Another fine volume of roots and guests
While this third volume couldn’t possibly be the ground-breaking release that was 1972’s initial Circle, it wears the legacy well. Thirty years down-the-line, the Dirt Band are no longer the eager young turks of 1972, nor is this sort of inter-generational tribute to roots a new concept. In the decades since the first Circle, what was once novel is now more commonplace, and though the familiarity does lessen the impact, it doesn’t lessen the quality or value of the music. In addition to the Dirt Band, the first Circle is reprised in the playing and singing of Jimmy Martin, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Vassar Clements. Notably missing are Roy Acuff, Merle Travis and Mother Maybelle, though the latter two are celebrated in song -- Travis by Doc Watson’s recitation of I Am a Pilgrim, and Carter by Johnny Cash’s newly-penned Tears in the Holston River. The historical resonance that’s been lost to the passing of legends is renewed by several family gatherings, including performances from Del, Robbie and Ronnie McCoury, Doc and Richard Watson, John and Jonathan McCuen (the former of whom only recently returned after an extended absence from the Dirt Band’s lineup), Jeff and Jaime Hanna, and Jimmy and Ray Martin. The passing of the torch, first from Nashville’s pioneers to a new generation, and now from that generation to it’s children, shows the Circle to really be a link in a chain. The new blood on this volume features established stars like Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Dwight Yoakam and Tom Petty. A few lesser-known (but no less talented) artists, Iris Dement and songwriter Matraca Berg, are joined by legends Taj Mahal, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. It’s a fine lineup of talent, but their careers (often built directly in opposition to the Nashvillization of country music), not to mention their familiarity with the first two Circle volumes, lend this set a somewhat self-conscious air. Dwight Yoakam’s tilled similar soil on his solo albums, consequently his contributions sound as much like Dwight Yoakam as they do back-to-the-roots Circle inventions (not that this is a bad thing, of course). Petty is mostly superfluous duetting with Willie Nelson on Goodnight Irene, but Berg, who’s best known for her songwriting (e.g., Deana Carter’s Strawberry Wine), gets a chance to show off a rootsy side that’s only sporadically made it onto her solo efforts. Her duet with Emmylou Harris (on Berg’s own Oh Cumberland) is a highlight, as are Vince Gill’s gospel All Prayed Up and Taj Mahal’s Fishin’ Blues. In a year that’s seen a deluxe reissue of the first Circle album, volume three can’t help but pale slightly in comparison. But taken on its own, this is a fine album of singing and song, one that heeds (if not really expands upon) the first set’s principles.
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