If it’s true that every generation has its Sgt. Pepper or Dark Side of the Moon, then perhaps there are different iterations of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken, as well. That groundbreaking 1970 triple album featured the then-young country group digging into a catalog of classic and contemporary gems, like the title track, “Wildwood Flower,” “I Saw The Light,” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” joined by some of the most legendary country and bluegrass players in the business. Everyone from Maybelle Carter to Earl Scruggs to Doc Watson sat in on the live-in-the-studio acoustic jams, bringing new life and new perspective to well-known songs.
Perhaps the closest thing we have today to an equivalent of that record is The Devil Makes Three’s new album, Redemption & Ruin. The Santa Cruz, Calif. acoustic trio has blended bluegrass, country, folk, and blues since 2002, but it’s largely been on their own original compositions. This time out, the band chose a selection of country, blues, and gospel favorites, like Willie Nelson’s “I Gotta Get Drunk,” Robert Johnson’s “Drunken Hearted Man,” and the traditional folk ballad “Down In The Valley.” The songs are grouped LP style, with the A-side dealing with wine, women, and song, and the B-side diving into a selection of gospel classics. Perhaps an alternate title could’ve been Saturday Night & Sunday Morning.
And then the band brought in some stunning musical firepower, including Dobro master Jerry Douglas, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael, multi-instrumental acoustic wizard Tim O’Brien, and even early rock ‘n’ roll guitar hero, Duane Eddy. The result is an infectious hoedown with top-flight players all seemingly gathered around one mic, slinging out dazzling solos and creating gorgeous gospel-style vocal harmonies.
“We actually had the concept chosen when we went into the studio,” says singer/guitarist Pete Bernhard. “We didn’t have the arrangements done, but we had the idea.”
As for the song selection, the band recorded many more songs than the 12 that finally made the cut, and as much as possible, they tried to remain wildly faithful or wildly unfaithful to the originals, with little room for middle ground.
“Some of the songs we didn’t change that much,” Bernhard says. “And the ones we did change, we changed completely. We changed the instruments, the tempo, the key, everything. It depended on the tune.”
As it turns out, the genre-bending went a little too wild, with dips into Western swing, rock, and blues that felt a little far afield for what Bernhard says is essentially an all-acoustic ensemble without a drummer. “Some of it didn’t work with the kind of band we are,” he says. “We had to scratch a good amount of songs just based on the fact that we’re a string band with an upright bass.”
The band had actually only played two or three of the songs live before, which made for an interesting process in the studio, especially when it came time to record the “Ruins” side, which contains some serious recrimination and debauchery. “Some of the album sounded like songs we would’ve done ourselves, but some of them were really a stretch,” he says. “Some of the ‘Ruins’ songs were really depressing. It was strange to sing those songs and not exactly feel that way.”
As for the guest stars, that was a more amorphous part of the plan for Redemption & Ruin. In the course of touring, the Devil Makes Three had met most of the players, and had made vague plans to play together on a record at some point, but it was Grammy-winning co-producer and engineer David Ferguson — he worked with the band at Butcher Shoppe studio in Nashville — who largely put the stars and schedules together. “We’d asked Jerry and Emmylou if they’d be willing to sit in on our next album before we even had the concept,” Bernhard says. “But Duane was completely through David; he kind of knows everybody. He worked out when they could all do it. Some of them overdubbed their parts, but with Jerry and Mickey Raphael and Tim, we recorded live, which was really fun.”
And so a relatively young band got to play with three titans of country and bluegrass music like they were just part of the group. “We had the songs and loose arrangements, and we just all played together,” Bernhard says. “It was a great moment because we’re all really big fans of these people. It was great to get their suggestions as far as harmonies and arrangements and things like that. And they made us play better. These people are all so great that you kind of try to rise to the occasion. I think we learned a lot.”
And despite years spent playing traditional acoustic music, Bernhard says he learned things about song structure and vocal harmonies he never knew before, particularly on the gospel tracks. And he hopes that those who hear Redemption & Ruin, beyond just enjoying the album, learn something, too.
“I hope that people will go back and listen to the original artists through these songs, like I did when I was listening to the Grateful Dead or Gram Parsons or the Rolling Stones,” he says. “I listened to those bands and realized, ‘Oh, they didn’t write that song? Who wrote it?’ And I went back further and further. It was a big influence on how we arrived at our sound. Hopefully some people haven’t heard these tunes and they’ll go searching for who wrote these great songs.”