Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Capitol Records)

Thrice now the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has dared to pose the question: Will the circle be unbroken? Let us hope. Let us hope.

The third volume of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a 28-track double disc, continues the band’s blissful jam between past and present. Like its predecessors, from 1972 and 1989, this addition to one of the unlikeliest series imaginable teams the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (Bob Carpenter, Jimmie Fadden, Jeff Hanna, Jimmy Ibbotson, and John McEuen) with a cadre of more traditional country performers, some of them much older than the band, some of them much younger. (When the landmark first volume appeared, current bluegrass phenom Alison Krauss, who contributes to two tracks here, likely hadn’t yet been toilet-trained.)

As did those predecessors, Will the Circle Be Unbroken Volume III features banjo giant Earl Scruggs and fiddle virtuoso Vassar Clements and marks the return of guitar great Doc Watson, who missed the second volume. Also on the roster: Willie Nelson and June Carter Cash, Emmylou Harris and Dwight Yoakam, Del McCoury and Iris DeMent. Indeed, simply listing the volume’s contents and contributors would cause this review to exceed the magazine’s word limit.

The first disc ends with the touchstone track here, Johnny Cash’s “Tears in the Holston River.” On it, in a voice at once coarsened and ennobled by time’s passage, the Man in Black—a titan of something like the third generation of modern country music—elegizes Maybelle and Sara Carter—two of country’s four founders, the former of whom was his mother-in-law—on a project initiated by members of the fifth or sixth generation that’s lately involved performers from the nth generation. Like the release featuring it and the project fostering the release, the song’s a moving memorial.

Thrice now the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has dared to pose the question: Will the circle be unbroken? Let us hope. Let us hope.

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