It would be easy but unfair to accuse the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band of opportunism with the release of Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. III. Sure, the timing’s pretty fortuitous in the wake of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and its attendant bluegrass/Americana enthusiasm. But the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was here first, and their third folk-country jamboree in as many decades isn’t about to let you forget it.
When the Dirt Band recorded the original Circle album in 1972, it was an unlikely prospect both artistically and commercially. The young California outfit was a group of jugband hippies who somehow convinced a host of Nashville elder statesmen (and women) to join them for a double-album celebration of classic country tunes. Ceding the spotlight to their guests, the NGDB played back-up to the likes of Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, and Mother Maybelle Carter — and emerged with a platinum record that, like the Oh Brother soundtrack, introduced a new generation to some glorious American music and musicians.
The Dirt Band has had a varied career since then (they’ve been together in one form or another for a staggering 37 years), including stints atop both the pop and country charts. But the warmly collaborative Circle sessions remain their crowning achievement, and they seem content with the distinction.
They recorded a Grammy-winning second volume in 1989, and now — on the heels of a handsome 30th-anniversary reissue of the original set — they’re back again. Co-founder John McEuen has rejoined the ranks alongside Jeff Hanna, Jimmy Ibbotson, Jimmie Fadden, and Bob Carpenter. Collectively, although they now qualify as elder statesmen themselves, they’re as loose and spirited as ever. Vol. III includes several participants from the first two sessions (Randy and Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, fiddler Vassar Clements, Sam Bush, Johnny and June Carter Cash), but it also broadens its reach both musically and generationally. Alison Krauss, for example, was barely born when the first volume was released, but she’s here with a typically lovely rendition of “Catfish John”. And the presence of Taj Mahal and Tom Petty attests to the inextricable bonds of American country, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll. (Petty, who also showed up on last year’s Hank Williams’ tribute Timeless, seems to be making a natural late-career move toward roots music.)
To avoid straitjacketing, the Dirt Band also includes some original material from songwriters like Matraca Berg and Vince Gill. The newer songs are fine, but they inevitably lack the joyous force of standards like “Fishin’ Blues” (Taj Mahal at his most freewheeling) and the raucous gospel of “Save It, Save It”. Likewise, a side-by-side comparison with the epochal original set would be unsporting. It would be impossible to recreate the palpable excitement of that first effort, with its cross-cultural barrier breaking and sense of discovery.
But to the Dirt Band’s credit (and in contrast to Oh, Brother‘s sometimes stuffy precision), Vol. III maintains an off-hand front-porch vitality. When Willie Nelson and Tom Petty show up for an appealingly ragged duet on “Goodnight Irene”, it feels like they just dropped by the party. And when Taj Mahal, Alison Krauss, and Doc Watson team up for the obligatory rendition of the title track, they play on the hymn’s familiarity to give it a transcendent weariness that feels just right for its time and place. The grace note is a “hidden” run through the Band’s “The Weight”, a reminder that classic American music hardly ended with the Carter Family. Will the circle be unbroken? Yes, it will.