.
Some 50 years ago, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band brought bluegrass to the masses with its platinum-selling  Will the Circle Be Unbroken. To celebrate the album’s anniversary, founding member/banjo man John McEuen has teamed up with Les Thompson (another founding member of NGDB), John Cable (a former NGDB member) and Matt Cartsonis to perform tunes from the landmark album.

“Les [Thompson] and I started playing together again about eight years ago, and it’s been great,” says McEuen via phone from his L.A. home. John McEuen & the Circle Band perform on Sunday, Nov. 6, at the Kent Stage.

The tour also celebrates the release of a coffeetable book that  McEuen put out; it includes photos from Will the Circle Be Unbroken recording sessions.

“My brother Bill was the[NGDB]  manager and producer up until 1980,” McEuen says when asked about the book's origins. “It doesn’t seem like that long ago. It seems like eight or 10 or 12 years ago. He took photographs during the early years and during the Circle sessions that he was producing. My brother was taking pictures this whole time. The photos in the book include about 30 from early Dirt band leading up to the Circle album. It’s so weird. I look at them and think, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ And then, I go, ‘Wait a minute. That’s me.’ I feel like I’m looking at pictures of the Beatles or something. All the photos from the Circle sessions are there, and there’s a story with each photo. It’s not just a book of pictures.”

At the time they cut the release, McEuen says he and his brother knew the album would be "really special," if only because of the musical guests they had lined up.

"My brother could have shot a movie out of this," says McEuen. "We knew it was something. You have Roy Acuff and Maybelle Carter, the people who started country music, playing on it. Maybelle made her first record in 1927, and we’re recording ‘Keep on the Sunny Side,’ one of the songs that she recorded then. We recorded four songs with her.”

With Carter's supple vocals and some sweet harmony vocals, the band's rendition of "Keep on the Sunny Side" serves as one of the album's many highlights. Fiddle player Vassar Clements played a significant role on the track as well.

“If you ever needed a fiddle player who could do it all, you had to get Vassar,” says McEuen. “We needed someone who played jazz like Stéphane Grappelli and could play bluegrass and old-timey music. That means, Carter has a lot of notes that fly off that thing. We were rehearsing 'Sunny Side,’ with Maybelle, and Vassar was over there fooling around, and Maybelle says, 'Can you just play the melody and quit all that fooling around.' He said, ‘Yes, mama, no problem.’”

 Expect McEuen to share other additional anecdotes at the upcoming Kent Stage show. And to provide a true retrospective of the band's career, he's worked on a multi-media component for the tour as well.

“The pictures from the book end up behind me on the screen as we play in front of it,” he says. “We have a picture of a stern Roy Acuff, who wasn't sure he wanted to play on the album, and he’s in the control room listening to the music. After it was done, he said, ‘That’s country music. Let’s go make some more.’ People laugh and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahhh’ at the pictures, which are ten by 20-feet tall. My editing program even has a thing I call the Ken Burns effect. It’s close-ups and effects like you might see in one of his movies."

 Circle still winds up on some of Amazon’s top-selling albums lists, suggesting it and bluegrass music in general continue resonate.

“It’s something about the sessions and the sequencing,” says McEuen when asked about the album’s enduring popularity. “It makes it feel like you’ve tuned into this massive conglomeration of people that all happened at one time. If you take Sierra Hull or Railroad Earth or any of the old music, they most likely know that older music. You never know who will have a Circle album. Someone sent me a photo of Yo-Yo Ma practicing in his office and behind him is a Circle album. When people are looking for the heart of America, they go to this type of music.”

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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