Alongside our reviews of albums produced by the ‘Class of ’89’, we’ve been taking the opportunity to look in depth at some of the other great albums released that year. Perhaps the most ambitious of those was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s second Will The Circle Be Unbroken project, which harks back to the early days of country music and shows how that heritage was still influential.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band started out in the California folk-rock movement of the 1960s. They revealed their country leanings in 1972 when they produced a legendary triple LP entitled Will The Circle Be Unbroken in collaboration with some of the seminal figures of bluegrass and old-time country music, including Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family, bluegrass great Earl Scruggs and many others — mostly artists who were past their commercial peaks. If the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never again ventured into country music, this album alone would have sealed their place in the music’s history.
In the 1980s, however, after a period using the name the Dirt Band, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band rebranded themselves and forged a very successful career in contemporary country music. In 1988, they decided the time had come to produce a follow-up to their classic. Many of the original collaborators had died, and this time the guests included some contemporary acts and some artists from outside country music altogether, or who were from related genres. The album liner notes say, “This time they drew the circle bigger”, and talk about “the many hyphenated hybrid styles writers have used to describe all sorts of American music that comes from the heart. Big enough to embrace gospel, blues, honky tonk, Cajun and traditional folksong”. In other words, the term might not have been invented yet — but in many ways this was perhaps one of the the first self-consciously Americana albums. The result was a little more commercial-sounding than the original, but it strikes a fine balance between showcasing musical history and showing that that heritage was a living thing.
The band called on Randy Scruggs, whose father Earl had appeared on the first volume, to produce the set. The album was recorded in December 1988 and January 1989. It was a double LP and a single CD, with 20 tracks, but there is not a wasted moment. Volume I had consisted almost entirely of classic traditional songs; volume II mixed these in with some newer songs and some non-country songs made over.
The only song repeated from the original was the title track, which could hardly have been omitted. This really epitomizes the whole project as the verses are taken in turn by representatives of several generations of country music: Johnny Cash, Roy Acuff (the biggest star of the 1940s), Ricky Skaggs, the Band’s Levon Helm with Emmylou Harris on harmonies, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band themselves. Joining in on the choruses are the remainder of the album’s participants, with several additional guests including Vince Gill, Foster & Lloyd, Earl Scruggs, country comedian Bashful Brother Oswald (who had been on Volume I), Steve Wariner and the Whites. The song was slightly rewritten to encompass a tribute to “Mother Maybelle” Carter.
There is a fair sprinkling of religious themes throughout the album, starting with the opening track. Johnny Cash offers a straightforward and sincere hymn-like reading of the traditional gospel tune ‘Life’s Railway To Heaven’, supported by his wife June and her sisters — current incarnation of the Carter Family — on harmony vocals. The spirit of their mother Maybelle (one of the stars at the heart of Volume I) is invoked by the use of her own guitar on this track, played by Randy Scruggs.
Progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival, who were being marketed to mainstream country radio at this time, joined the NGDB on another traditional gospel number, the pacey ‘Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan’. Ricky Skaggs, at the height of his commercial success, exercises his pure high tenor voice on a charming reminiscence of and tribute to the religious foundation provided by country Sundays in a ‘Little Mountain Church House’, a new song written by Jim Rushing and Carl Jackson. Ricky’s father-in-law Buck White plays piano on this track.
The most surprising artist to take part in the project was probably rock musican Bruce Hornsby, who guests on a bluegrassy version of his pop hit ‘The Valley Road’. A more obvious inclusion was Michael Martin Murphey, who had many of the same influences as the NGDB and had worked with them in the past before moving into mainstream country in the 80s. He brought his song ‘Lost River’ to the project.
Folk-country singer-songwriter John Prine lends his rough weather-beaten vocals to his own song, ‘Grandpa Was A Carpenter’, an engaging memoir of his grandparents which fits in very well with the older songs. Rock singer-songwriter John Hiatt duets with Rosanne Cash on his ‘One Step Over The Line’, another excellent song although further distant from country than most of the other tracks.
Two other female artists made their presence felt on the album. The great Emmylou Harris sings ‘Mary Danced With Soldiers’, a beautifully phrased, if downbeat, story song contributed by her then-husband Paul Kennerley. Paulette Carlson, lead singer of successful country group Highway 101, offers one of the more obviously commercial moments in her own song ‘Lovin’ On The Side’.
Perhaps surprisingly, one of my favorite tracks features folk/pop/occasional country singer John Denver, who gives a beautifully measured reading of ‘And So It Goes’, a fine Don Schlitz/Paul Overstreet song about the impermanence of everything but love, which was a top 20 hit. Another highlight is the unofficial Byrds’ reunion when Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn swap verses on Bob Dylan’s ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’. This track was the most successful single from the album, reaching #6 on Billboard.
Levon Helm gives an authentic-sounding performance (with tight harmonies from the NGDB) on ‘When I Get My Rewards’, a new composition by Paul Kennerley which sounds like a classic bluegrass or old-time country song; one can just imagine it in the repertoire of the Louvin Brothers. Bluegrass great Jimmy Martin, one of the artists who appeared on the first installment, gives us a taste of the real thing with his committed vocal on the classic ‘I’m Sittin’ On Top Of the World’.
The NGDB play and sing harmony throughout the album, but this project is not about self-aggrandisement. A handful of their own songs are scattered through the album: the hit single (but one of the less memorable tracks on the album) ‘When It’s Gone’; ‘Riding Alone’ (a duet with Emmylou, exquisitely performed but not the most interesting of songs); and the light Cajun feel of ‘Bayou Jubilee’. The best of the songs on which the band members sing lead, though, is an interesting Fred Knobloch/Dan Tyler song, the millennially themed implausible optimism of ‘Turn Of the Century’: “there’ll be no TV preachers, because by then we’ll all be saved”.
The playing is, of course, impeccable and all-acoustic throughout. The band are supported by some of the top session players of the day, including Mark O’Connor on fiddle, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Roy Huskey Jr. on bass. There are a couple of instrumental tracks to round out the album. ‘Blues Berry Hill’ was composed by the band and Randy Scruggs, and played with guests including fiddler Vassar Clements (who played on Volume I) and the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon on banjo. The closing track is a subdued arrangement of ‘Amazing Grace’ arranged by the band, but performed solo by Randy Scruggs on guitar.
Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume II was the CMA’s Album of the Year in 1989, and won two Grammys. It remains a very fine record on its own merits, as well as acting as a link between the origins of country music and the commercial success of the late 80s. It really is one of those releases that no serious country fan should be unaware of. A third installment was to follow in 2002, but this was less successful.