NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s History Comes Alive

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NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s History Comes Alive

Published on March 28, 2013 by CMT News

Nashville Skyline
(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The vinyl reissue of the
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band‘s epochal Will the Circle Be
Unbroken
three-album set after four decades has a special place in my heart. I spent part of my honeymoon at that recording
session and ended up actually singing on the title track.

Let me explain. My wife-to-be Martha and I were both in graduate
school at the University of Texas at Austin. After she proposed to me, we decided to get married and, further, decided to
go to Mexico to get married. What the hell. You’re only young once. Right?

We both loved country music and bluegrass.
Martha came from the mountains of Kentucky, and our first date had been to a bluegrass festival in East Texas where Ralph
Stanley
was headlining.

So we eloped to Mexico with two of our best friends, got hitched and stayed around for
a couple of days to celebrate and then headed off to Kentucky for Martha to present me to her unsuspecting parents. Along
the way I stopped off to check in with my editor at Rolling Stone. I was working, while still in school, as a contributing
editor for the magazine and liked to stay in touch. So I checked in, told my editor where I’d be for the next couple of weeks.

He
said that since I would be passing through Nashville, I should stop and check out an odd recording session that the Nitty
Gritty Dirt band was having with some country “old-timers.” That’s all he knew about it. I said, “Sure,” and off we went.

We
walked into Woodland Sound Studios to an amazing sight: the entire Dirt Band sitting around with some of their elders. There
was country matriarch Mother Maybelle Carter, folk music
giant Doc Watson, the king of bluegrass Jimmy
Martin
, guitar pioneer Merle Travis, the king of country music
Roy Acuff, bluegrass pioneer Earl
Scruggs
, fiddler extraordinaire Vassar Clements and bassist Junior Huskey. To me, they were musical icons.

A Nashville
newspaper columnist dismissed these recording sessions as being a bunch of California longhairs cutting with some country
dinosaurs — so called because they were no longer being played on country radio or having their records released on major
record labels. Sound familiar? But they remained steadfastly true to their music. It’s all in the viewpoint, I guess.

The
elders were quite warm and welcoming. Although Roy Acuff initially was a bit standoffish — I guess because of my ponytail
and leather sandals (although he was already friendly with the “California longhairs”) — we became quite friendly once he
discovered that I knew his music inside and out. Of course, he had just decided to record with a longhaired bunch of California
hippie musicians. The big reason that Jimmy Martin was on the album was that bluegrass patriarch Bill
Monroe
had turned it down with no explanation.

Mother Maybelle Carter was an absolute delight. A salty old grandmother
you have to love. Especially after she and Martha figured out they were related, she just drew us to her figurative bosom.
It was Maybelle who insisted that Martha and I sing background vocals on the album’s title track.

All 42 tracks on
the entire album were recorded live in one or two takes. All the pickers and singers played and sang live in one studio, straight
to a master tape. No overdubs, no do-overs and with minimal rehearsing. It was a marvel to be a part of.

Watson turned
out to be a born bandleader, Scruggs was an instrumental genius, Acuff turned out to be a team player, Martin was an ebullient
cheerleader, Huskey provided a solid foundation with his rock solid bass and Maybelle’s elegant voice floated above the fray.

It
didn’t surprise me that the album turned out to be enormously influential after its release in 1973. And it didn’t hurt that
it helped the careers of all involved. And it still sounds terrific. I have the original vinyl set from 1972, and it’s just
as crisp and bright as it sounded in the studio.

So I got my gold record for my first and only time behind a studio
microphone. Now that Circle has sold platinum, I should ask for an upgrade.

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