Legendary Record Producer Bill McEuen Dies at 79

He helmed the milestone album Will the Circle Be Unbroken and many others.

Written by Bob Paxman
Legendary Record Producer Bill McEuen Dies at 79
Bill McEuen; Photo via John McEuen on Facebook

Bill McEuen, who produced the classic album Will the Circle Be Unbroken and others for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, died on September 24th in Hawaii at age 79. McEuen was the older brother of one of the Dirt Band’s founding members John McEuen, who shared the news of Bill’s passing.

Bill McEuen served as producer and engineer on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s breakthrough 1970 album Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, which spawned the band’s first major hit, “Mr. Bojangles.” His finest accomplishment was undoubtedly producing the 1972 landmark album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which united the long-haired members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with country and bluegrass legends like Earl Scruggs, Mother Maybelle Carter, and Roy Acuff. The project brought together two entirely different generations of musicians who were much different in appearance and political views, but bonded over their common love of music. They collaborated on “Wabash Cannonball,” “Orange Blossom Special,” the title track and other classics. Will the Circle Be Unbroken is often credited with introducing an entirely new generation of listeners to bluegrass and country music, and is considered a landmark recording.

In his book The Life I’ve Picked: A Banjo Player’s Nitty Gritty Journey, John McEuen recalled Bill’s important contribution to Will the Circle Be Unbroken. “Bill’s foresight to have the tape running constantly made it possible to catch all the banter between songs, the run-throughs, and whatever was happening in the studio,” John wrote. John added that his brother’s savvy decision, “Captured the Circle album magic, and preserved what these great musicians were actually like as people, as they talked between songs about the sessions and life.”

Bill McEuen was also renowned for producing the live album A Wild and Crazy Guy by comedian Steve Martin, which won the Grammy in 1979 for Best Comedy Album. He formed the Aspen Film Society with Martin in 1976, and became the producer and executive producer for a number of movies, including The Jerk, which starred Martin, and the cult classic, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. McEuen continued to produce records for his brother John, among them the two acclaimed albums String Wizards in 1991 and 1993’s String Wizards II.