Monday, May 24, 2021

When old met new and music bridged a generation gap

Many decades ago, 1975 to be exact, some friends and I took an impromptu road trip to Mountain View, AR, to attend the annual Ozark Folk Festival, a trip that showed that music truly has charms to soothe a savage breast.

Our last-minute decision saw us arrive Friday night only to learn that tickets for the inside concerts were long sold out. That wasn’t a terrible disappointment since the star attraction was banjoist Grandpa Jones, a regular performer on Hee Haw who was a little too much cornpone for even us Southeast Missouri boys. 

Instead, we spent the weekend hanging out at the Ozark Folk Center State Park, touring the crafts and Ozark lifestyles exhibits and demonstrations and sitting in on free outdoor concerts. Most fun, though, were the freewheeling jam sessions that broke out among festival attendees.

For the weekend, the longhairs of my generation mingled peacefully and freely with overall-clad Ozarkers, playing and singing together in a shared bond of their appreciation for the acoustic music that came out of the hills and hollows of rural America. This wasn’t the rhinestone-suited pablum of 1970s commercial country but rather the real deal, songs passed down from one generation of front-porch pickers to another.
It was in that spirit of bridging generations that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band came to Nashville for a recording session with veteran folk, bluegrass and country performers. Those sessions turned into 1972’s landmark Will The Circle Be Unbroken, a three-LP package that pays homage to pure, traditional country and bluegrass music. 
By all standards, the Dirt Band should not have been able to pull off this feat. They weren't that well-known when they came to Nashville. Formed in 1967, the group started out as a jug band in California (Jackson Browne was briefly in the original lineup) and initially released three hard-to-define albums (a mixture of vaudeville tunes, humorous ditties and even some psychedelia) that produced one minor hit, “Buy For Me The Rain.” The band broke up but got back together and dramatically changed their sound for their 1970 country-rock breakout album, Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy, which produced one of their greatest hits, a cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” Their newfound success gave them the power to persuade a reluctant record company to back them on their dream Nashville project. 
Though now anchored firmly in the country-rock genre, the Dirt Band members -- especially John McEuen, the group's multi-instrumentalist string wizard -- had a love for bluegrass and traditional music. MuEuen had struck up a friendship with famed banjoist Earl Scruggs, one of his musical idols. That friendship helped bring about the Circle sessions, with Scruggs paving the way for the long-haired California hippies in the Dirt Band to find acceptance in Nashville. Scruggs began his music career with bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. He and Lester Flatt left Monroe to form a duo that created the Beverly Hillbillies theme song and the Bonnie And Clyde movie soundtrack. But Scruggs had recently formed a new group, the Earl Scruggs Revue, with his two sons and playing to a wider and younger audience, including in a 1969 performance in Washington, D.C., at the Moratorium To End The War In Vietnam. 
The originators of country music were fading away when NGDB came to Music City. Country music had veered from its traditional roots to slickly produced, highly commercialized packaged music. There was no room for the old-timers. 
NGDB wanted to pay homage to their country-music idols and persuaded a veritable who’s who of performers, most of whom had seen their greatest successes in the 1930s and 40s, to come into the studio. Bluegrass icon Bill Monroe was one of the few who declined the invite, refusing outright to record with the dirty hippies. Another tough nut to crack was 68-year-old Roy Acuff, the King of Country Music, who had been with the Grand Ole Opry since 1938. Acuff was initially cool to the project, reportedly having said, “I don’t know if they’re old men or young boys.” He further described them as, “A bunch of long-haired West Coast boys.” But Acuff came to the studio and listened. “He came to one of the sessions with his mind not fully made up [about] whether or not he was gonna take part in this thing,” recalls NGDB’s Jeff Hanna. “We played him a Merle Travis track. I think it was ‘Dark as a Dungeon’ or ‘Nine-Pound Hammer’ maybe. And Roy just said, ‘Man, that ain’t nothin’ but country. I'll be here tomorrow. Be ready.’ He was all about the music, as it turned out.” Acuff wound up singing lead on several cuts on the album. 
Veteran country stalwarts on the album included Scruggs, Acuff, Merle Travis, Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin and Mother Maybelle Carter. Gary and Randy Scruggs, Earl’s sons, also played on the album along with Vassar Clements on fiddle and Norman Blake and Pete “Oswald” Kirby, both on dobro. Junior Huskey, a Nashville session musician, played upright bass on almost every track. Only one song on the album has electric bass and drums. 
The Dirt Band checked their egos at the door and mainly served as backing musicians, though McEuen shines on several instrumentals and Hanna and Jimmy Ibbotson, NGDB’s other lead vocalist, sang lead on a couple tunes. All together, the old guard and the hippie youngsters kicked out about three dozen standards. One vocalist or another was designated as lead singer, but on the title track Carter, Martin and Acuff each sang a verse and the entire assemblage joined them for the chorus. 
Maybelle Carter was a member of the Carter Family, considered the first family of country music, who first recorded in 1927 and were extremely popular throughout the 1930s and into the '40s, selling 300,000 records by the end of 1930. The Carter Family reworked the 1907 Circle spiritual and recorded it in 1935, making the song famous. The Circle song became a staple of NGDB concerts, and the band used it in all its encores. 
The recording sessions were more of a picking and singing gathering, with the various songs in the can after only one or two takes. A separate recording track ran continuously to record the between-song conversations of the musicians. Some of this dialogue is on the album, including the first meeting between Merle Travis, author of the song “16 Tons,” and blind flattop guitar virtuoso Doc Watson, who had named his son after Travis. Listen to their conversation here.
The album was a critical and commercial success, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard country-music charts and breathing new life into the careers of the veteran performers whose use-by date supposedly expired. It was eventually certified platinum, indicating shipment of at least 500,000 units, and is ensconced in the National Registry of the Library of Congress. 
The album found an unexpected audience outside the confines of country music. College kids who had never listened to country music snapped it up, bridging a generational and cultural gap spread wide over the war in Vietnam, politics, liberalism versus conservatism, racism and the environment. Unlike much of the then-contemporary music, it was an album fathers and sons could listen to together. 
NGDB’s Hanna says the band heard from many people that it opened lines of communications between young and old. “We got letters like, ‘My father and I never understood each other for 30 years. I bought the Circle album because of you guys, and I brought him in to listen to it, and he was dazzled. From that day forward, we’ve been the best of buddies.’ I think it broke down some barriers.”

It did that for me. I grew up exposed to country music, and while I am a classic-rock person at heart, I developed an appreciation for folk, bluegrass and traditional country for its musical purity and storytelling. My father and I were never close to each other, but this album was one of the few times I could share common ground with my dad. I also became a tremendous Dirt Band fan, attending at least eight of their shows over the decades, and every one of their albums is in my collection. 
As it says on the album cover in bold letters, “Music forms a new circle.”

Chip Carter (center, front) and the NGDB on the White House lawn

First rock band to tour Russia: NGDB is still performing and has announced plans to resume touring in 2021 following a pandemic hiatus. Among their many accomplishments is their claim to being the first American rock band to tour the Soviet Union. The 1977 tour saw sold-out audiences at 28 concerts and a TV concert with a combined audience of 145 million. At the urging of his son, Chip, President Jimmy Carter picked the band for the tour. It was part of Carter’s “soft” diplomacy tactic; he believed exposure by Soviet citizens to the freedom of expression in rock music would help crack the wall of authoritarianism in Russia. The documentary Free To Rock explores further the role NGDB and other rock musicians, including Eastern European rockers, played in helping to topple the Soviet regime.

Two more Circle albums: NGDB did two more Will The Circle Be Unbroken albums, one in 1989 featuring Johnny Cash, John Prine, Levon Helm, Ricky Skaggs, John Denver, Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Martin, Paulette Carlson, Michael Martin Murphey, John Hiatt, Roseanne Cash, Bruce Hornsby and Roy Acuff. The album won two Grammy awards and was voted Album of the Year by the Country Music Association. It went to No. 5 on the Billboard country charts and 18 on the Billboard 200 chart. Volume 3, released in 2002, included Del McCourty, Doc Watson, Randy Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Iris DeMent, June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash, Sam Bush, Dwight Yoakam, Willie Nelson, Matraca Berg, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Rodney Dillard and Ricky Skaggs. It reached No. 18 on the country charts but only 134 on the Billboard 200. 
Mentor to Steve Martin: McEuen and comedian Steve Martin were high-school friends and worked together as teenagers at Disneyland’s magic shop. McEuen gave Martin banjo lessons. Martin is an accomplished banjoist, using the instrument not only in his standup comedy routines but also on several significant albums. NGDB played backup on Martin’s 1978 novelty song, “King Tut,” billing themselves as the Toot Uncommons. McEuen’s brother, William, served as Martin’s manager and was producer of four of his comedy albums and his breakout film, The Jerk. He was also manager and producer for NGDB. 
A fond concert memory: In the early 2000s, the Dirt Band performed in front of the Missouri state capitol on an outdoor stage in Jefferson City for a Fourth of July festival. My then-young daughters and I sat on the steps of the capitol and watched the band do a sound check several hours before their scheduled show. When the sound check was complete, John McEuen and Jimmy Ibbotson came over to us and struck up a conversation. McEuen admonished my girls to stick close to their daddy during the concert. We then went to a tent where kids could make their own T-shirts. My artistic wife helped our daughter Marissa make a shirt with a caricature drawing of her on it and the words “I’m a little dirt head,” the term for NGDB fans similar to the Grateful Dead’s Deadheads. During the show, we were in the front row and Marissa was thrilled when a band member spotted the shirt and pointed it out to the other members. A few years back, I saw McEuen in a solo performance at Knuckleheads in Kansas City. I got a chance to visit with him briefly, and he remembered that evening.
A return to Nashville: NGDB returned to Nashville in 2015 for a special 50th anniversary show that featured many guest performers who had either appeared on the Circle albums or who had special connections to the band. The three-hour concert at the Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ole Opry, is available as a CD/DVD package and was aired on PBS in 2016. The encore, of course, was a star-studded rendition of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken."

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