Peter Cooper On Music: Seminal ?Circle? gets fresh vinyl pressing

Peter Cooper On Music: Seminal ?Circle? gets fresh vinyl pressing

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band records 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken' in East Nashville, 1971.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band records 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken' in East Nashville, 1971.

Jeff Hanna looks at the photographs taken nearly 42 years ago, inside an East Nashville studio where long-haired rock ?n? rollers gathered with un-scruffy elders who were, and still are, legends of country and bluegrass music.

?It was several lifetimes ago,? Hanna says. ?There we were, in all our ragged glory, with these amazing folks. And we were all smiling, making music and busting strings.?

Then, as now, Hanna was a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a roots-minded rock group that sprung from Los Angeles and that had notched a major radio hit with a version of Jerry Jeff Walker?s ?Mr. Bojangles.?

Inspired by the ecumenical musical visions of group manager Bill McEuen and banjo great Earl Scruggs, Hanna, John McEuen, Jimmie Fadden, Jim Ibbotson and Les Thompson came to Woodland Sound Studios and recorded a three-album song-set called ?Will the Circle Be Unbroken,? with a cast of guests that included Scruggs, Mother Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis and Jimmy Martin.

They tried to get Bill Monroe, as well, but he declined. Acuff was a tough sell, too, but Scruggs? involvement helped him look past the Dirt Banders? hair and beards.

Sort of.

?Well, you?re supposed to know a man by the character of his face,? Acuff told The Tennessean?s Jack Hurst at the time. ?But if you have got your face all covered up with something, well ...?

The result of all this was the Dirt Band?s entry into the country music fold, new recognition among rock fans for the talents of Carter, Scruggs, Watson, Acuff, Travis, Martin and fiddle wizard Vassar Clements, and the creation of one of American roots music?s essential albums.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken

The original ?Circle? (there have been two subsequent volumes, both of them sprawling, ambitious and acclaimed) has just been reissued on heavyweight, 180-gram vinyl, complete with the original liner notes, augmented packaging, exquisitely re-mastered sound and 42-year-old photographs from several lifetimes ago.

?This vinyl version of ?Circle? actually hasn?t been in print since the mid-1970s, when they pulled it off the market and stopped making them,? Hanna says. ?It was really expensive to produce, and the number crunchers didn?t think it made sense to keep putting them out there.?

Number-cruncher types are growing kinder to vinyl in recent years, as the market for records has been growing in the new century, for no other reasons beyond the fact that vinyl albums look and sound better than downloaded files.

The brand-new version of ?Circle? comes with a sticker that denotes it as a 40th anniversary version, though the original album was recorded in 1971 and released in 1972.

Connecting generations

These days, cross-generational recordings are commonplace, and hairstyles are more a matter of individual discretion than of political statement: Conservative ?Grand Ole Opry? favorite Ricky Skaggs? hair is longer than rocker Jack White?s hair.

But in 1971, the ?Circle? gathering was highly unusual. For one thing, going to Nashville to record with people old enough to be your parents didn?t seem like a good recipe for rock and pop success. But the Dirt Band was in awe of its musical predecessors, Scruggs had moved from his bluegrass band Flatt & Scruggs into a multi-generational, country-rock group called The Earl Scruggs Revue, and manager Bill McEuen had a vision for how to produce a musical work that would enlighten and entertain.

?Bill said, ?You guys are on the radio right now, and some of these people you love haven?t been in some time,? ? Hanna says. ?He said, ?Wouldn?t it be cool if you could return the favors they?ve done you, and expose these geniuses of this genre to your generation?? ?

Yes, it would be. Yes, it was.

?Put a fringe jacket and some sideburns and longer hair on this music, and it started making sense to younger people,? Hanna says. ?Later, we?d get letters from people who told us what it meant to them. A guy wrote and said, ?My dad and I hadn?t talked in years, and this record bonded us.? ?

?Circle? really did take place lifetimes ago. Every one of the Nashville heroes the Dirt Band recruited for the initial album are gone now. The album?s opening number, ?Grand Ole Opry Song,? is a name-check of ?Opry? favorites, and, save for 92-year-old Little Jimmy Dickens, all of them are gone as well.

?It was so wonderful to have time with these people, and to make music with them,? Hanna says. ?Being around someone like Maybelle Carter, who had invented the ?Carter Scratch? (style of acoustic guitar-playing) that we all learned was incredible. Maybelle was this steadying, almost angelic influence in the studio. And, like Earl, she was an open-minded, gracious musician and creative force.?

Of course, she was.

And in a few computer keystrokes, you can hear proof of that gracious force through your laptop. But you can set a phonograph needle down on a heavy slab of vinyl and hear the same proof, more clearly and pleasantly. And while you?re listening, you can look at some old pictures of people smiling, making music and busting strings in East Nashville.

Reach Peter Cooper at 615-259-8220 or pcooper@tennessean.com.