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Jeff Moehlis: The Circle Will Be Unbroken with John McEuen at Lobero Theatre

The multi-instrumentalist, joined by John Carter Cash, will revisit the classic Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album

John McEue, left, from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Carter Cash, right, will revisit the classic album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” at the Lobero Theatre on Friday night.
John McEue, left, from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Carter Cash, right, will revisit the classic album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” at the Lobero Theatre on Friday night. (Courtesy photo)

Multi-instrumentalist John McEuen was the driving force behind the classic 1972 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which had the band collaborating with bluegrass and country-western legends like Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and Merle Travis. An instant classic, this album brought genres and generations together in a way that arguably has never been duplicated.

McEuen and John Carter Cash (son of Johnny Cash and June Carter) will revisit Will the Circle Be Unbroken through stories and songs at the Lobero Theatre on Friday night; tickets are available by clicking here.

Here are excerpts from an interview from 2012 where McEuen talks about this landmark album. Click here for the full interview.

                                                                 •        •        •

Jeff Moehlis: Could you describe what the recording sessions were like for Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

John McEuen: To quote Roy Acuff, it was a bunch of longhairs from California that didn't know if they were old men or young boys or what  Because they were all covered with hair.

A bunch of iconic musicians of country music, the people that created a lot of the form, got together with some people who they didn't know, really. And the times of political unrest, much more than know ...  I mean, Vietnam ... let's just say, there was a lot going on. In the era of Circle album, we had Kent State, we had marches where people were being killed, we had the body count on TV every night, things of that nature. But the establishment country music iconic people came together, and in the studio there were no politics. It was only music. It was a wonderful event, a wonderful joining.

I think the one thing that came out that was the most relaxing about it was finding out — although we were the nervous guys from California trying to come up to that mark, and we didn't know what the mark was really yet — we found out that all of these people were fans of each other. Roy Acuff always wanted to record with Maybelle [Carter], and Doc Watson always wanted to meet Merle Travis, and Junior Huskey had played bass with, I think, all of them at one time. Never all at once. Vassar Clements had never played with Maybelle, but he'd played with everybody else. So all these people came together and it was like the pressure was off. We were just having the party, and they were bringing the food.

JMo: What did you learn from the guest musicians on that album?

All of the vocals and guitars, and most of the music on the album was first take. If we knew the song and we're ready to record it, we'd go in and record. Roy Acuff said in 1971, "My policy in the studio, boys, is get it right the first time. And the hell with the rest of 'em." Every time you do it again you're going to lose a little something. You may not even know it, but you're going to lose something. And he was so right. I follow that to this day. All my recordings, eight out of 10 times, I try to hit the first take.

JMo: A couple of the guys that were part of that album, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, passed away a few years ago. Could you reflect on the legacy of those two?

JMc: It's not very many people that have a style of playing music named after them. You have Bob Wills Texas Swing music. But Scruggs style banjo is a comment that's made about almost any bluegrass group.

"I love the way that guy plays Scruggs style in that band." It's always referenced.

Doc Watson, on the other hand, was an innovator by being one of the first to play fiddle tunes on an acoustic guitar. And doing it with such force and dexterity and conviction.

Doc was an inspiration because he could take songs from different genres of music and make them sound like they were written for him.

Because he sometimes would do '30s, '40s, '50s or '80s songs, and they all sounded true coming from him. Earl was an inspiration because he created a form of music, a style called Scruggs style that has influenced thousands of people. I was very honored to play at his funeral at the Ryman Auditorium. I played a couple of songs that we'd recorded together. It was a very strange day for me. I wouldn't have been standing onstage at the Ryman if it hadn't been for that guy.

JMo: I read that Bill Monroe had also been invited to be part of the Circle album, but declined. What's the story with that?

JMc: Bill Monroe didn't know Nitty Gritty Dirt Band from The Doors, from anybody. He just knew we were on the pop charts, so we probably had drums, electric guitars and trumpets. Bill Monroe didn't need anybody. He didn't want anybody. He did what he did. And if you didn't like it, that's just fine. If you like it, come on over. He didn't understand what our intentions were, to represent the music well. And I'm proud to say that a few years later, Mr. Monroe came up to me at a festival and said, "Hey John. If you're ever putting together another one of them Circle albums, give me a call." It didn't come to pass. But he understood after the fact.

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.

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