40th Anniversary of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" - Interview with John McEuen
October 19, 2012
In the late 60's radio was different. FM was just beginning to be embraced. Not only was the signal more enriched and in stereo, but the new stations were less regimented and not as targeted as they are today. So called "rock" stations might pair Led Zeppelin right next to Tom Rush or The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The host - or DJ - actually made most of the musical choices.
Musicians themselves were freer to follow their dreams as well. John McEuen, one of the founding members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - a very popular "folk-rock" band at the time - knew that Nashville was changing. The traditional country music stars were beginning to be passed over for more glamorized younger singers. John feared that younger fans might not ever discover Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Roy Acuff, or Mother Maybelle Carter. He also knew that he might be able to use the newfound freedom of FM radio and borrow on his own group's popularity to make a difference.
John McEuen, Jeff Hanna & the rest of the band thought it might be cool to include these early stars on a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album. Most of them lived in Nashville, or not far from it. Once Doc and Earl Scruggs agreed, they figured others would follow. John and his brother went to the label and pitched the idea. To hear what happened next is a fascinating story.
John approached me at the Bliss Festival in Michigan this summer and we sat down and talked about "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" 40 years ago. John brought a guitar and played a couple tunes, and we also talked about his latest album with his two sons.
This is where I must begin," sings Rayna Gellert at the onset of her new album - Old Light: Songs from My Childhood and Other Gone Worlds. With that, she pulls the listener into a world fashioned out of songs which have shaped her through the years.
These are tunes she heard her parents play when she was a child (she grew up in a musical family - her father Dan appears on the record). There are also original songs, but Gellert is so adept at traditional music, you'd be hard-pressed to decide which ones are hers and which come from long ago and far away.
Indeed, it's always interesting to delve into what influenced an artist's ear. One of the most common questions journalists pose to musicians is: "Who are your influences?" It's common because the kind of music a person grows up to make is heavily informed by the tunes they grew up cutting their teeth on.
In Gellert's case, traditional folk music was there from the beginning - it's how she learned to understand music, how she learned to play, and the way she eventually figured out to make her way as a fiddler.
She has earned a solid place in contemporary roots music by moving straight from homespun jam sessions to a career lending her skills to folks like Loudon Wainwright III, Abigail Washburn, Robyn Hitchcock, and others. There were also a couple albums on Rounder Records with Uncle Earl (the all-female old time troupe who earned a lot of praise breathing new life into old songs). Indeed, Gellert's fiddle skills precede her, so it's interesting to hear her lay down the bow and deliver this collection of mostly guitar-and-banjo-accompanied tunes.
There are a couple exceptional moments when bow hits strings. "The Fatal Flower Garden" has a fiddle sawing deeply in the background so it almost sounds like car breaks screeching. But, even there, it's a tertiary instrument to the lyrics and melodies she's selected, knowing all the while that where we go is best understood by embracing where we've been.
*To order this CD, click here to visit Rayna Gellert's website!*