Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

I keep telling myself I need to expand my range. Well... here it is, then. Given the choice between country music and qawalli, in my life so far I've listened to more qawalli. And I always told myself I'd prefer it to country. I have the same stereotypes a lot of urban non-Americans have about this most uniquely American genre, so I hope the country fan reading this will see it for what it is: a person coming to terms with a lifelong aversion to the genre and trying very hard to listen with open ears and an open mind. It's been hard but it's been satisfying.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken has the band name 'The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band' on the cover, but that tells very little of the story. This record is really the result of said band inviting a crew of old-timers into the studio and letting them run the show. On most of these tracks, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band provide little more than an unobtrusive backdrop to the old-timers doing a one-more-time through their greatest hits. The 'band' are in whole or in part absent on quite a few tracks.

Surprisingly, this works. It's a 'various artists' album, really, and one that takes in a wide array of styles and moods. Yet the hodgepodge approach works, tied together as it is with studio banter that is actually a joy to hear since it presents these historical greats as charming, gentlemanly old men. The album as a whole does play as a cross-generational meeting of minds, a diverse group of people who like and respect each other very much spending time in the studio and renewing those 'chops' from decades past.

What the album doesn't do anymore, however, is give the image of a stylistic meeting of old-time country/bluegrass and modern rock music. Country since then has adopted so much of the rock idiom that nothing here sounds like it has anything to do with Elvis Presley and what came after him. This isn't a problem, but I won't lie and say I instinctively 'feel' this music the way I do things closer to my heart. I've put together a twelve-track single disc, one that I'm proud of, but I do so as an outsider, and much of my discussion is going to ring false for true connoisseurs of the genre(s). Also, since this is a massive triple-disc with thirty-eight tracks, my commentary will have to be superficial. So let me present my modus operandi and then get right down to it.

Thirty-eight tracks is a huge amount. I worried that with time the songs would all sound the same, so one thing I did was while familiarising myself with these three discs' contents, I never once listened in the correct order. In fact, I hid the album's correct order from my eyes, uploading the tracks to my MP3 player merely in alphabetical order. I slowly put together a 12-track shortlist, listened a few times more to confirm it, and then got to work here. It's only in actually writing this entry that I've listened to the album in the order intended.

In the body of this entry we'll learn why I chose this strategy. We'll learn much in the body, actually, since most of my commentary on the album as a whole is hidden amid these 38 comments. So let's get started, shall we?

Will the Circle Be Unbroken

Side one
  1. Honky Tonk Blues (2:23)
  2. Down Yonder (3:46)
  3. I am a Pilgrim (3:55)
  4. Dark as a Dungeon (2:46)
  5. Nashville Blues (3:15)
  6. Keep on the Sunny Side (4:26)
Side two
  1. Lonesome Fiddle Blues (2:43)
  2. Lost Highway (3:48)
  3. Wildwood Flower (3:34)
  4. Losin' You (Might Be the Best Thing Yet) (2:49)
  5. Both Sides Now (2:24)
  6. Will the Circle Be Unbroken (4:50)
The Grand Ole Opry Song: lose

This actually is the theme song to The Grand Ole Opry, apparently - and both as an introductory celebration of country's hoedown spirit and as a shout-out filled reminder of the music's communal nature, it's a perfectly fitting down-home introduction to the album. But it's more than a bit corny and doesn't really hold up to repeated listening, in my opinion anyway.

Keep on the Sunny Side: keep (side one, track six)

Starting out with some of the between-songs studio patter that permeates this album, this track features Maybelle Carter, at sixty-one when this was recorded still possessing of a beautiful, warm, rich voice. The song fits it like a glove, a sweet, optimistic song that seems to have been transmitted not only from a different century but from an alternate reality of simple, down-home peace and comfort. Carter's songs are perhaps the most well-developed of this set, and with the wisdom of centuries of folk tradition weighing behind them, they're all highlights. I was tempted to include all of them.

Both this and the album's title track are epic singalongs led by Ma Carter; it made sense to keep them far apart, but there's something 'concluding' about both. So I let each side finish with one of them, and this one finishes up my side one.

Nashville Blues: keep (side one, track five)

This album is peppered with instrumentals, most of them representative of the 'bluegrass' genre (something I know nothing about) and in many cases featuring technically astute fingerpicking but perhaps not so much in the way of melody. This one, however, has a pleasant warmth to is an a rather fetching melody. It's very pretty stuff.

I took four instrumentals, and thought it made sense to disperse them about relatively evenly. So thus two to a side. I put this on side one as track five, not realising that it and the Ma Carter song were side-by-side on the original as well.

You are My Flower: lose

A sweet and subtle romantic sing-along with long instrumental passages between the vocal bits. Nothing especially wrong with it, but as I had to scupper two-thirds of the material, a lot of my cuts are not that far off arbitrary, really.

The Precious Jewel: lose

A fascinating talk on studio recording introduces a decent enough fiddle-led track that for some reason doesn't quite cohere for me. It's almost as if it was a first take that could have been, well, improved upon by a second or third take...

Dark as a Dungeon: keep (side one, track three)

One reason why country music is so distant from my northern, urban daily life is that is documents a lifestyle just as alien to me as a Native American rain dance. Merle Travis here sings his mournful ode to coal mining - one of many Travis sang to this job/lifestyle. Realistically since I cannot relate, I'm required to listen to this as exotica and take his word for it. It's easy, though - his timeworn voice and expressive melody tell me all I need to know. Looking this track up, I can see that when the 78 rpm album it was first released on came out, it charted on Billboard's 'folk albums' chart, for that's what Billboard called country music at the time. And folk it is indeed, with a direct connection to centuries of cross-Atlantic tradition. It makes much more sense to view Country music as white America's folk music, and when you dig through the layers of gloss, rhinestones and conservative politics that have surrounded Country music over the decades, this is the pure mineral core you'll still find inside. And it arguably never got any better than this. World-weary and perfect.

Most of my selections are mid-tempo, despite the range of tempos on the three discs. This is one of a few 'slow ones', and I tried to disperse them evenly, so this winds up on side one, at track four in the approximate 'slow track zone' of the side.

Tennessee Stud: lose

This epic piece of cowboy storytelling does have its charms even as the verses roll endlessly by. It's cinematic and cute. But ultimately it's a song about a horse, and what's charming at first becomes merely hokey with time.

Black Mountain Rag: lose

There are so many fingerpicking 'rags' on these six sides (one of which is given over in toto to them) that ultimately I was forced into a place where I needed, clearly, to select a few but bin the majority of them. Ultimately this was never going to be much more than an arbitrary decision, and there's no reason why this couldn't have appeared except that too many bluegrass rags ultimately made them all start to sound the same. What this doesn't have is a compelling melody. What it does have, though, is compelling playing: these old timers are as technically proficient as the best of the jazz greats, really.

The Wreck on the Highway: lose

Roy Acuff sings the old-time moralising on this track, a lament on the lack of religion following a senseless traffic accident. Heady stuff sung in an old-time twang that is a bit hard for the uninitiated to take. It's something to listen to the first time, but on repeated listening the subject material starts to sound a bit like hectoring.

The End of the World: lose

A bit of a breather, this simple little piece sits between two old-timey gospel hosannas and is kind of lost between them. It's sweet, but it doesn't really linger on the mind and the microtonal steel guitar starts to annoy, to be frank.

I Saw the Light: lose

A lot of bridges are mended over these three discs, but once the group vocals on this religious Hank Williams ditty start, Country music suddenly feels as divisive as it can get. You either love this stuff of you hate it, really, and your reaction is immediate. I don't hate this stuff, but I've spent a month training myself. Still, the word 'hokey' was invented to disparage stuff like this. I admire the proficiency of the musicians (there's a great bass solo here), but it's in service of music that I can cannot feel naturally. I've fought the impulse to just turn it off immediately, and I think that's progress. But I couldn't actually play a song like this for someone else without suffering a heart attack from embarrassment. Sorry. It's only while wiring this now that I can see that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band programmed the first disc as in many ways a stand-alone before programming the next two discs in a bit more of an archival fashion. So something finishes here in the original playlist. But the truth is we've barely begun yet.

Sunny Side of the Mountain: lose

Vocals about as 'keening' as they get, this track is another challenge to non-country fans, and another challenge I suppose I fail. Not bad, all told, but just a bit too cheesy for me to stand, really. I'm probably not the right person to be doing this.

Nine Pound Hammer: lose

Back to Merle Travis, whose music and vocals I just find greatly preferable. It's a nice enough stroll through a tune, but it's far too similar to 'I am a Pilgrim', which we'll hear soon and which I prefer. Good front-porch music, all told. And they're ecstatic to have completed the take. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

Losin' You (Might be the Best Thing Yet): keep (side two, track four)

But after all those 'keening' (read: whiny) vocals are a central part of country music. I could go through the entire album immediately excising songs whose singers have a bit of a twang in their voices. But then I'd miss out on tracks like this, an elegant little country waltz that feels very old to me. Again, I'm an outsider: this kind of music means much less to me than it does to others, but to them this stuff is the soundtrack to first loves, to seminal summer vacations, to best friends, to families reunited for holidays and birthdays. I may not be very able to feel this music in my soul, but I can feel those people in this track, somewhere behind the yodels, and it's less eerie than it is comforting. Plus it's a great melody.

One of three songs on side two to start with the letters 'L-O'. I've put it as side two, track four - the last vocal song before the big closer. But that's really a kind of 'I had nowhere else to put it' placement.

Honky Tonkin': lose

I tried my darndest to like this song, but I couldn't carry it off. It's just too hokey.

You Don't Know My Mind: lose

This isn't all that bad, though with those vocals and the hoedown fiddle, it does sound a bit like much of the rest of the package - and this side in particular, which seems to be the 'country vocals side' of the project. It's all well and good, evoking grandpa dancing around after a bit too much whiskey, but it's not good enough to make the cut.

My Walkin' Shoes: lose

Side C, and CD one, finish with this group-vocal singalong representing the halfway point of this epic slog. It's a real square-dance number, chugging along at a high tempo and filled with all kinds of instrumental breaks. Cute, I guess, but a bit tiresome by the end.

Lonesome Fiddle Blues: keep (side two, track one)

'Lonesome Fiddle Blues' is the first track on side D, an eight-song stretch of pure instrumental bluegrass. I don't really think that's the best way to programme the album, actually - the bluegrass tunes were better on my MP3 player interspersed among the vocal tracks, while here the effect is diminished with the songs in close succession. It's sheer coincidence that the first track is the only one I chose, though: that decision had more to do with the infectious fiddle and the good-timey bassline. Go ahead and scream 'Yee-haw' a few times. Get it out of your system.

This one was convoluted. I had actually wanted to start side two with 'Lost Highway', but doing so would have led to me probably putting the side's two instrumental tracks side-by-side or separated by only one song. I wasn't sure how to proceed until the idea popped into my head of starting the side with this instrumental. I was sceptical, but it plays well.

Avalanche: lose

Since I had these songs on my MP3 player in alphabetical order, I got used to thinking of this as the 'opening' track. It's another barnstorming workout, distinguishable mostly for being longer than the rest. Each instrument takes a solo in turn. It's good, I guess, with an especially percussive drum line.

Flint Hill Special: lose

More fingerpicking, neither better nor worse than what precedes it or follows it. The banjo and harmonica are more prominent, that's all. Back-to-back is not the best way to present this material.

Togary Mountain: lose

It's getting hard to even tell these songs apart.

Earl's Breakdown: lose

If the name is anything to go by, this track features an improvisation by Earl Scruggs, on banjo. I'll take their word for it, though, as the approximate ratio of recognisable melody to improvisatory doodling seems more or less the same on this track and on any other. It's fine, you know. It's all fine. Now when does it end?

Orange Blossom Special: lose

This one is a bit of a disappointment for me, as it was one of a small handful of songs on these three discs I'd actually heard before. I know it as a good-time harmonica-based twelve-bar sung by Johnny Cash, even though I realise it's not 'his' song. Here it's a vehicle for some solo fiddlin', which could have been lovely, but Vassar Clements' work here just strikes me as not-overly-inspired and at times grating.

Wabash Cannonball: lose

The second of two songs on this side to have the word 'cannonball' in the title, and the last song on the side as a whole, it's slower and more soulful than the bluster that's preceded it, and as such it's more interesting, though after eight long tracks the net effect has been to make me actually long for the twangy vocals of side three.

Lost Highway: keep (side two, track two)

I know this old standard from Bob Dylan's Don't Look Back, where I was taken by its expressive melody and fatalistic sense of weary regret. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band do it quite decently (and what a relief to hear vocals again!), yet I suppose that were someone else compiling this, they might discard this track as 'workmanlike and uninspired'. Yet it's me compiling it, and I play favourites.

As I wrote above, I had this pencilled in as the first track on side two. Instead, it became the first vocal track on side two, which is almost the same thing.

Doc Watson & Merle Travis First Meeting: lose

This is as listenable as two minutes of spontaneous conversation could possibly be. Both principals come off as deeply interesting, charming southern gentlemen. Their discussion is peppered with what sounds exactly like rocking chairs squeaking, and it's nice that this particular moment was caught on tape. But I prefer my albums to feature, you know, music.

Way Downtown: lose

Don't be deceived by the name - this is just as small-town as anything else here, perhaps more. It's a sprightly little tune, designed for town-hall dances. Good fun in its own way, though it fails to rock my world, to say the least.

Down Yonder: keep (side one, track two)

It might seem particularly perverse after rejecting a long series of instrumental pieces to include this one. Yet, while reminding you of my M.O. here, wherein I didn't consider the original track listing at all, I maintain that this song both summarises and transcends the songs on side D. This is most definitely hoedown music, yet it's deeply melodic and extremely likeable stuff.

Odd to put an instrumental as track two, but with four of them, and with one show-stopping vocal track per side, options are in fact limited. And it sounds good there, too.

Pins and Needles (in my Heart): lose

Possibly, melodic distinctiveness is less of a virtue in country than in other genres. I suppose there's comfort in old melodies. I mean, there's nothing really wrong with this track, except for the feeling that it beats down a particularly well-trodden path.

Honky Tonk Blues: keep (side one, track one)

This exercise was always going to be subjective, but in the particular case of this album, featuring almost forty tracks of a consistent quality, it starts to feel almost random. This particular track is just about as down-home as it gets: not a drop of irony or pretence to be heard. And someone who has, well, problems with country music (to put it mildly) shouldn't care for this track, and yet I do - perhaps in part because of the energy and commitment of the lead vocals. It is indeed alien, and yet it touches some nerve buried deep within me.

Having rejected the Grand Ole Opry song, I was stuck trying to find something to fill its place. I like this because it pulls no punches as a real dyed-in-the-wool country song, and while it has chummy guests on it and all, it's the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band themselves on vocals, an all-too-rare reminder of whose name it is on the package.

Sailin' on to Hawaii: lose

It's a peculiar curiosity that at some point the sun-soaked lazy lullabies of Hawaiian folk music got absorbed into country music, and yet that's exactly what happened. This is as authentically Hawaiian as anything by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, but it's a token here, a single track given over to the subgenre in order to say 'we included Hawaiian steel guitar, too'. And as such it's superfluous to our needs.

I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes: lose

The exemplary side six, strongest of the album. features Maybelle Carter on three of its six songs - and this after five sides that feature her exactly once. This particular entry is not about her own blue eyes (which would have been a bit vain) but about the ones that belong to her long-lost suitor, overseas at war or something. So it's certainly a throwback to a different era, but it's a nice enough song anyway. I might have included it, but if I had I'd have put all four Carter songs on my 12-track disc, skewing the overall track listing in her favour. As it is, I took three.

I Am a Pilgrim: keep (side one, track three)

This is the third song to be taken from the same 1947 Merle Travis album, one that obviously the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were fond of. It's a spiritual, but it's a most attractive one, a folksy shuffle taken at a casual walking pace. The lightness of touch here is the thing that's enchanting, an entirely relaxed journey that takes three minutes (the fourth is studio banter) but could have gone on for ten.

I had no idea that by putting this immediately before 'Dark as a Dungeon' that I was putting two Merle Travis warhorses, the only two I included, back to back. When I realised what I'd done, I was tempted to do some shuffling around, but by then I had decided I liked the effect, so there you have it.

Wildwood Flower: keep (side two, track three)

As far as I knew, the autoharp was the exclusive reserve of not-very-musically-inclined elementary school teachers, but it gives this old standard an appealing new coat of paint in the capable hands of Maybelle Carter, who explains on side one why she's playing it. It's a beautiful song, and though by then Carter had probably sung it every single day for more than half of her sixty-one years of life, she still offers it a touching, heartfelt rendition here.

Maybelle Carter finishes both sides, leaving just five places between her two epics to include a third track by her. Mathematics, tell me where it should be?

Soldier's Joy: lose

I didn't much care for this banjo piece when I first heard it, considering it mere showboating. I've warmed up to it since, though, having been able to find the melody in there among the technique. Not enough to include it, mind you, but enough to feel a little bad about not including it.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken: keep (side one, track six)

A mournful lament about the writer's mother's death and the events following it is a highly strange song to turn into a group singalong and album climax, but 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken' is up to the task, with its timeless melody and simple changes. Each person does a verse in celebrity-singalong fashion, with countless solos spread across five minutes, and ultimately the song's focus on family and the passing of generations not only rings true to Country music's raison d'ĂȘtre but also fits the main 'theme' of this triple-disc quite well. It's all very good-natured, homey stuff, and the overall feeling is one of warmth, of a family reunion on a holiday turning into a singalong. It is hokey, damn it, but it's possible to suspend cynicism for five minutes and just get swept away in the rush of sentimental goop.

My closer, if not theirs.

Both Sides Now: keep (side two, track five)

Why put a coda after your epic curtain-call finale? Well, this is Randy Scruggs (Earl's son) performing a then-newish Joni Mitchell tune on acoustic guitar. So it's an homage to the next generation, a look forward to indicate that, yes, there will be songwriters and musicians to keep this music alive, it will carry on into future generations just as it has been carried on this far. And the circle will be unbroken. By and by, mainstream country became eye-gougingly horrid, but it's the thought that counts. Or rather it's Joni Mitchell's timeless melody that counts, raising this simple guitar exercise into the realm of the incandescent. It's an afterthought, but it's a winning one.

In light of that, then, why do I switch the two tracks around, putting this as track eleven before the title track as track twelve? Well, I think that with the smaller scale of my single-disc, a 'coda' seems a bit too much. It doesn't seem like an afterthought when there are only eleven other tracks on the disc. I wanted the title track to be the curtain-call it was clearly designed to be. But I still wanted to include this track, so I wound up flipping the two around instead.


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