Pantheon Songs - Songs that define an Artist
A year after the release of what would turn out to be their biggest single, a cover of ?Mr. Bojangles,? the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band packed up their hippie-looking clothes and their overall California-ness and headed on out to Nashville to try and convince a group of some of the most legendary country and bluegrass musicians to ever walk the South to record an ambitious album with them. The end result was Will the Circle Be Unbroken, an album that turns forty years old in October; an album that clocks in at just under a hundred and six minutes long (it was a triple album in its vinyl incarnation) and the music that appears on it is some of the most American music ever produced this side of the Sun and Stax Records sound of the ?50s and ?60s, and the zydeco and Delta blues musicians of the early 20th century. It?s an album that you?ve probably never heard of before.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken was born out of an outsider?s desire to really try and capture the South, specifically Tennessee. This isn?t to say that The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers and Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and the other musicians of the late ?60s and early ?70s who produced music that was anchored by a love and influence of Nashville and Memphis, failed to capture the South in their musical endeavors. Nothing could be farther from the truth?just listen to Sweetheart of the Rodeo, one of the most important albums of the ?60s (which automatically gets its name put into the discussion of the most important albums of the last fifty-plus years). What I am saying here is that Will the Circle Be Unbroken kind of exists in its own atmosphere in terms of attaining an authenticity when it comes to country music being performed by rock artists born outside of TN.
To be sure, the idea of authenticity is very subjective and Will the Circle Be Unbroken has at its core an interesting paradoxical question: is it more authentic to create an album with original material on it based on the inspiration, or to create an album with nothing but covers performed by guest musicians who directly represent your influence and inspiration? The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band chose the latter avenue, deciding to court the giants of bluegrass and country music and the iconic Grand Ole Opry era of the ?40s (Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson, Bashful Brother Oswald, Norman Black) for their collaborative album. Bill Monroe was the only icon who declined their invitation.
What was created out of this session working with these icons?to the point that the Dirt Band never really feels like a foreground presence?is a collaborative album to end all collaborative albums, even if its unassuming album cover, with its Civil War soldier portrait and dueling troika of flags, calls to mind the kind of artwork (and penmanship) that would appear on a trinket that could be purchased at a Winn-Dixie. ?Music forms a new Circle? is what?s written on the bottom of the album cover and that truly encompasses the theme and endgame of the Dirt Band?s ambitious collaboration. Almost every song on the album begins with some pre-performance banter and/or tuning up, and most of the songs were recorded on the second or third take. The end result is music that perfectly straddles the line between recording studio crispness (these are highly accomplished musicians sitting in after all) and a loose camaraderie of unlikely proportions (the album feels remarkably down home and easygoing, even if the phrase ?down home? seems too hokey to use as a description). ?Nine Pound Hammer,? a song that features Merle Travis, is a good example of the album?s aesthetic: it takes forty five seconds for the song to fully kick in but its metamorphosis from pre-performance tune-up (the whistling, the brief harmonica, the ?How can I roll??) to the unfolding of the actual song sounds perfect not only from a production sense but also from an historical sense?it feels like you are listening to something important in a way, even if you have no idea who Merle Travis is. And then Travis?s guitar picking and river smooth voice and accompanying background of vocals kick in and my God the harmony of it all.
And so on an album that is so unabashedly married to its musical influence and history it comes as no surprise that the opening track would be a song comprised of lyrics firmly rooted in the nostalgic days of the Grand Ole Opry?s zeitgeist?Hylo Brown?s ?Grand Ole Opry Song? sung by Jimmy Martin. ?Grand Ole Opry Song? is a song that is probably too dixie fried for those who have a hard time digesting country or bluegrass music but if you can get beyond the fiddle and banjo, and Martin?s nasally vocals, what you have here is a beautifully crafted song; a perfectly suited love letter that sets the tone for the rest of the album and a polished standalone song that can melt your soul if you will let it. The chorus in particular (?There?ll be guitars and fiddles, Earl Scruggs and his banjo too/Bill Monroe singing out them ol? Kentucky blues/Ernest Tubbs? number ?Two Wrongs Won?t Make A Right?/At the Grand Ole Opry ev?ry Saturday night?) is something to behold as Martin?s vocals (and the accompanying banjo playing and background vocals) is inspired and goosebump-inducing.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken is an album that should almost be thought of like a novel?the kind of novel that people put on their internal list of books they?d like to read before they die, the kind of novel that takes them out of their comfort zone but whose Classic status forms a certain kind of magnetism. (These are usually the books by Proust or Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or the ones that exceed 700 pages; the big novels, the Important ones.) This album that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band produced forty years ago is the musical equivalent of a classic novel, I think. It?s something that should be tackled and listened to even if you don?t like country music, just like Moby-Dick should be read regardless of what your feeling are about oceans and whales. It?s an album that feels like a historical document too, both in how it adds an important chunk to the mosaic and panorama of American music but also in how it captures a particular moment in music history. 1972 saw some huge and diverse seminal recordings released (Exile on Main St., Honky Chateau, Let?s Stay Together, Harvest, Pink Moon, Ziggy Stardust, The Harder They Come, Super Fly, Talking Book, Europe ?72) and tucked in amongst all of them is this little big record that was largely overlooked initially but whose influence and significance was thankfully eventually discovered.
If you like/love country or bluegrass music ?Grand Ole Opry Song? is the gateway to an album that you will most likely love. If country or bluegrass isn?t your thing and a Cowboy Copas reference is completely lost on you, then ?Grand Ole Opry Song? probably won?t convert you. But if it does convert you (even temporarily) then the remainder of Will the Circle Be Unbroken is the quintessential album of undiscovered gems that will have you thinking to yourself, ?How have I never heard of this album before??