Music History

John McEuen Reflects on Will the Circle Be Unbroken in New Book

John McEuen
John McEuen Courtesy John McEuen
For fifty years, John McEuen has been talking about Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 bluegrass magnum opus. Now he's written a book about it, and Will The Circle Be Unbroken: The Making of a Landmark Album is set to be released on Monday, August 1. The book is currently available for pre-order on Amazon and bookstore websites.

The record is considered by many to be the first Americana album, and McEuen says that he's been told through the decades how it has bonded families, or how some musicians have changed their whole style after listening to it.

“There are always questions about the Circle album,” he says. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘I got rid of all my rock-and-roll instruments and bought a mandolin,’ or ‘I quit playing the violin and started on the fiddle.’”

McEuen, who left NGDB in 2017, says the book should be interesting to anyone who enjoys bluegrass or country music. “I don’t think you need to be a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fan [to like the book],” he says. “You could be a Roy Acuff fan, or [a fan of] Earl Scruggs or Doc Watson or anyone. You’ll be opened up to another side of them, as well as the Dirt Band guys.”

He adds that at 76, he’s older than anyone who recorded on the famous record. “It’s really interesting to look back on my 24th year...and see these photos,” McEuen reflects.

The book doesn’t have a straightforward narrative, and includes McEuen's numerous personal essays. There are reflections on his childhood in California, and passages about people from his life and music career, including members of NGDB, collaborators on the Circle album, his high school friend Steve Martin and musicians such as Marty Stuart. (McEuen’s brother, William, was a manager for both Martin and NGDB.)

McEuen asked documentarians Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns to pen the book's forward. “They said, ‘Sure,’" he recalls. "Episode six of their documentary Country Music was called ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?’”

Music lovers will revel in the book's details, which go into the instruments used on the album, the style in which the songs were played, and the recording process. Another topic discussed is Merle Travis’s unusual way of fretting chords and the way “it made his guitar ring."

In one passage, McEuen reflects on traveling to Nashville as a child and hoping to go to the Grand Ol’ Opry, only to find it was sold out. He ended up peering at the show through a window just as Lester Flatt brought out Maybelle Carter to perform "Wildwood Flower."

"The place went nuts,” McEuen recalls.
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John McEuen and Earl Scruggs sit in the studio during the making of Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
William McEuen
The book also showcases contemporaneous concert posters and dozens of color photos taken by William McEuen, who produced the Circle album. Some of the photos are shown on the record packaging, but they’ve only been seen in that small format until now. The pictures boast a warm, late-’60s/early-’70s color palette, and McEuen notes that every photograph has a story behind it. “I told my brother, ‘Your photographs need to be out there,’” he says. “Forty-five of these photographs haven’t been published before.”

The record wouldn't have happened if it weren't for a fortuitous summer gathering of musicians in 1971 in Boulder, according to McEuen, who spent much of the ’70s and ’80s living in Denver. Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, who were already considered bluegrass legends, had been playing shows in Boulder, and McEuen approached them separately to ask if they would join in on an NGDB album.

“It was all because of Boulder, Colorado,” he says. “Everyone who was enlisted for this band that lived in Colorado, it started at [the music venue] Tulagi.”

Scruggs and Watson were just the first two of a deep roster of country and bluegrass musicians who would record on the album, including Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Randy Scruggs, Merle Travis, Pete "Oswald" Kirby, Norman Blake and Jimmy Martin. Although it’s become a classic and storied album, record executives at the time doubted it would sell. Nonetheless, the band’s record label doled out $22,000 for the entire record, and NGDB delivered it on budget. The album was recorded at breakneck speed, with the group putting down 36 songs in less than a week.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken sold out several times in the ’70s, and the band recorded two more volumes.

“The Circle album," McEuen concludes, "is an example of taking a risk."

For more information about ordering the book, visit johnmceuen.com.
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