- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The next step for fans turned on to American roots music by "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" could be the new reissue of a 1972 album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
An expanded version of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" (Capitol Nashville) has recently arrived in stores with vastly improved sound compared with the first CD that was released in 1987. Guest artists include country and bluegrass stars Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson and Maybelle Carter.
"It was the first time that some of the artists were properly recorded," singer-guitarist Jeff Hanna says. "Many of their standards were recorded in the 1930s or '40s, and recording was a pretty primitive technology."
Adds John McEuen, who rejoined the band last year after a lengthy absence, "For the 'O Brother' fans, it's an extension. It's another venture into that area."
"O Brother," the soundtrack to the Depression-era movie starring George Clooney, shocked Nashville by selling more than 5 million copies and dominating the country categories at this year's Grammy Awards. It features bluegrass and folk artists such as Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminksi and Ralph Stanley.
"I do think there are a lot of parallels in the two records," says Fletcher Foster, senior vice president of marketing at Capitol Nashville.
"'Circle' was the original 'O Brother' in some ways. It was the first record that was a meshing of generations of music from different fields," he says.
The original "Circle" is a bonanza of traditional American music. Highlights include Miss Carter singing "Keep on the Sunny Side." She was a member of the Carter Family group, whose recordings started the country music industry.
Members of the youthful Nitty Gritty Dirt Band then in their early 20s acquit themselves admirably with their heroes. For example, Jimmy Ibbotson stands in for Hank Williams on an impassioned "Lost Highway."
The West Coast-based band members wanted to do the album because they loved old country music. United Artists agreed to the project, which was budgeted at $22,000, because of the success of the band's pop hit "Mr. Bojangles" and the "Uncle Charlie" album.
"I remember one night we were doing a show on a football field in California with the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and Steppenwolf," Mr. Hanna says, "and what did we do? We left as quick as we could, to get to this club that seated 185 people to see Bill Monroe. The other music was fine, and there were hip people there, but our feeling was, 'Let's go see Bill Monroe. He's real.'"
The "Circle" album threatened to confuse the band's country-rock fans, and their long hair made some of the older stars Mr. Acuff in particular suspicious. Mr. Monroe declined to participate.
"We had a meeting with Acuff, and got kind of a chilly response," Mr. McEuen says. "Then he showed up at the studio later to hear a playback of what we'd been working on. My brother ['Circle producer Bill McEuen] was ready and had four things cued up.
"Acuff said, 'What kind of music do you boys call that?' My brother said, 'Well, Mr. Acuff, it's kind of mountain, traditional, old-timey Appalachian music.'"
Acuff responded: "It's nothing but country music. Let's go make some more."
Mr. Scruggs inadvertently got the project started when he came to see the Dirt Band play in Nashville.
"It started with Earl playing on one track on one of our albums," Mr. Hanna says. "That was the original idea. The next thing we knew, it became this bigger idea."
Mr. Scruggs recruited Mr. Martin and Miss Carter, and other stars signed on because the project had his endorsement.
The three-album set was recorded in a week. It sold slowly but steadily, eventually earning a platinum album for selling 1 million. A well-received sequel was issued in 1989, featuring Johnny Cash, John Prine, Emmylou Harris and many others.
The original album went out of print in 1976, then was reissued on CD in 1987 with cut-rate packaging and inferior sound. The band did other projects, but fans never stopped asking about the "Circle" albums.
"Years later, people keep asking us about the sociological implications of a bunch of hippies playing with a bunch of legends," Mr. Hanna says.
The next "Circle" project could get under way in the next few months, Mr. Foster says.
"They've started a wish list, with people on it like Patty Loveless and Ralph Stanley. It doesn't veer too much into the pop world, except for maybe people like Sheryl Crow or Bruce Hornsby.
"In a perfect world, I'd like to have it out before September, so it is eligible for Grammys, but I think the integrity of the project has got to stay true to the first one. If we can't do it, we'll put the record out when we can."


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