"That's the main thing: Making another musical circle that'll bridge generations and styles." - Jimmy Ibbotson, 1989.
Seventeen years ago, a still-emerging acoustic rock band called the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band teamed up with the virtual legends of country music to produce the 3-album set "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."The "Circle" illustrated just how close country music and pop music can be, and even today stands as a landmark in both country and pop music. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band would go on to become immensely popular on the pop and country music circuit, building on the musical promise of "Circle."
Seventeen years later, the Dirt Band decided it was time to do it again. "We didn't want to go in trying to recapture what we'd already done because we knew there's no way you could ever make a record like `Will the Circle Be Unbroken.' But we really liked the idea of playing with other people and there are so many players who've come up since 1972 and we wanted to acknowledge that," said Jeff Hanna.
If the resulting "Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume Two" isn't as good as Volume One, it's only by a tad. "Volume Two, which also features guest appearances by former Dirt Banders Bernie Leadon and John McEuen, features the biggest names in pop and country music.
The guests include Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, the Carter Family, Roy Acuff, Bruce Hornsby, Levon Helm (The Band), Paulette Carlson (Highway 101), Jimmy Martin, New Grass Revival, John Denver, Michael Martin Murphy, John Prine, John Hiatt and Rosanne Cash. It is produced by Randy Scruggs, who played acoustic guitar on both "Circle" sets.
"We wanted to show how far the various fingers and branches of this music can reach with guys like Bruce Hornsby and John Hiatt," Hanna said. "They may not fit in the strictest sense, but their music comes from the very same places."
Even more impressive than the lineup is how they mesh their own styles with the Dirt Band, producing a laid-back style that makes "Volume Two" a sensational recording. "We sort of put the living room back in the music," said Emmylou Harris of the experience.
"Volume Two" was recorded live over a two-week period in December and a two-week period in January at Randy Scruggs Sound Studios in Berryhill, Tenn. The formula was simple: The guest collaborator and the NGDB would arrive in the morning, sit in a circle and rehearse a song until early afternoon, and then record a final taken "before the evening got too late."
The backup band included fiddler Mark O'Conner, mandolinist/banjo player Sam Bush, dobroist Jerry Douglas and upright bassist Roy Huskey Jr., whose father played on the original "Circle" collaborations.
The live recordings capture the casualness of the experience as band members and guest artists banter and joke back and forth. It adds creativity and spontaneity to the recording.
"It's harder recording live because everyone has to be playing their best all the time. You're worried about ruining a perfectly good take because your part's not quite up to par," said Hanna. "But then with all that energy, you're able to plug into it."
The resulting songs are gems. Prine's "Grandpa Was a Carpenter" takes on new life with the NGDB's rich acoustic style, and Bruce Hornsby's "Valley Road" is nothing short of inspired, meshing the best of pop, folk and country music into an acoustic audio wonderland.
The music charts say the NBDB is country. But, as becomes crystal clear from "Volume Two," their music hasn't changed; just the stations who played it.
"We have a whole body of work that's strictly our country material. But what's especially heartening is that it's not that different from `Mr. Bojangles' or any of the things we were doing before," said Hanna.
"Volume Two" is the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's first album on the Universal Records label.