When the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in 1972, the epic triple album did the seemingly impossible: It leapt across genres and generations to unite fans of rock music with those of classic country and bluegrass. It brought together hippies and rednecks, the old and the young. And it did so at a particularly volatile time in American history.
“Vietnam was really hot right then,” says John McEuen, an ace instrumentalist best known for his stints in the Dirt Band and as a linchpin of the “Circle” sessions. “The marches were happening and things of that nature. But there were no politics in the studio. It was all about the music, and music brought the generations together in a way that captured the essence of America and the American spirit.”
McEuen does recall that country matriarch Maybelle Carter did refer to the Dirt Band as “the Dirty Boys,” though he insists that it was said without prejudice.
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is in the news and on the charts again because of its prominence in Ken Burns’ multipart documentary “Country Music,” which recently aired on PBS. McEuen is currently on the road with his own show, a multimedia production that recounts his eventful musical history, with a special emphasis on “Circle.”
“(The show) is a look back and a look ahead,” says McEuen, whose most recent album is 2016’s Independent Music Award-winning “Made in Brooklyn.” He released his autobiography, “The Life I’ve Picked: A Banjo Player’s Nitty Gritty Journey,” last year.
Considering that “Circle” has taken on so much historical weight — it’s been inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry and the Grammy Hall of Fame” — the album’s origins were comparatively humble. In 1971, bluegrass musician Gary Scruggs brought his father, banjo legend Earl Scruggs, to see the Dirt Band perform at Vanderbilt University. Earl said he “wanted to see the guy (meaning McEuen) who played (his composition) ‘Randy Lynn Rag’ the way I intended.”
Six months later, McEuen worked up the courage to ask the elder Scruggs if he would consider recording with the Dirt Band. “I’d be proud to” was the answer.
Armed with that loose promise, McEuen approached Doc Watson and told a bit of a stretcher. “I told him we were making an album with Earl Scruggs and asked if he’d be on it, too,” McEuen says. Watson agreed.
From there, McEuen and his brother Bill, who managed the Dirt Band, recruited another bluegrass great, Jimmy Martin, and guitarist Merle Travis. Scruggs brought in Mother Maybelle Carter and fiddler Vassar Clements and set up a meeting for the band with Roy Acuff, putative “King of Country Music.” It took a two-hour meeting to sell him on the project.
At the time, the Dirt Band was not just a band of hippie outsiders; it was still something of a fledgling band, period. It wasn’t until its fourth album, “Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy” (1970), that the group started producing some hits, most notably a version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” that went Top 10.
Approached with the idea of following up that pop success with an album of traditional country and bluegrass, the president of the band’s record label was nonplussed but supportive.
“We told him that we wanted to do this album that honors the people that we learned from,” McEuen says. “We told him how we’re out playing colleges, and nobody’s ever heard of Earl Scruggs or Doc Watson, but when we play their music, people go crazy.
“He sat very quietly and listened to this pitch for 20 or 30 minutes and said, ‘Well, I don’t know if I’m going to sell two of these, but I’ll put up the money.”
The label gave the band $22,000 to cover everything — musicians’ fees, studio time, hotels, etc. It’s a pittance by today’s standards but a fair amount for a seemingly wild idea.
In return for that sum, though, the label — and the world at large — got a timeless class.
McEuen is grateful for the experience of working with his heroes and teachers, especially Scruggs. “To us it was a big deal,” he says. “It was the biggest thing.”
He’s justifiably proud of “Circle” and also — thanks in large part to the Burns documentary — for the attention that it’s getting nearly half a century later.
“It’s No. 1 on Amazon now on and two different charts and No. 2 on a third chart — Country Classics and Bluegrass and Folk,” he says. “Many of the people that were on the (‘Country Music’) series are having a new resurgence of interest in what they’re doing. But ‘Circle’ is No. 1.”
What John McEuen • When 8 p.m. Friday • Where Sheldon Concert Hall & Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard • How much $40-$195 • More info 314-534-1111; metrotix.com