By Susan Marquez
It seems the circle will remain unbroken, as a musician (and now writer) John McEuen, a founding member of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, has come full circle with a book about the making of what some call the most iconic album to come out of Nashville. Why did he write the book? "The fiftieth anniversary of the recording of Will the Circle Be Unbroken was coming up,"says John. "About eight years ago, my brother, Bill, gave me a treasure trove of photographs he had taken of the early Dirt Band. He took a lot of the photos at our recording sessions. He gave me about 150 photographs, many of which had never been seen. And the ones I had seen were only like a half-inch square on album and CD covers."
But the idea of writing a book didn't happen right away. Instead, John went to work putting together a multi-media stage show about the early Dirt Band, leading up to the Circle album. "It tells how that came about, with photos from the sessions I play in front of. I did both the writing and recording." John says that during the recording sessions for the original album, there was always a recorder going to capture conversations in the studio. "For instance, on the Circle album is a recording of a Roy Acuff speech that says, 'Let me tell you a little something about my policy in the studio.' I have various photos that go back and forth between the band members and Acuff while he says, 'I figure we gotta get it right the first time and the hell with the rest of them.'Then the song we were recording in the studio plays live on stage."
John took the show on the road, but Covid stopped it for a while. "I only did about ten shows last year, and it has picked up this year." He has presented the show about 120 times. "It's always different, and it's really fun. I love editing the film, and without realizing it, I was preparing for the book. I began seriously thinking about it when Ken Burns did his country music series. In episode six, he did a piece on Will the Circle Be Unbroken. When I did my interview for that, I thought, I'd better get this right."
The Circle project fell into place in a most unlikely way. John had just moved to Colorado andwent to see Earl Scruggs play. He played for five days in Boulder, and then Doc Watson was scheduled to play in the same club the following week. "I had been taking Scruggs back to his hotel, and I asked him if maybe one day he would possibly record with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He said he'd be proud to. I later asked Doc Watson, and he agreed as well. I called my brother Bill, a record producer and manager of the band and the photographer in the early days. Bill said he would call Merle Travis to see if he would play with us as well. Merle said it would be a challenge, but he had always wanted to meet Doc Watson." The project was recorded in Woodland Studios in East Nashville. Bill captured a video recording of the first meeting between Doc Watson and Merle Travis. Scruggs then got "Mother" Maybelle Carter to join them; Roy Acuff came on board, along with the Carter Family, Jimmy Martin, and Vassar Clements. Bill talked with the record company and told the label's president about the music they played – bluegrass and occasional rock and country." It was an opportunity to build bridges between generations and genres. With a $22,000 budget to make a whole album, plus pay for meals and hotels, they had to make the best of their five days scheduled in the studio. On the first day in the studio, they had four hours allotted to record three songs. They ended up recording four songs in an hour and a half. "Three of them were done on the first take," John recalls.
The musicians sat in a circle facing each other, and the songs flowed naturally. From "You are My Flower" to "Soldier's Joy," each song was flawless. "It took maybe eight minutes to record 'Soldier's Joy,'" says John. "We got the sound up and running and said, 'OK, let's make one,' and ten minutes later Watson and Earl both said, 'I don't think I made any mistakes,' so that was it."
A book publisher reached out to John last year and asked if he had any ideas for a book. "That's when the idea for this book really came together. I had the photographs my brother gave me, and I had been working on the stage show I do on making the album, so the time was right." Now in its third printing, Will the Circle Be Unbroken: The Making of a Landmark Album tells the story of the 1971 collaboration between The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a country-rock-jug band from Southern California, and a stellar lineup of legendary bluegrass musicians from Nashville. The book is beautifully illustrated and filled with an amazing array of never-before-seen photographs by William McEuen. Fifty years after the album's recording, it remains one of the most iconic albums in American history. John's book takes the reader inside that circle of musicians and shares the stories behind the songs, a circle that is yet unbroken.