“Green Hills Mall, 2008,” from the series Nashville by Greg Miller, gregmiller.com
By John Grammer
Country music in the 1970s of my adolescence was music for the hopelessly uncool. It was Saturday afternoon television with Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, outlandish in their rhinestones, extolling the virtues of their sponsor, Breeze detergent. It was “Okie from Muskogee,” Merle Haggard’s 1969 hit denouncing drugs, war protesters, and long hair. Country was Hee Haw, and what the football coach who taught Driver’s Ed—he of the short haircut, white polyester shirts, and fierce Texas twang—made us listen to when we drove with him, because it soothed his nerves.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, on the other hand, was a country-rock group from Southern California, “a bunch of long-haired West Coast boys,” as country patriarch Roy Acuff called them. But in August 1971 they made their way to Nashville, a little tentatively, to record the album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a collaboration with an unlikely gathering of old-time country stars that instantly achieved classic status and has never gone out of print.
The experiment wasn’t wholly unprecedented. The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and other California rock acts in the late ’60s and ’70s had for years sustained a chaste and sporadic flirtation with country music, occasionally incorporating banjos and steel guitars and even covering country standards from time to time. But the Dirt Band’s Circle project went all the way: they recorded in Nashville with a dream team of traditional bluegrass, folk, and country players, including banjo innovator Earl Scruggs, guitarists Doc Watson and Merle Travis, the self-proclaimed “King of Bluegrass,” Jimmy Martin, the aforementioned Acuff, and, in a final flourish, Mother Maybelle Carter, matriarch of the undisputed founding family of country music. All of them were much older than the long-haired West Coast boys, and none but Scruggs was known to have much sympathy with rock music or the people who played it. They were wary of the California kids; Acuff didn’t even agree to participate until the final day of recording, and only after listening to the tracks already laid down. For that matter most of the kids returned the sentiment. The Dirt Band’s banjoist John McEuen badly wanted to record with Scruggs, and his brother Bill, the band’s manager, saw commercial and artistic possibilities in the idea. But they had their hands full persuading bandmates Jeff Hanna, Jimmy Ibbotson, Les Thompson, and Jimmie Fadden to come to Nashville. Nonetheless, they all arrived at Woodland Studios in August of 1971 with $22,000 to spend—the most United Artists Records was willing to advance the implausible project—and nine days in which to spend it.
The result, “the Circle album,” as it has been known ever since, was distinctive in several ways. Containing excellent recordings of classic country songs from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, it certainly achieved the Dirt Band’s immediate goal, which was to introduce their youthful fans to the old music they considered an ancestor of their own. The album was nominated for two Grammy awards, eventually went platinum, and has been reissued several times. And, particularly through the snatches of studio conversation that connected the musical tracks, the record introduced the old-time country performers themselves, revealing them as vivid and appealing personalities. Soon Watson, Scruggs, and other principals were adding college campuses to their touring schedules, and Maybelle Carter had her first hit album in decades. Rolling Stone ran a long and enthusiastic story about the recording sessions even before the album was released. In its musical influence Circle might be compared to the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, issued twenty-eight years later, or even Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music from twenty years before, each of them helping initiate one of those periodic rediscoveries of traditional material that punctuate the history of American popular music. Circle’s musical legacy, though impossible to measure with precision, must include a significant part of what we now call “alt-country” and thus claim at least partial credit for the careers of Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, and others who came to traditional country from outside and found a home there. In 2006 the Library of Congress recognized the album’s musical importance by adding the title track to its National Recording Registry of works of unusual merit. The Circle album, John McEuen boasts, “is the Dark Side of the Moon of country music.”
But the record undoubtedly aspired to more than just musical significance. To see what, we have to remind ourselves what the white South and its music meant to most Americans in 1971. Politics is part of the picture. President Richard Nixon, narrowly elected in 1968, was anticipating a much more convincing victory in 1972, and he expected the white South to help him get it. His “Southern strategy” arose from his recognition that Southern voters, historically Democratic but estranged from their increasingly liberal party, could become the basis for a very stable Republican majority. Avoiding the directly racial appeals that George Wallace had used in his surprisingly successful third-party bid in 1968, Nixon focused instead on issues like crime, urban unrest, and campus rebellion—signs of alarming social breakdown. White Southerners, he knew, were concerned about these issues and would be drawn to a president who promised aggressive solutions. And so, he crucially recognized, would non-Southerners: “The Real Majority” of the national electorate was not Southern, but as political analysts Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammon had argued in a recent book of that title, it was “unyoung, unpoor, unblack,” worried about social issues, and feeling ignored by the Democratic party. The Southern strategy was a way of reaching these people, both in the North and the South, whom the president had already learned to call the Silent Majority.
Nixon found many ways to do this, including an appeal through the musical idiom that had belonged distinctively to the white South ever since the famous recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927, the big bang of commercial country music. For most of its history this music had been disdained by listeners almost everywhere else, but now, like the South itself, country music was on the rise; and like the South’s political anxieties, it was no longer confined to its region. Ten years earlier there had been fewer than one hundred country radio stations in the U.S.; now there were nearly a thousand, including a large and profitable one, WHN, in Manhattan. When Nixon listened to country music (which he did unwillingly, his own taste running to easy listening), he heard some encouraging sounds. Country seemed to be angry about the same things his constituency was, and it was far from silent about them. There was “Okie from Muskogee” of course, Merle Haggard’s philippic against the counterculture. Johnny Cash offered the belligerently patriotic “Ragged Old Flag” and warned, “If you’re not going to support the president, get out of my way so I can stand behind him.” Ernest Tubb, once an outspoken Democrat, made the point most succinctly with his 1970 hit “It’s America (Love It or Leave It).” This was the music that one disapproving listener had called “the perfect musical extension of the Nixon administration.” During these years, music historian Bill C. Malone observes, country began “for the first time in its history . . . to be identified with a specific political position.”
President Nixon knew an ally when he heard one and lost no time in associating himself with the genre and its stars. His advisor Fred LaRue, a principal architect of the Southern strategy, commissioned a campaign song, “Bring Our Country Back,” and scoured Music Row looking for a popular artist to record it. Disappointingly, only two relative has-beens, Acuff and Tex Ritter, were willing. Things started looking up when Johnny Cash was persuaded to visit the White House, though the president’s staff created a minor gaffe by asking him to perform “Okie from Muskogee,” apparently confusing him with Haggard. Glen Campbell followed, then Haggard himself. And in March 1974, as Watergate closed in around him, Nixon returned the favor, attending the opening of the new Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. He took the stage, played “God Bless America” on the piano, then spoke in praise of country music, which “comes from the heart of America” and “radiates a love of this nation.”
In a sense, the Dirt Band came to Nashville for the same reason Nixon did, to declare solidarity with country music and the South whose voice it was. But the band had its own Southern strategy for doing so. They wanted to engage the South and its music, but like so many visitors before, they began by reimagining them. We can begin to recognize this strategy by looking at the famous album cover of Circle. It’s an insistently antique cluster of script and images, centering upon the portrait of an impressively bearded Civil War officer (he actually looks a little like John McEuen), banked with lithographs of battle scenes and American and Confederate flags. Above these images is the album title, and beneath them is the legend “Music forms a new Circle.” Though the album offers no hints about the provenance or significance of its cover art, we can make a few inferences. The cluster of images must have been lifted whole from some late-nineteenth-century handbill announcing a Civil War commemoration, possibly one honoring David Porter, the Union naval commander whose portrait appears at the center. The prominent deployment of both American and Confederate flags, common in Civil War commemorations in the years after Reconstruction, reminds us that sectional reconciliation was an important goal of such ceremonies. These images might be just nostalgic in a general way, gesturing vaguely toward a dignified older America—much like the music within. Bill McEuen chose the album art, says his brother John, “as a representation of the backbone of where ‘this music’ came from.” But in fact these old images of national reconciliation made perfect sense for an album that hoped to reconcile the antagonistic musical traditions represented by the Dirt Band and their Nashville collaborators. It was a family quarrel, a kind of civil war: country music, after all, had helped spawn rock & roll, but parent and child had grown apart. Three years earlier Jimi Hendrix had explained that the purpose of his music was “to create a buffer between young and old.” The purpose of Circle was just the opposite; the Dirt Band came to Nashville on an errand of reconciliation, in search of their musical ancestors and in the hope of closing a musical family circle.
That’s not the whole story, however. Reconciliation is the theme of the Circle album, but more than music was at stake. The album’s title came from a song recorded by the Carter Family in 1935, a funereal lament expressing the hope that a family circle broken by death might be “unbroken” in heaven. The album’s narrative of breaking and unbreaking referred not only to the divided worlds of rock & roll and country music but also to the cultures they represented, the ones painfully rent by such issues as drugs, civil rights, and above all the Vietnam War (whose dead might be among those mourned in the album’s title song). In the 1970s these divisions seemed new and were usually perceived in generational terms—the antiwar, antiestablishment young clashing with the patriotic, conservative old. Now they are a familiar feature of our politics and we represent them, perhaps more accurately, with the image of red and blue states. The Dirt Band seemed to recognize, about the same time Nixon did, that the South and country music had something to do with all this. The Circle album specifically acknowledges these divisions and tries to address them. It’s a romance of reunion, to borrow scholar Nina Silber’s term for the literature of Reconstruction. One thing it offered was an image—in many ways a hopeful one—of the American South as represented by its music.
What kind of South was it? Consider the performers the Dirt Band invited to join them, the way they cast their romance of reunion. Though Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, and Maybelle Carter had once been major stars, none of them had enjoyed a hit record since the 1950s. The president would have gained few votes by inviting any of them to the White House. The real Nashville of 1971, the performers who dominated the airwaves and pulled in the serious money with the slick, heavily produced “Nashville sound,” were people like Lynn Anderson, Tammy Wynette, Ray Price, and Sonny James. None of them were asked to participate in the album. The Dirt Band bypassed the country music of their own day and found its ancestors. Estranged from their musical parents, they sought out their grandparents.
The album itself will have to tell us what happened next. The first thing to say is that it is a beautiful record, offering some of the best performances ever recorded of major works in the country and bluegrass repertories. Scruggs on “Nashville Blues” or Doc Watson on “Black Mountain Rag” were never better. Vassar Clements’s “Orange Blossom Special” gave new life to a classic instrumental done to death by generations of contest fiddlers. One reason for this is that the Dirt Band wisely stepped back, serving essentially as the backup musicians for their distinguished elders, who rose to the occasion. The band’s deference carried a meaning: unlike some of their peers, they knew how to respect their elders. But those elders had their part to play as well, embodying an idealized version of their generation and region.
On the Circle album, these elders represent not angry reaction but tradition, and tradition that deserves respect. The first track, “Grand Ole Opry Song,” is a Homeric catalogue of musical ancestors, including Red Foley, Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, and Minnie Pearl. Toward the end of the record John McEuen, plainly awed, is handed the banjo once played by Uncle Dave Macon, the comedian and folk singer who in the 1920s became the Grand Ole Opry’s first star. He listens rapt as Earl Scruggs recalls Macon’s stage antics, then speaks into the banjo: “Uncle Dave, if you’re in there, ‘Soldier’s Joy,’ take one.”
As they present themselves on the album, the older musicians inhabit a community of comfortably shared knowledge and cultural assumption. In the conversational snatches that intersperse the songs, they greet one another warmly, trade compliments, speak of absent friends. One of the best of these moments captures the first meeting of guitar geniuses Doc Watson and Merle Travis. Though they are strangers, mutual admiration and a deeply shared culture bring them instantly into easy rapport and eager conversation. Watson, the younger of the two, finally confides, “I named my son after you.” “I appreciate that,” Travis replies quietly. On the other hand, like any real community, the circle of Nashville stalwarts is suspicious of outsiders. The record preserves awkward moments when the elders are impatient or condescending toward the kids, when the kids’ eager efforts at wit or flattery fall flat with the elders, and when the two groups are simply bored with each other. But harmony is achieved, figuratively and literally, when the music begins. Considered as theater, Circle displays a remarkable restraint, passing up several opportunities for cheap sentimentality. It could have been, after all, a kind of Hallmark commercial: grandparents and grandchildren, once estranged, find their differences dissolved by the elixir of music. In the end the album does tell that story, but it doesn’t do so cheaply. Music forms a new circle at last, but the musicians have to work at it.
The portrait the album creates of the South and its music is essentially a version of the pastoral. Leaving L.A. and their electric instruments behind them, the Dirt Band find their way into an older world, comfortingly traditional, effortlessly communal, and ultimately welcoming. It is, interestingly, a nearly all-male paradise: a studio full of good old boys, all supervised by the one woman in the room, Mother Maybelle Carter. And like so many Southern versions of the pastoral, the one depicted in Circle is all white; neither black musicians nor black musical traditions are included or acknowledged.
In the end, the South imagined in Circle was a little too simple, and a little too innocent, to be true. The hopeful vision of reconciliation, of music forming a new circle and repairing the cultural breaches of Vietnam-era America, did not come to pass. Nixon, with his cold-eyed calculation of the power of Southern votes, was the better prophet, as a glance at the red and blue maps on election night reminds us every four years. And country music remains what it was in 1971: nationally popular, slickly produced, and for the most part politically conservative—as the Dixie Chicks found out a few years ago when they neglected to follow Johnny Cash’s advice about supporting the president. Like so many pastoral poems, Circle creates a dream of order and harmony that exists only within the work of art, a temporary stay against confusion. Still, the dream is beautiful. I play it all the time.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.