The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band brought together all the talent in Nashville for this grand arrangement.
Back in 1972, there was a distinct difference between what country music was and what it would turn into today. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band wanted to bring together the old guard, who became popular through exposure at the Grand Ole Opry from the 1940s through the 1960s, and the new wave of bluegrass and country music that gave rise to names like Ricky Skaggs, Bruce Hornsby, and of course the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band themselves. They banded together all the biggest names of the era, including “Mother” Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, and Doc Watson, to create Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a two-disc set.
The project was well received, and the musicians had so much fun, that in 1989 the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided to do it again, with a different cast than 18 years previously. This recording was dominated by the bluegrass style and featured solos from some of the most talented people in Nashville, many of whom dominate their fields even today, 29 years later.
The song that gave its name to the album, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?,” opens up with a beautiful piano intro that leads to Johnny Cash’s mournful bass vocal. Cash sings the first verse and is prevalent through the first chorus, before blending into the background. Next up is the weathered voice of Roy Acuff, who sings the second verse with his signature rasp. A very young Ricky Skaggs picks up the third verse with his smooth tenor and leads into The Band’s Levon Helm joined by Emmylou Harris for the fourth. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band takes the last verse, which has new lyrics that reflect on the loss of Maybelle Carter.
The singers of each verse stick around for the choruses, which allows the song to consistently build until the broad ending chorus. Between each verse, solos are peppered in from Earl Scruggs, Roy Huskey Jr., Mark O’Connor, and Jerry Douglas. Also featured in the chorus were Béla Fleck, Bruce Hornsby, Paulette Carlson, Michael M. Murphey, Chris Hillman, Jimmy Martin, John Hiatt, Roger McGuinn, Sam Bush, Chet Atkins, Marty Stuart, Vassar Clements, John Prine, June Carter, and Rosanne Cash.
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” was written as a hymn in 1907 Ada R. Habershon with music by Charles H. Gabriel. The tune is often left unattributed due to its age and lapse into the public domain. In 1935, the Carter Family reworked the hymn to become more suitable for funeral services, using the same musical structure, but changing the lyrics. This version is still under copyright.