This review was contributed by Noah Mino.
A must have on the shelf of any bluegrass or classic country aficionados, the deluxe repressing of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s incredibly influential 1972 album, titled Will the Circle be Unbroken is, as deserved, a product in which the primary focus is quality. Released through Capitol Nashville in honor of its 40th anniversary, the triple LP set is pressed on 180-gram vinyl, while remastered from the original analog tapes by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering, and marks the first ever reissue of WTCBU in this format. The process was overseen by the band, resulting in a sonic triumph, while bringing new life to these celebrated songs.
Side A sets the tone, placing country classics beside energetic instrumental pieces. The “Grand Ole Opry Song,” a wise choice as the opener, serves as a roll call for the album’s performers (many of whom are mentioned by name) and features vocals by the “King of Bluegrass,” Jimmy Martin. A traditional piece of Americana follows with “Keep on the Sunny Side,” a tune popularized by the Carter Family in the late 1920s and sung by Mother Maybelle Carter herself on this release. Side A is rounded out with Roy Acuff and Merle Travis performing two of their more solemn original pieces, “The Precious Jewel” and “Dark As A Dungeon,” respectively, with the NGDB providing the instrumental backing.
Side B begins with Jimmie Driftwood’s Grammy-winning “Tennessee Stud,” featuring the incomparable Doc Watson on vocals and guitar. Prior to the start of the song, a conversation is captured on tape between Watson and the NGDB. These small behind-the-scenes moments are part of WTCBU’s allure and, thankfully, the album is full of them. That said, side B’s closer is one of the album’s highlights. Hank Williams’ country classic, “I Saw the Light,” receives a lively rendition, with Roy Acuff manning the microphone; Watson picking at the guitar; and banjo-legend Earl Scruggs plucking the 5-string. The track opens with Scruggs’ rambling banjo melody that weaves between foreground and background as the tune progresses. The song features a series of breaks spotlighting a different instrument after each chorus. First comes Watson’s swift crosspicking style; then a jazzy string bass break via Junior Huskey; and a fiddle break from the talented Vassar Clements.
“I Saw The Light” proved to be the most successful on WTCBU upon initial release, climbing the Billboard country charts, but the song that defines the album is the title track. “Will the Circle be Unbroken” is a who’s who of country luminaries, with Mother Maybelle, Martin, and Acuff each singing a verse while Clements, Watson, and Scruggs each lend their talents to a post-chorus break. The group chorus is sung by nearly 20 voices, and each one of them comes through with beautiful clarity in this format.
NGDB founder John McEuen’s liner notes comment on the quality of the album’s performances: “With Will the Circle be Unbroken we are told we all got it right.” The same can be said for this remastered commemorative vinyl release — they just got it right.
Sound Quality: The sound is warm and clear. Group vocals are often used, but the variety of such voices is never muddled. The bass end is just the right depth — a feat for the genre, whose recordings can easily stray to the shallow and tinny side. Another plus: each track was recorded live, which prevents sound quality deterioration in analog recordings since there’s no need for mixing multi-track tapes down into a master copy. The only negative is that the pre-performance conversations are sometimes echoing and difficult to hear (though this is likely because they were spontaneous discussions and the mics weren’t set up with recording them in mind).
Packaging: The album is held in an elaborate, 6-panel jacket cover with a glossy finish. Rather than using the typical plain white paper album sleeves, each LP is housed in its own durable, glossy cardboard sleeve decorated with photographs and magazine articles about the recording — a nice touch illustrating the quality of the release. The album art is evocative of 19th century America, which complements the tracks on this album (and most bluegrass recordings) very well.
Extras: The 3xLP is pressed on sturdy 180-gram black vinyl, though no variants exist and this was not a limited release. The album includes a new liner notes essay written by John McEuen of the NGDB and an exclusive poster.
Summary: Influential folk rockers The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band teamed up with audio engineer Bernie Grundman for a remastered vinyl release of their seminal country/bluegrass classic, Will the Circle be Unbroken. Quality was the focus of this commemorative 40th anniversary edition of the platinum-certified album, which is made clear with the deluxe pressing and packaging.
Make Sure To Spin: “Tennessee Stud,” “Dark as a Dungeon,” “I Saw the Light,” and of course, “Will the Circle be Unbroken.”
You can still pick up the pressing at Amazon.