Thirty years before O Brother, Where Art Thou?, there was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle be Unbroken. Released as a lavish three-record set in 1972, a time when country music was desperately trying to shed its hillbilly image -- the Grand Ole Opry had fled to the suburbs the year before -- the landmark album was an unlikely collaboration between a group of longhaired California musicians (who later settled in Colorado) and some of Nashville's most venerated performers, including Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs.
To celebrate the recording's thirtieth anniversary, Capitol Records has reissued it in a sonically improved two-CD set, with several bonus tracks and all of the color photographs that were included with the original album. It's about time this wonderful collection of traditional country music got the respect it deserves.
What a pleasure it is to hear the late Maybelle Carter, of the famous Carter Family, singing "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes." Roy Acuff, one of country music's first superstars, reprises some of his best-known songs, including "The Precious Jewel" and "Wreck on the Highway." (Acuff, the very personification of old-time country music, was initially skeptical of working with a bunch of hippies, but he changed his mind when he heard some tracks the band had already recorded with Merle Travis.) Earl Scruggs, the great five-string banjo player, made noteworthy contributions, as did fiddler Vassar Clements, guitar wizard Doc Watson, and dobroist Norman Blake, who, as fate would have it, ended up playing on the O Brother soundtrack. Wisely, the boys in the Dirt Band -- Jimmie Fadden, Jeff Hanna, Jim Ibbotson, John McEuen and Les Thompson -- keep a respectful distance from their elders, essentially playing backup on most of the songs.
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Will the Circle be Unbroken introduced a whole new generation of fans to the joys of traditional country music. It also helped break down some of the barriers that existed between hippies and rednecks. Music, they discovered, was common ground. Thirty years later, it's a bona fide classic.