There were three acts on the bill, each a headliner in his own right, and the top admission price was two dollars. In what now seems like an alternative universe, the Schaefer Music Festival, held in a repurposed ice skating rink in New York City’s Central Park, presented concerts all summer long, featuring a superlative and eclectic array of acclaimed musical acts. I feel as if I lived in or around that magical rink for the better part of each summer of the early 1970s.
This particular concert took place on August 15, 1973. Doc Watson opened the show, followed by the Earl Scruggs Revue, with David Bromberg closing the evening. Nearly sixteen years old, I had been going to shows for three years already, but I had never seen any of the performers featured that night. Why was I even there? My passion was rock music. A few of the first acts I had already seen—the Doors, the Who, and Led Zeppelin—gave a clear indication of where my interests lay: loud, electric guitar–based classic rock, if a decade before it was designated “classic.” So what brought me to a show spotlighting three figures whose acoustic-based music spoke firmly of authentic bluegrass, country, and folk roots?
The answer was the album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a triple-LP set recorded two years previously in Nashville and released in November 1972. Circle was a crossover project that brought together the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a folk-rock unit with Los Angeles roots that had scored a top ten hit with “Mr. Bojangles” in 1970, alongside a host of country and bluegrass legends including “Mother” Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Roy Acuff, and Jimmy Martin, as well as Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs, accompanied by such first-rate Nashville session players as the fiddler Vassar Clements, the bassist Junior Huskey, and the guitarist Norman Blake. The music-making throughout was masterful, the integration of supposedly incompatible cultures untraceable, the synthesis joyous and ultimately moving. It was an unlikely union that Dirt Band banjo player John McEuen memorializes in his book celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of that occasion: Will the Circle Be Unbroken: The Making of a Landmark Album.
For open-eared pop music fanatics of the seventies, Circle was a gateway album that revealed vistas. It spoke of a world beyond the sonic eruptions of rock-and-roll, yet one that could exist peaceably alongside it. The unassuming splendor of the music I heard that night in Central Park, particularly the marvelous flatpicking and straight-from-the-hills singing of Watson and the offhand brilliance of Scruggs’s banjo playing—indeed, the seemingly effortless, stirringly unselfconscious virtuosity of both men—brought to life the pleasures of a new idiom, one I still cherish. It was the joy already embedded in that momentous album come to life.