Multimedia ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ at the Craterian
String player John McEuen of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fame is taking audiences back to August 1971, when the country-rock band and a lineup of celebrated bluegrass and country performers recorded “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” at a Nashville studio.
The session included Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, Pete “Oswald” Kirby, Norman Blake and others recording songs with the Dirt Band, or as Carter called them, “those dirty boys.”
What emerged was a three-LP set that Rolling Stone called “the most important record to come out of Nashville.”
“It was important because it brought a new generation of listeners to that genre of music,” McEuen says.
The landmark album was inducted into the Library of Congress in 2004 and the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2011.
Banjo, mandolin, fiddle and guitar player McEuen and his String Wizards — bass and bouzouki player Les Thompson, guitar and mandolin player John Cable, mandola and guitar player Matt Cartsonis, and slide guitarist and Dobro player Mary Flower — have created a new stage show to celebrate the album.
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is a live performance juxtaposed against video, photos and vintage 8-millimeter film projected onto the stage.
“So when I say, ‘I’d like to tell you what this part of the recording session was like,’ well, let’s just go there,” McEuen says. “Then the stage goes dark and Maybelle Carter and Doc Watson start talking. When Maybelle says, ‘On the old record, I started the song like this,’ we start playing it the same way live.
“We make audiences feel like they were at that recording session.”
The multimedia show will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 16, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. Tickets are $32, $35 or $38, $22, $25 or $28 for ages 22 and younger, and can be purchased at craterian.org, at the box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., or by calling 541-779-3000.
The genesis of the “Circle” album came about when McEuen asked Scruggs and Watson to record with the Dirt Band. They in turn helped line up Martin, Clements, Carter and Acuff.
“The whole story is told during the performance,” McEuen says. “We’ve been presenting it for about a year now. It’s been going so well, I feel like I have a hit record.
“It’s all acoustic bluegrass and early Dirt Band songs,” he says. “And there’s always a couple of songs that no one has heard before. John Cable has a song, ‘Wild Ride,’ that goes over like a hit record.”
The show also includes songs from McEuen’s 2016 “Made in Brooklyn,” recorded at Chesky Records in New York City.
“Every one of the songs in the show are fun, and we can’t wait to get to them,” McEuen says.
Guitarists Jeff Hanna and Bruce Kunkel formed the Dirt Band in 1966 in Southern California. McEuen replaced Jackson Browne, who was in the original lineup for just a few months before leaving for a solo career.
Guitar and washtub bass player Ralph Barr, guitar and clarinet player Les Thompson and harmonica player Jimmie Fadden soon came on board.
McEuen’s older brother, William, became the group’s manager and helped get the band signed with Liberty Records, which released the group’s eponymous debut album in 1967.
Cable toured Russia in 1977 with the Dirt Band, and Cartsonis and McEuen have played music together for nearly 30 years.
“Now here we are playing together again and having so much fun,” McEuen says. “Every night we get off stage going, ‘Man, that was a good one.’ ”
During his 50 years with the Dirt Band, McEuen also played 30 or 40 solo shows a year.
His side projects include his “Acoustic Traveler” show, now in its ninth year on SiriusXM radio; his production of Steve Martin’s 2010 Grammy-winning “The Crow”; guest appearances with The Allman Brothers, Phish and others; his solo performance at the Grand Ole Opry; and “Made in Brooklyn,” nomination for the Independent Music Association’s Best Americana Album, to name a few.
“We’ll find out the end of March if it wins,” McEuen says. “It’s one of the best records I’ve ever made as far as quality of sound.”
The album features Cartsonis, David Bromberg, Steve Martin, Jay Unger, John Carter Cash, David Amram, Andy Goessling, Martha Redbone and more.
“Sometimes there’s up to 14 people on some songs,” McEuen says. “We recorded it around a single microphone in live takes over the course of two days. We were going for the soul of the music. When there’s a dozen people on a song and they know they can’t back off on a solo and go back and overdub, then there’s an edge that everyone in the room can feel. It’s that kind of energy that’s going into the music.”
It was some time last year McEuen knew he was through with the Dirt Band, he says.
“In all fairness, Jeff chooses songs to record that are going to get the most airplay. No one guy in the group gets 12 songs on the next new album. I guess it would work for John Fogerty, but not for the Dirt Band. Everyone in the group contributes to the songwriting.
“I have other things to do,” he says.
McEuen’s book, “The Life I’ve Picked,” is set to be released in April by Chicago Review Press.
“It’s a story about a guy whose travels through music have taken him into rock ‘n’ roll, blues, bluegrass, country and into places around the world. It’s as much a story about the impressions of people I’ve crossed paths with as it is my own story.”