June 2023 - The Birthplace of Country Music
Loading station info...

Will the Circle Be Unbroken? History of a Song

By Ed Hagen, Gallery Assistant and guest blogger

There is a dance floor inside of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum that features the song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” playing over and over and sung by a mix of modern and old-time country artists. Toward the end of the looping video, John Carter Cash explains that the “circle” is music itself. In that sense “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is a homage to the pioneers of country music and a salute to current artists who honor these diverse roots. The circle is unbroken because the music is handed down from generation to generation. 

Album artwork for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. The album has a white background with an unnamed military officer in the center, with both American and Confederate flags surrounding the officer. Names of musicians featured on the album are written in cursive handwriting on each side of the profile of the unnamed man. The words "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" are clearly visible in large lettering at the top of the image, and the words "music forms a new circle" is written at the bottom of the image.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” cover

The song has had that association for many years now, perhaps starting with the release in 1972 of the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a 1960s California jug band that had gone electric and was at that time best known for covering Jerry Jeff Walker’s Mr. Bojangles. Will the Circle Be Unbroken was their seventh album and came about when band member John McEuen asked bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs and legendary guitarist Doc Watson if they would record with the band. One thing led to another, and many of country music’s biggest stars – including Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Vassar Clements, Randy Scruggs, Pete “Oswald” Kirby, and Norman Blake signed up for the project. It was a collaboration of two culturally different generations of musicians, traditional Grand Ole Opry stars and a group of hippies that Acuff described as “a bunch of long-haired West Coast boys” (Maybelle called them – affectionately – the “dirty boys”). By all accounts, the generation gap was bridged and new friendships were made, not to mention the incredible music. The album was a crossover success, introducing many folks to traditional country music, and in 1997 the original album was certified platinum. 

Since its release, the song has become an inspiration for intergenerational celebrity get-togethers. When the song is called at any local museum jam sessions, everyone sings the chorus, and the emotion in the room is palpable. 

A black and white image of lyrics to the song "Will the Circle Be Unbroken".
A hymnal page of the song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” dated 1907 courtesy of hymnary.org

The original version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” was a hymn written in 1907 by Ada R. Habershon, with music by Charles H. Gabriel. It is long out of copyright, and so we freely reproduce the sheet music here. According to hymnary.org, the song peaked in popularity just before World War II, when it appeared in about 20% of hymnals in use. It is down to about 7% today. Based on conversations I have had, the number is higher here in East Tennessee.

Note that the words and melody of the verses in the original hymn depart substantially from the way it is usually sung today (although the refrain is very close). That’s because A. P. Carter rewrote the song when The Carter Family recorded it in 1935. 

Victor producer Ralph Peer used to tell A. P. and his other folk and country artists to avoid recording songs heard on the radio, but to collect traditional music that could be modified and copyrighted. A. P. may have thought it was a traditional song. Perhaps to differentiate it a bit more, the Carter version was retitled as “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” (though nobody uses that title anymore).

The sentiment conveyed in both versions is that we have all lost loved ones, but that they have gone to a better place where we will see them again. It is interesting to compare the two versions of the song. Habershon’s version admonishes the listener to take the Christian view of family loss:

A black and white image of The Carter Family. Three people are facing the camera, A.P. Carter is wearing a blazer and vest, looking toward the camera. Sarah Carter is to his left and is standing facing the camera. She is holding an autoharp and wearing a dress. Maybelle Carter is sitting holding an archtop guitar and looking into the lens. All three individuals have a slight smile to their faces.
A promotional photo of The Carter Family taken by the Victor Talking Machine Company circa 1928. Left to right: A.P. Carter, Maybelle Carter, and Sarah Carter.

You remember song of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice,
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?

The Carter version, recorded and released in 1935, focuses on the painfulness of the loss:

Oh, I followed close behind her
Tried to hold up and be brave
But I could not hide my sorrow
When they laid her in the grave

Can the Circle Be Unbroken” also focuses on the death of a beloved mother rather than family members in general (as in the original hymn). In any event, it is not surprising that the more emotional Carter version won people’s hearts. Roy Acuff used the Carter lyrics when he recorded it in 1940, and that eventually became the standard version. You can listen to different versions of the song via the YouTube links below. 

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Will The Circle Be Unbroken

The Carter Family – Will The Circle Be Unbroken

Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol.2/Nitty Gritty Dirt Band/Johnny Cash/Ricky Skaggs

Ed Hagen is a volunteer gallery assistant and guest blogger at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. His earlier post, Celebrating Jimmie Rodgers: A Short Lesson in His Guitar Style, appeared here last year.

Send In The Hounds: Tyler Childers Returns to the Tri-Cities

By Ashli Linkous, Marketing Specialist & Photographer

It wasn’t all that long ago when Tyler Childers recorded a Radio Bristol Session (2018) and played on the 6th Street and the indoors Shanghai Stages at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion (2017). Since then, that Radio Bristol Session video has racked in over 15 million views on YouTube and Childers has continued to rise higher and higher up in the ranks. 

Musician Tyler Childers singing into a microphone with a full band, a bass player to his right, a pedal steel guitar and electric guitar players to his right. Bright stage lights are shining down upon the band as they play and sign passionately.
Tyler Childers performing a powerful song in front of the crowd at Freedom Hall Civic Center in Johnson City, Tennessee on May 10th, 2023.

With a stage decked out in taxidermy, prairie grass, and a black-and-white checkered floor, plus a surprise appearance from the Bluff City man who taught him how to play guitar, Tyler Childers made a BIG return to the Tri Cities last month. It was amazing to walk into Freedom Hall Civic Center and see the merch line wrapped around in a seemingly never-ending queue of fans eager to get their hands on some Childers swag. By the time I made it down to the arena floor the crowd was bustling with energy, ready to see the musician who hadn’t played in the area for quite some time. Tickets were hard to come by, with resell tickets going for several hundred bucks a pop. 

97 year old Clyde Lloyd looks onward toward Tyler Childers as they play onstage. Both are playing guitars in front of a stage backlit by a blue backdrop with a large silhouette of a tree behind them.
97 year old veteran Clyde Lloyd taking the stage along side Tyler Childers


First coming out solo, Childers opened with “Nose on the Grindstone,” which was followed by heavily spun tracks “Lady May” and “Follow You to Virgie,” with a roar from the crowd following suit. It was then that he brought out 97 year-old Clyde Lloyd, a long-time military service friend of his grandfather whom he would visit in Bluff City, Tennessee during the summers of his youth. It was in the nearby Bluff City where Childers learned his first three chords on acoustic guitar and how to play “Old Country Church.” After a long period of time where the two had lost touch, he was able to reconnect with Lloyd while traveling through the area on tour. Together, they played a duet of the song that brought much of the crowd to tears. To say this was a highlight of the night is an understatement.

But Childers continued to stun when he brought out his backing band, the Food Stamps. Going immediately into his own version of “Old Country Church,” they followed up with the title track of his new record, “Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven.” He then went into “Country Squire” and personal favorite “I Swear (To God)” from his record Purgatory. The crowd screamed along to familiar favorites like “All Your’n,” “Whitehouse Road,” and “Way of the Triune God.” By the end of the night Childers had played 23 songs and left the crowd with a show they’ll never forget. Many even stayed after the show, hoping and waiting to be given a setlist or other small memento from the stage.

It was safe to say that Childers’ recent show was a much different setting from the side stage he played for at the 17th annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion as an up-and-comer in 2017, going from playing to several hundred to nearly 8,500 this go round. It’s crazy to think about how much he’s grown since that day and the crowd who unknowingly witnessed a legend in the making.

Tyler Childers is on stage and faces a crowd of fans watching him as he performs. He is wearing a black and blue plaid shirt playing a guitar looking down and singing. It is a bright and sunny day.
Childers performs at the 2017 Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival on state street Bristol.

I feel like it’s a testament to the work we do here at the Birthplace of Country Music, bringing in names who may not yet be on your radar. The same story has played out for so many huge acts that were up-and-coming when they played these streets, including Sturgill Simpson, CAAMP, and Billy Strings, to name just a few. This organization and this festival is proud to uplift and support live music and up-and-coming artists, and we hope that we can continue bringing in names that will soon rule the charts for decades to come. To learn more about the festival, visit BristolRhythm.com

Ashli Linkous is a Marketing Specialist & Photographer at the Birthplace of Country Music, Inc. and an avid music lover! 

Instrument Interview: The Frying Guitar

By Erika Barker, Curatorial Manager

“Instrument Interview” blog posts are a chance to sit down with an instrument and learn more about it! From the different types of instruments played in traditional, country, bluegrass and roots music to specific instruments belonging to artists, luthiers, and songwriters, these blogs feature several questions that are posed and the instruments giver their answer. Today we talk with the frying pan guitar.

Why are you called a frying pan guitar?  That is my most popular nickname. I get called “Frypan” or “Frying-pan” guitar because of the way I look – similar in shape to a frying pan! 

A frying pan guitar (also known as a fry pan guitar) lays flat with a white background. Rickenbacker Electro “Fry Pan” Lap Steel Guitar (c.1934)
Rickenbacker Electro “Fry Pan” Lap Steel Guitar (c.1934)

Some of my other nicknames include; the “Aluminum Lollipop”, the “Beauchamp Elektro guitar”, “panhandle” guitar, “pancake” guitar, and the “electro-Hawaiian model”. My original name was Ro-Pat-In Electro Hawaiian Guitar. I am named after the company founded by my inventors. They soon changed my name, and the name of the company, to Rickenbacker though so many people know me by my official name: Rickenbacker Electro A-22. 

You may have noticed that my nameplate spells my name Rickenbacher instead of with a “k”. This is because one of my inventors, Adolph Rickenbacker, changed the spelling of his Swedish last name to honor his distant relative and American WWI hero, Eddie Rickenbacker. Even though the official name of the company used the new spelling of his name, the headstock nameplates on me and my siblings kept the original spelling into the 1950s.

Are you really a guitar? I am the first commercially successful electric guitar and also the first solid body guitar. I know I don’t look much like a modern electric guitar, I am what is called a lap steel guitar. I am made to be played while lying flat on your lap or on a stand in front of you. Some people refer to this as a “Hawaiian-style guitar” because my acoustic ancestors were invented in Hawaii.

Near the end of the 19th century, a Hawaiian teenager named Joseph Kekuku developed a new technique, and the lap steel guitar was born! There are many legends about how this came about. One popular version is that he picked up a railroad spike while walking along a railroad track and later noticed the unique sound it made when he ran it along the guitar strings while strumming them in his dorm room. However he did it, by the 1930s, Hawaiian-style guitar had become very popular in the continental United States. One of my inventors, George Beauchamp, particularly enjoyed the Hawaiian-style lap steel guitar. He was an avid musician whenever he wasn’t tinkering with electronics. So when he began inventing, it is no surprise that he made an electric lap steel guitar, like me!

Are you the first electric instrument?  No, people have experimented with making electric instruments as far back as 1761. A few interesting electric instruments, such as the telharmonium, an early electrical organ, were developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But these earlier instruments were often impractical and never became widely popular the way I did.

The period between World War I and World War II was an exciting time for innovators working with electricity; many new electronic instruments were invented in those days. Some other folks attempted to create electric guitars in the 1920s, but they were not successful. My unique design, which captures vibrations directly from the strings, is still in use today and is what made me one of the earliest electronic instruments to be commercially successful.

Are you really made out of a frying pan? No, my nickname was given to me because of my shape. I am made out of cast aluminum. I have steel strings and a horseshoe electro-magnetic pickup inside me. The pickup is what makes me an electric instrument. A pickup captures the vibrations of my strings and converts them into electronic signals.

How were you invented?  By nature, the guitar is pretty quiet, and louder instruments in acoustic ensemble settings often drown out our beautiful sounds. In the early 20th century, there was a lot of interest in finding a way to amplify our sound using a variety of methods, including resonators and electric amplification. 

In 1931, George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbaucher founded the Ro-Pat-In Corporation with the intent of manufacturing a completely electric instrument. Both men had already been involved in the development of early resonator guitars. Beauchamp developed a new “horseshoe pickup” that utilized magnetic coils and was designed to completely shun all acoustic amplification properties. It worked, and pickups today are still based on his design! Adolph Rickenbacher used his expertise to manufacture the guitars and improved the overall design to reduce feedback.

How are you played? I am played while lying flat on the lap of a seated player or sitting flat on a stand in front of them. The player uses a metal slide, called a steel or tone bar, to move along the strings on my neck with one hand, changing the pitch while also plucking or picking my strings with the other hand.

What do you sound like? 

You can listen to some of my relatives in these videos:

Honolulu How Do You Do – Rickenbacker Frying Pan and Ukulele

Hilo March – Steel Guitar

Erika Barker is the Curatorial Manager at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.