My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Randy Scruggs

Emmylou & Friends: Sweet Harmonies

From the very beginning, collaborations with other artists have been an integral part of Emmylou Harris’ career. Over the span of nearly 40 years, she is perhaps as well known for supplying harmony vocals to other artists records and championing promising newcomers as for her own solo work. It would perhaps be easier to list the names of the artists with whom she has not worked; like Willie Nelson she has worked with a variety of performers from both within and outside the country genre. It isn’t possible to do justice to such a large body of work in a single article, but I’d like to touch on some of my favorites.

Emmylou was performing in small venues in the Washington, DC area when she was discovered by Chris Hillman, who was then the bandleader of The Flying Burrito Brothers. It was he who recommended her to Gram Parsons, who hired her to be his duet partner and introduced her to the world of country music. She sang prominent harmonies on Parsons’ 1973 solo debut album GP, as well as on the follow-up Grievous Angel, which was released in 1974 after Parsons’ death from a drug overdose. Both albums were re-released on a single disc by Reprise. They are also available digitally and are well worth a listen. Emmylou later covered many of the songs on these two volumes on her solo albums. One of the best is a rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Love Hurts”, which also appears on Emmylou’s Duets compilation, which was released by Reprise in 1990 and is an excellent sampler of her non-solo work.

Duets also includes such hits as “We Believe In Happy Endings” with Earl Thomas Conley, “If I Needed You” with Don Williams, and “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again” with Roy Orbison, which won a Grammy in 1980 for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Two new tracks were recorded for the project: “The Price I Pay” with Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band and a beautiful rendition of Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway” with Willie Nelson.

After the death of Gram Parsons and before she secured her solo deal with Reprise, Emmylou had sung backup on some of Linda Ronstadt’s records, and formed what was to become a lifelong friendship. Ronstadt eventually returned the favor, singing backup on Emmylou’s solo records, as did Dolly Parton, whose “Coat of Many Colors” Emmylou had covered on her Pieces of the Sky album. The three women formed an alliance and recorded together sporadically over the next several years. For many years, legal issues and record label politics thwarted their attempts to release an album together, but their collaborations occasionally turned up on Emmylou’s albums, notably “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” from 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl and “Mister Sandman” from 1981’s Evangeline. Parton and Ronstadt also both contributed to 1980’s Roses In The Snow. Eventually the three women released Trio and Trio II in 1987 and 1999, respectively. Emmylou and Linda teamed up again in 1999 for Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions. Dolly wasn’t available to participate this time around; let’s just say that her presence is sorely missed as this particular album is not one of my favorites.

In 2007 Rhino Records released the four-disc boxed set Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems, which includes a generous sampling of Emmylou’s lesser-known solo and non-solo efforts. Some of the highlights include “Spanish Johnny” with Waylon Jennings, “One Paper Kid” with Willie Nelson and “Here We Are” with George Jones. It also contains some of the outtakes from the Trio sessions with Ronstadt and Parton, as well as some of their earlier recordings that had not previously seen the light of day, including 1978’s “Palms of Victory” and an exquisite reading of “Softly and Tenderly” from the second Trio sessions. Also of note are some of Emmylou’s contributions to tribute albums, such as the title track to the 1994 Merle Haggard tribute Mama’s Hungry Eyes, which she sings with Rodney Crowell, and “Golden Ring” from 1998’s Tammy Wynette Remembered, on which she is joined by Linda Ronstadt and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. “Mary Danced With Soldiers” from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 2 also makes an appearance, as does “I Don’t Love You Much, Do I” with Guy Clark and “Sonny”, sung with Ireland’s Mary Black and Dolores Keane. The third and fourth discs of Songbird rely heavily on duet material, including collaborations with artists such as Sheryl Crow, Patty Griffin, Mark Knopfler, Carl Jackson, Randy Scruggs, Iris Dement, The Pretenders, and The Seldom Scene. Songbird is a somewhat pricy collection, but it is one of the best music purchases I ever made.

In addition to the artists previously mentioned, Emmylou has lent her voice to recordings by Terri Clark, The Judds, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, and countless others. As someone who became interested in country music during the Urban Cowboy’s heyday in the early 80s, Emmylou’s music was something of an acquired taste for me. It took a few years for me to fully appreciate her artistry, and it was primarily through her work with others that I became a huge fan.

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Pain To Kill’

Released in 2003, after the relatively disappointing commercial performance of Fearless, Pain To Kill marked a change in producer for Terri, with the recruitment of Byron Gallimore, perhaps the leading commercial country producer of the day. It looks as though the label was hedging its bets with regards to the direction of the album, with Gallimore working on half the album, and old standby Keith Stegall being brought back in for the remainder of the material. Byron Gallimore applied a fairly sophisticated pop-country sound to mainly outside songs, and successfully balances Terri’s voice with a radio-friendly sheen.

Keith Stegall, meanwhile, tackled the bulk of Terri’s own songs, with a sound more in keeping with her past work. Gallimore’s tracks front load the set listing (and provided all three of the singles), with most of the Stegall tracks relegated to the second half of the set. Throughout the album, Terri’s vocals sound great and very committed to the material, and there is an overarching theme of relationship troubles and moving on which helps give a cohesive feel to the set as a whole.

The contemporary sounding lead single, ‘I Just Wanna Be Mad’, written by Kelley Lovelace and Lee Thomas Miller, made a good start with radio, peaking at #2 in 2002. It is my favorite of the single choices from this album with its convincing and mature lyric about a couple married for seven years (when “some days it feels like 21”) and squabbling over the little things, while affirming the underlying strength of their relationship:

I think I’m right
I think you’re wrong
I’ll probably give in before long
Please don’t make me smile
I just wanna be mad for a while

The woman-on-the-verge-of-leaving whose story is conveyed in ‘Three Mississippi is less successful. While well sung, it’s a rather pop-leaning song written by Hillary Lindsey, Troy Verges and Angelo, whose rather uninteresting tune and overdone production drains the emotion from the lyric. It was closer to a flop, only just making the top 30. The life-affirming ‘I Wanna Do It All’ is better, if not very memorable. It took Terri back to the upper reaches of the charts, peaking at #3.

The title track is a radio-friendly mid-tempo number written by Tom Shapiro and Steve Bogard, with a cheery approach to partying away the troubles of life. The very contemporary Matraca Berg/Randy Scruggs song ‘Working Girl’ (comparing an ordinary working woman’s life to glossy media images) was previously recorded by Loretta Lynn. It suits Terri better than it did Loretta, but is still one of my least favorite Terri Clark recordings.

Read more of this post

Classic Rewind: Mark O’Connor and the New Nashville Cats – ‘Restless’ (ft Steve Wariner, Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill)

CMA award nominees, 2010: setting the stage

It’s awards time again, with this year’s CMA awards being announced next week. We’ll share our predictions on Monday, but meanwhile here’s a reminder of who is nominated and why. The nominations this year have a few new faces showing up in unexpected places. The big questions of this year’s show will be whether Miranda Lambert will dominate the night as she has the nominations list. Whatever happens, outraged fans are likely to complain that their favorite has been “snubbed”, or someone else has won undeservedly.

Entertainer of the Year
Lady Antebellum
Miranda Lambert
Brad Paisley
Keith Urban
Zac Brown Band

Last year’s controversial winner Taylor Swift was snubbed altogether in this category this year – perhaps partly because of the backlash after her clean sweep last time, but also because she released little during the nomination period. Instead, the category sees no less than three first-time nominees: critical flavor of the month Miranda Lambert (who leads nominations overall), and the two hottest bands of recent years, Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band, who are among the few current artists to be selling in the millions. They join Keith Urban (the only former winner to be in the running this time) and our own current Spotlight Artist Brad Paisley, who has been nominated every year since 2005 but is so far without the trophy.

Male Vocalist
Dierks Bentley
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
George Strait
Keith Urban

Brad Paisley has won this award for the past three years, and Keith Urban took it home for the three years prior to that. Both men are still scoring regular #1 hit singles and selling well, but is it time for another change at the top? There are two first-time nominees, Dierks Bentley, rewarded by the CMA for his artistic ambition even though country radio has been reluctant to embrace the singles from his bluegrass-inspired Up On The Ridge, and Blake Shelton, who is becoming a regular fixture at the top of the charts. The evergreen George Strait, meanwhile, seems to be nominated virtually every year, but hasn’t won since 1998 (his third year in a row – he also has a couple of trophies from the 80s).

Female Vocalist
Miranda Lambert
Martina McBride
Reba McEntire
Taylor Swift
Carrie Underwood

Last year’s winner Taylor Swift gets another nod, recognizing her commercial preeminence despite a series of woeful live TV performances – including at last year’s CMA awards show. She faces pop-country queen Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, who had a massive breakthrough this year, and is the only one of these ladies to be nominated in the Entertainer category. Reba McEntire, the oldest nominee, is still contending on the charts, but the fifth nominee, Martina McBride, seems to be merely filling out the category, as she has not had a good year commercially or critically.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Everybody Knows’

After four fine albums, Trisha’s fifth effort, released in 1996, was a bit of a disappointment for me. She was in her usual fine vocal form and Garth Fundis produced as usual, but the record overall feels just a little too tasteful at times. The overall mood leans towards AC, and is rather ballad-heavy with a few nods to radio.

The lead single was the radio-friendly ‘Believe Me Baby (I Lied)’, written by Kim Richey, Angelo, and Larry Gottlieb, which hit #1. The bright production belies the regret-filled lyric and passionate vocal as the protagonist admits she never really wanted her man to leave.

It was followed by the broadly similar #3 hit ‘Everybody Knows’, written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, with the protagonist this time fighting with all her friends and family members’ well-intentioned advice about how to cope with her broken heart. Opening track ‘I Want To Live Again’ fits into the same sophisticated mid tempo contemporary radio friendly template with broad commercial appeal.

The third single, ‘I Need You’, flopped in the 30s. The downbeat ballad about a neglected wife pleading for her husband’s renewed attention is a fine song with a beautifully delivered vocal, but it was perhaps a little too subtle or bitter for casual listeners as she comments,

The television seems to be your life’s ambition

And begs for a return to:

That boy
The one that chose me over every other choice

I like all the singles, but my favorite track is the Kevin Welch story song ‘Hello, I’m Gone’, a fiddle-led number about a woman leaving a man in Texas with nowhere particular in mind to go, and nothing but one suitcase, a broken down pickup truck, and a gun:

Man, she’s just running
It don’t matter where
She figures she’ll know where she is when she’s there
And she didn’t leave nothin’ she can’t do without
That’s enough reason for leavin’ no doubt
She turns down the window, turns up a song
Laughs at the weather and says
Hello, I’m gone

Almost as good is the delicately sung AC ballad ‘Maybe It’s Love’, written by Annie Roboff and Beth Nielsen Chapman about the uncertain feelings at the start of falling in love with someone after a period of having frozen her heart. Trisha’s lead vocal and Vince Gill’s harmony are exquisite.

The other highlight is the bitter ‘A Lover Is Forever’, written by Fred Knobloch and Steve Goodman. This is a rejected lover’s diatribe against the man who is leaving her to wed another:

You think a ring upon your hand
Will solve your insecurity…

I know you think you’re so damn clever
You can marry any time you want
But a lover is forever

There is little overt to criticize with the remainder of the material, but it tends to blend together rather. Songs like the soothing ‘It’s Alright’, written by Jamie O’Hara and Gary Nicholson, with husband Robert Reynolds’ Mavericks bandmate Raul Malo on harmony, and ‘Little Hercules’ are the epitome of tasteful production, beautiful singing and thoughtful lyrics that somehow manage to end up less than the sum of their parts. A little more interesting is ‘Under The Rainbow’, written by Matraca Berg and Randy Scruggs about finding domestic contentment in the real world.

The international version of this album boasted three additional tracks, the delicately sung portrait of ‘Even A Cowboy Can Dream’, the boring ‘Find A River’, and the cheery up-tempo ‘The Chance I Take’ (my favorite of the three), but none of these really adds substantially to the album.

The album is easily and cheaply available.

Grade: B

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Still Country’

Loretta’s first solo album in a decade was recorded in 1998 and released two years later released on the independent Audium label. Her voice was, sadly, not quite what it had been, but the songs are stronger than they had been on her last MCA album and the production from Randy Scruggs is exemplary throughout.

The heart-wrenching piano-led opening track ‘On My Own Again’ sounds as though it must be autobiographical addressing Loretta’ own experience of widowhood following Doolittle’s death in 1996, but it was actually written by Randy Scruggs, who produced the album. The woman in this song, unlike Loretta, is childless, but in other respects this must have felt very close to home. It is definitely a highlight, filled with intense emotion.

She did write one personal expression of her loss in ‘I Can’t Hear The Music’ credited as a co-write with Cody Jones and Kendal Franceschi, who finished it off when the weight of emotion overwhelmed Loretta herself from doing so. Tears audibly fill her voice as she talks about her feelings for Doolittle, and the effect is genuinely moving:

He showed me there was more to me
When I thought I had nothing else to give
God knows he wasn’t perfect
Ah but then again nobody is
He always told me the truth
No matter how hard it was to hear
When he’d say “I believe in you”
That was music to my ears

Oh each word’s like a note,
Like a beautiful tune
The kind that inspires
And helps you get through
Oh if I said “I can’t” he’d say “you can”
He was my toughest critic
Oh, and my biggest fan
Now he’s gone to a distant shore
And I can’t hear the music any more

By all accounts, including Loretta’s own in her two unflinchingly honest autobiographies, he was a bad husband in many respects – constantly unfaithful and an alcoholic, but her love for him is undeniable.

Her other composition here is the bouncy gospel-cum-tribute to Kentucky (“the closest place to Heaven that I know” of ‘God’s Country’, with hoe-down style fiddle and Earl Scruggs on banjo. The decline in her vocal powers is all too obvious, but her personality comes through engagingly, as it does on ‘Country In My Genes’, written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Betty Key, and the other track featuring Earl Scruggs. This was the single released to support the album, but perhaps unsurprisingly it failed to chart. Here Loretta defies attempts to change her image; it’s a bit shouty at times but still enjoyable:

I got country in my genes
Country in my blood
It goes back generations
It’s something I’m proud of
It’s something I was born with
Whatcha get is what you see
I’m just an old hillbilly with a country song to sing
Lord I’ve got country in my genes

Yeah country’s hit the big time
Me, I’m still the same
I ain’t above my raising
And I ain’t about to change

Max D Barnes and Vince Gill wrote the pretty but mournful look at lost-love, ‘Table For Two’ which has the best vocal and is one of my favorite tracks. I’m surprised that Vince never recorded this beautiful song himself. Another favorite track is the poignant ‘Hold Her’, the third-person tale of a woman planning to leave the husband she wrongly thinks doesn’t love her, and the man who could keep her if he only showed her he did, written by Don Wayne and Irene Kelley:

All he’d have do to hold her is to hold her
Tell her how he feels down deep inside
All he’d have to do to hold her is to hold her
There’s no way she would ever leave his side

I enjoyed the sprightly cover of John Prine’s charmingly optimistic ‘Somewhere Someone’s Falling In Love’, with its almost-Caribbean rhythms, and the closing track, a version of ‘The Blues Ain’t Workin’ On Me’, previously recorded by Rhonda Vincent on her underrated 1996 release Trouble Free. ‘Don’t Open That Door’, written by Jerry Salley, Coley McCabe and Robin Lee Bruce, is a great song about struggling to resist the temptation to get involved again with a bad-news ex, but Loretta’s voice sounds strained on the sustained notes in the chorus.

The least successful track is ‘Working Girl’, a Matraca Berg/Randy Scruggs song with Matraca and Carolyn Dawn Johnson on backing vocals, a disastrous attempt at sounding contemporary. It just doesn’t work, with Loretta sounding very strained vocally, and is actually painful to listen to. It was covered more successfully a few years later by Terri Clark.

Loretta had been out of the limelight for some years, due in part to Doolittle’s illness, and this record was largely ignored. Unfortunately, despite the high quality of the material, it is a little disappointing, revealing Loretta had passed her best vocally.

Grade: B-

Spotlight Artist: Loretta Lynn (Part 2)

The 1970s were Loretta Lynn’s most productive and most successful decade. She opened the decade by releasing her signature hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “After The Fire Is Gone”, the first of a long string of successful duets with Conway Twitty. In 1972, she won her second Female Vocalist of the Year award from the Country Music Association. She’d previously won in 1967; Tammy Wynette took the trophy home for the next three years, and in 1971 it was awarded to Lynn Anderson. Conway and Loretta also took home the Vocal Duo of the Year trophy in 1972, but the icing on the cake that year was when Loretta Lynn became the first female artist to become the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year. To commemorate the occasion, her label released an album in 1973 called Entertainer of the Year, which produced another #1 hit, “Rated X”. It was Loretta’s first release on the MCA label, which had purchased Decca and absorbed its artist roster. In 1973 she also became the first country artist to grace the cover of Newsweek.

The hits kept coming; it was during this period that Loretta released “One’s On The Way”, “I Wanna Be Free”, “You’re Lookin’ At Country”, and “Love Is The Foundation”, among others. In 1975 she released “The Pill”, her most controversial record, completely eclipsing the controversy that had surrounded “Rated X” two years earlier. Believed to be the first song about birth control, “The Pill” was considered very risque and was banned by many radio stations. Nevertheless, it managed to crack the Top 5.

During the early part of the 70s, Loretta severed her ties with the Wilburn Brothers. As her song publishers, they owned the rights to all of her compositions and Loretta saw very little in financial renumeration. While the matter was being fought out in court, Loretta stopped writing songs altogether, rather than to continue lining the Wiburns’ pockets. As a result, the music she released in the latter part of the 70s had a more polished, pop influenced sound in comparison to her earlier work.

In 1976, Loretta published her autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter, which became a New York Times bestseller. A film based on the book was released in 1980, earning some high-profile mainstream attention for Loretta, and an Academy Award for Sissy Spacek for her portrayal of the country star. Tommy Lee Jones co-starred as Mooney. As the 70s came to a close, she was named Artist of the Decade by the Academy of Country Music.

The 1980s were marred by the beginnings of a career decline and personal tragedy. It was the age of the Urban Cowboy, and Loretta’s style of country had begun to fall out of favor with country radio. Her records continued to chart, but she was no longer consistently making the Top 10 with her solo efforts. “I Lie” became her final Top 10 solo hit in 1982. She fought with her label, which wanted to push her in a more pop direction. She refused to renew her contract; MCA eventually relented, but by that time it was clear that Loretta’s reign at the top of the charts was over. She racked up her final Top 20 hit, “Heart Don’t Do This To Me” in 1985, and in 1988 she released her final album for MCA. That same year she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

A few years earlier, in 1984, Loretta’s 34-year-old son, Jack Benny Lynn drowned in a river near the family ranch. In her second book, Loretta says that she believes she suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of this tragedy, but she did not receive any medical treatment for it. She became less focused on her career, and although she continued to tour, she recorded less frequently.

Loretta spent most of the 1990s out of the spotlight. She no longer had a record deal and she stopped touring for the most part in order to care for Mooney, whose health had begun to fail. In 1993 she collaborated with Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette for the Honky Tonk Angels album. Though it received virtually no radio airplay, the album reached #6 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and earned gold certification. In 1995 she did a brief series for TNN called Loretta Lynn & Friends. Mooney Lynn died in 1996 from complications from diabetes.

In 2000, Loretta released her first solo album in twelve years, titled Still Country. It was produced by Randy Scruggs and released on the Audium label. The lead single, “Country In My Genes”, on which she was joined by half of Nashville on the chorus, received enough airplay to reach #72 in Billboard. The subsequent singles, which included “I Can’t Hear The Music”, which she’d written as a tribute to Mooney, did not chart. Despite being largely ignored by country radio, the album was generally well received by critics. However, it was her next album, 2004’s Van Lear Rose, that is considered her true comeback. Produced by Jack White of the White Stripes, it was an interesting fusion of country and alternative rock and a radical departure from her previous work. At nearly 70 years of age, Loretta Lynn was suddenly hip again. Van Lear Rose earned her two Grammy Awards in 2005: one for Best Country Album, and one for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for “Portland, Oregon”, a duet with producer Jack White.

In between Still Country and Van Lear Rose, Loretta found time to publish a second autobiography, Still Woman Enough in 2002. In 2001, CMT ranked her at #3, behind Patsy Cline (#1) and Tammy Wynette (#2) on their 40 Greatest Women of Country Music special. She was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 2003, and in 2008 she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. She received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010.

At age 75, Loretta is showing no signs of slowing down. She remains a concert draw and is reportedly working on two new albums which will tentatively be released later this year, though no dates have been announced.

The term legend is used much too freely these days, but Loretta Lynn truly belongs to an elite inner circle of performers, without whom it is difficult to imagine what country music would have been like. We hope that you will enjoy our look back at the life and career of a woman who has become an American icon, and who is arguably the most important female artist in the history of country music.

Album Review – Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album

Keith whitley tributeOne of the problems with making a tribute album is how far the participants are prepared to bring something of themselves to the interpretation, and how far they are so concerned to pay their respects the artist being honored, that the end result is little more than very tasteful, high-class karaoke.

The tribute album produced by BNA, the successor to Keith Whitley’s record label RCA, in 1994, five years after his death, does sometimes fall into that trap, but it makes one or two decisions which mark it out, too. The highly respected Randy Scruggs took on production duties, with Lorrie Morgan as executive producer. Another of those involved was songwriter Byron Hill, who says on his website that the project was the one he enjoyed working on most in his period as A&R director for BNA (1993-1994).

Some of the hottest artists of the mid 90s were recruited for the project, and most of them give respectful versions of some of Keith’s best-known songs, which speak well of their admiration of Keith, but fall a little flat when compared to the originals. Alan Jackson takes on ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’; Tracy Lawrence tries ‘I’m Over You’; Joe Diffie sings ‘I’m No Stranger To the Rain’; and Mark Chesnutt tackles ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’. They are all fine singers in their own right, and their versions of Keith’s hits are pleasant enough to listen to, but the overriding adjective which comes to mind while listening is ‘nice’. They lack something of the passion Keith brought to them, and perhaps this is because they were thinking of the act of tribute they were paying rather than the song itself. I suspect that if any one of these gentlemen had independently decided to record the song on one of his own albums, it would have had a different approach and more life. I think what is missing is inspiration.

Diamond Rio are a little more successful bringing something new to their track, ‘Ten Feet Away’, one of the better songs on LA To Miami. This is partly because the natural advantage of being a harmony-based band automatically brings a new feel to a song popularised by a solo singer, and partly because the new version has better production. Also very pleasing and not overawed by the task is the duet by Keith’s old friend Ricky Skaggs with Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah, on ‘All I Ever Loved Was You’, the least familiar of all the covers. This traditional-sounding bluegrass waltz was written by Ricky’s mother Dorothy Skaggs, and originally recorded by Keith and Ricky as precociously talented teenagers on their 1971 set Second Generation Bluegrass.

Read more of this post

1989 Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume Two’

200px-circle_ii_album_coverAlongside 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. Read more of this post