Many things happened in the music world in 2012, one of those being the 40th anniversary of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album, which was called the most important record in country music by ZAGAT in 2004. The album’s title was taken from an old hymn by Ada B. Habershon, which was re-arranged by A.P. Carter, and signified an attempt to tie two generations of musicians together. Some of these musicians included Roy Acuff, “Mother” Maybelle Carter, and Earl Scruggs. One of the founding members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John McEuen, has an impressive resume that not only includes this accomplishment, but many others. Working with a long list of other performers, he is no stranger to a variety of musicians, and a variety of musical instruments. Along with this special anniversary, the idea for a future tour was born. “I had John Carter Cash do a program with me for the International Bluegrass Music Association about two years ago, and we talked about it and came up with the idea for him, myself, and some other players, and he agreed that it was a great idea,” says McEuen.
The connection between John McEuen and the Carter family started long before the album, however. He had been a fan of the Carters since the ‘60s, and believed that they set the tone for country music in general, in many ways. “I was 19 years old and my brother and I didn’t get to the Grand Ole Opry in time to get a ticket, and it was sold out. Right when I looked in the north window, Lester Flatt said ‘We’re gonna bring out Mama Maybelle Carter, Earl and I, to do the “Wildwood Flower.”’”
Five years after that, the Dirt Band started, and they found themselves working with not only Maybelle Carter, but a host of other musicians on the Circle album. “We learned things about people. We learned that they were all fans of each other, and were intimidated at first because we were a bunch of young guys from Southern California playing with Roy Acuff and Doc Watson and Vassar Clements, but they were such fans of each other that we just got to watch. At that point, nobody had ever heard of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.”
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” has been hailed as the beginning of Americana as its own genre. “Before Americana was defined, it was what the Dirt Band was doing. We were using acoustic instruments such as mandolin, guitar, banjo, and fiddle, with a particular drum feel. A lot of people have said we helped start the Americana genre, and that was probably the reason.” Although, the credit is shared, according to John: “I like to give credit to The Band with Levon Helm, as they were a big influence on us.”
As an album, nobody saw Circle’s popularity, or longevity, coming. “It reached across generations. I’ve had so many people tell me that it was the first time their father talked to them in years. He heard them playing the album in their bedroom and opened the door and asked what they were listening to. That was in the ‘70s and early ‘80s when it was first getting out there. The influence has been on a variety of musicians, including classical, rock and roll, and folk music, and these guys say they heard the Circle album and it changed their direction.”
In a way, the Circle album and the Carter Family legacy go hand-in-hand. With multiple generations, now guided by John Carter Cash, this family is one that has left their mark. Their influence has been described as, “the same way as Dorothea Lang took photos of America during the Depression and that Woody Guthrie wrote songs, the Carter Family reflected what was going on in their area with the people they lived with. They talked of relationships, life, and keeping it on the sunny side. Not directly religious, but with an overtone of ‘better things are ahead.’”
John McEuen and John Carter Cash will be in Green Lake at the Thrasher Opera House on November 15th to tell not only the story of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” musically and visually, but also a portion of the history of the Carter Family in country music. “What we’d like people to take from this is that the Carter Family music and what I bring from the Dirt Band is a proud part of America and Americana,” and, it would not be complete without some unexpected tidbits, as well. “At the show, people learn that Maybelle Carter was influenced by, of all things, Tex-Mex music, as she spent a lot of time in El Paso. And one of the photos in the multimedia presentation is of Maybelle in a bowling alley bowling, and John Carter talks about what a great bowler she was.” And, ironically, John McEuen was the one to take Maybelle her first gold album, for Circle. “I told her that 500,000 people had bought the album, and she said, ‘I didn’t think that many people even heard my music’ and she meant it.”
Along with the stories of Maybelle Carter and the others who came together for the Circle album, there are also some surprises in store. “John Carter Cash tells the story of the romance his parents John and June Carter had. He tells it with great respect, and it captivates everybody. He weaves it into talking about his grandma, Maybelle, and how her music affected him.”
While they want everyone to be entertained, they also want it to serve as a learning experience. “People find out that there is a depth to the background of songs they’re familiar with. When you hear John Carter’s story about how ‘Ring of Fire’ came about, as an homage to his mother and father, it keeps the audience both laughing and excited.”
And while the past experiences have been great, John McEuen is also excited about the present. “I first met John Carter when he was oh, fourteen years old, and it feels great to be standing on stage next to him and working together. He is one of the nicest people I’ve worked with. Even when there’s not music, we just look forward to getting together – but so far, it’s been quite musical.”
For more information or tickets visit Thrasheroperahouse.com.