The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen Brings Bluegrass to The Linda March 17th


“I knew it was gonna be special,” says John McEuen about recording the platinum-selling Will The Circle Be Unbroken, the 1972 three-record set containing almost 100 minutes of music. It was the seventh release of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a bunch of hippies from California, together with their bluegrass mentors and Grand Ole Opry regulars who introduced a mass audience to a style of music that until then had been a footnote in the “folk scare” of the ’60s. 

I asked The Dirt Band’s John McEuen, who plays The Linda in Albany on Friday night with his Circle Band (March 17th), if he was prescient enough in 1972 to know that what they were doing was going to be huge. 

“My God, how could I not? We were recording with Maybelle Carter. She made her first record in 1927. She played into a megaphone and created in the session what is known as the birth of country music, and I’m recording with her. And I’m singing with her. Les Thompson (also playing Friday night at the Linda) is playing the banjo, and Earl Scruggs played the banjo. It all just kind of came together.” 

The three-record set was like a summit meeting of bluegrass royalty convened by a bunch of long hairs who frequented peace rallies against the Vietnam War. Earl Scruggs was the first to come on board. 

“Our Uncle Charlie album had a couple of bluegrass songs on it that Les and I had been playing, and it had four Kenny Loggins songs on it. I had a Mike Nesmith song, and it had “Mr. Bojangles.” That was the album that Earl Scruggs heard when his son Gary played it for him in 1970, and he said, ‘Let’s go see that group,’ and they did. They brought the whole family. 

“Earl was doing five days in a club in Boulder, Colorado, and I was taking him back to the hotel every night. What a dream. Boy! Earl Scruggs and The Earl Scruggs Review.’ The last night I asked him, ‘Would you record with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band?’ And he said, ‘I’d be proud to.’ He came to see us in Nashville. He said, ‘I wanted to meet the boy who played “Randy Rag” the way I intended it.’ It’s named after his son Randy, one of his pieces.  

“The next night, Doc Watson was starting there, and I went to ask him. I say, ‘We’re doing an album with Earl Scruggs and wanted to know if you’d be a part of it.’ And he said, ‘I’d be proud to. Yeah, if Earl’s gonna be there, I want to pick.’ 

“My brother Earl McEuen was the manager, producer, and photographer of the band. He was looking to produce another album, and he was a big Earl Scruggs fan, Doc Watson and all that, and he said, ‘I’m gonna get Merle Travis,’ and he got Merle Travis because he lives in California. I lived in Colorado, and then it came together. 

Earl got us Maybelle Carter, and Louise, his wife, got us Jimmy Marton. I was pleased one of the guys, Jeff Hannon, said, “Who is Jimmy Martin?” I said, ‘You’ll find out.’ (Chuckle) 

“Eight weeks after I asked Earl Scruggs if he would record with us, we were in Nashville starting the recording. We recorded for six days, 36 songs. Most of ’em were one take. Some were two takes. A couple were multiple, but only because the group had to play together as a band behind Earl Scruggs. We played “Flint Hill Special” seven times until he finally said, ‘That’s it, That’s it. That’s a good one,’ and Earl played it perfect every time. Anyway, in “Soldier’s Joy,” I played with Earl and the bass player. We rehearsed it at his house a few times the week before, and we set up in the studio. We were done two and a half minutes later. I said, ‘Earl, can we play it again?’ And he goes, ‘Did I make a mistake?’ And I says, ‘Did you? I don’t think so. I don’t reckon.’  

Scruggs wanted to know why John wanted to do the song again. 

“Because I don’t get to play with you that often, Mr. Scruggs.” 

  “And he goes, ‘Let’s move on.’ So, we moved on.” 

The potential clash of generations in music is often totally superseded by the excitement and the overarching draw of great music that transcends the petty differences of age or cultural differences. Roy Acuff described The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as “a bunch of long-haired West Coast boys.”  He was initially contemptuous of the project but later relented and participated.  

I asked John what keeps him active, creating new music and touring at age 77. What floats his boat?  

“Well, why do you write?”  

I’m two years older than he is. That’s unfair to turn that around, I told him. I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours. 

“Music is like magic.” 


“It affects people in ways that you don’t understand or know. Sometimes, you can know that a love song, a sad song, or a happy song will affect (someone). But it’s like a magic trick. A musician spends a couple of months knowing how to get it down in front of a mirror. And then you have to do it for someone. You can’t just do it for yourself; you know what I mean because you’re reaching people.” 

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