Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s major contribution to the bluegrass canon is an album that also stands as its overall peak: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a 1972 landmark of roots music. Pairing the Dirt Band with elders including Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and Mother Maybelle Carter, “Circle” was a multi-generational summit that presented old classics to a new audience – hence the album’s subtitle, “Music forms a new Circle.”
For a lot of years, the Dirt Band seemed content to let “Circle” stand as a one-time-only artifact. But then came a late-1980s European tour with Johnny Cash and Maybelle’s daughter, June Carter Cash.
“June came up to us one night and said, ‘You know, if you ever do another “Circle” album, John and I would love to be on it,’” recalled Dirt Band frontman Jeff Hanna, calling from Nashville. “We were pretty much on the phone with our manager the next day: ‘Yeah, maybe it’s time to do another one!’ I admit I had been one of the holdouts who thought ‘Circle’ should stay a freestanding singular entity, despite pressure to do another one. But after getting blessings from June Carter and Johnny Cash, what could we say besides, ‘Of course’?”
That was the impetus for the 1989 followup, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume Two,” featuring June, Johnny, his daughter Rosanne Cash, Levon Helm, Ricky Skaggs and others. “And The Circle Will Continue …” promised the cover of “Volume Two” – and it did with 2002’s “Volume III,” featuring another first-rate guest list spanning multiple generations.
Next weekend’s Wide Open Bluegrass will find the Dirt Band in Friday night’s closing headline slot at Red Hat Amphitheater. With a just-released live version of the “Circle” repertoire, “Circlin’ Back: Celebrating 50 Years” and a lot of their “Circle” collaborators from over the years also in town for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass festivities, that should make for one promising hootenanny.
With the just-released ‘Circlin’ Back: Celebrating 50 Years’ and a lot of their collaborators from over the years also in town, Friday’s performance by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band should be one promising hootenanny.
“We’re gonna do what we do, which is a lot of different kinds of music, but ‘Circle’ will certainly be well-represented,” said Hanna. “And with all the great folks in the neighborhood, I’m looking forward to it being a blast. Let’s just say there are a lot of folks on that lineup we hope to do some picking with.”
This will actually be the Dirt Band’s first “official” IBMA appearance, although they’ve had a sort of presence at the event many times. Banjo player John McEuen has been an individual participant, and “Circle III” won IBMA’s “Recorded Event of the Year” in 2003.
But going back to their origins as a jug band in 1966, bluegrass has always been a key ingredient of the Dirt Band’s makeup, along with folk, blues and rock. They’ve lasted long enough to have aged into the role of elders themselves to players like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Byron House (all of whom appear on “Circlin’ Back”).
“Sam and Jerry and Byron have been like younger brothers to us for many, many years,” Hanna said. “And we used to be that. It’s kind of sad for us now, though. Aside from the guys in the band, almost everyone from the first ‘Circle’ album is gone now. Norman Blake is about the only artist among the guests who is still living. But to think we’d get to know all these people like Doug Dillard, Earl Scruggs, Maybelle Carter and Johnny and June, become friends and get to not just play but have dinner with them, that’s been unreal.”
To think we’d get to know all these people like Doug Dillard, Earl Scruggs, Maybelle Carter and Johnny and June, become friends and get to not just play but have dinner with them, that’s been unreal.
Jeff Hanna, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Jimmy Martin, a veteran of all three “Circle” albums and a man Hanna called “the Jerry Lee Lewis of bluegrass,” is another late great old-timer the Dirt Band was close to. But Johnny and June, the first couple of country music, remain nearest and dearest to Hanna’s heart. About a year before they both passed in 2003, Hanna got to play on “American IV: The Man Comes Around,” the final album The Man In Black released while he was still alive.
“One morning, I was actually at their place in Hendersonville, which is maybe 40 minutes away from my house,” Hanna said. “June said, ‘Let me fix you some breakfast.’ Well, now, June Carter Cash making you breakfast, that’s a pretty good day. But it just got better. Afterward, I left and got a call right as I was getting home. It was (Cash guitarist) Randy Scruggs: ‘John was wondering when you might want to pick some guitar on his record.’ ‘When?’ ‘Right now.’ ‘I’m on my way.’ So I went right back to the car, drove back out there and played on his record. I’m still proud of that. He was one cool cat.”