NITTY GRITTY DIRT BAND

"Will the Circle

Be Unbroken, Vol. III"

Capitol

The 1972 album "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" was the original "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Back when the gulf between traditional country and counterculture rock seemed unbridgeable, a bunch of California hippies called the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band collaborated with Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis and Jimmy Martin on a 42-song, three-LP set that repaired the broken circle of American roots music. Not only was the gesture noble, but the performances were glorious, revealing the pleasures of hillbilly music to a new audience in much the same way that "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" has in this decade. The original "Circle" has just been reissued as a two-CD set.

When the NGDB recorded "Volume Two" in 1989, the results were less momentous. By then the group's members were Nashville insiders, and the session was not an encounter between divided camps but a bunch of friends getting together to pick. The results were enjoyable more often than not, but there were no revelations. The same is true of this year's "Vol. III."

Returning from the first volume are Earl and Randy Scruggs, Doc Watson and Jimmy Martin; returning from the second are Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas and Emmylou Harris. Appearing for the first time are Alison Krauss, Del McCoury, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, Taj Mahal, Tom Petty, Iris DeMent, the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Vince Gill.

Some of the tracks sound like under-rehearsed picking sessions; others sound like pointless copies of previous recordings. But there are some highlights. Bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin puts a real kick into "Hold Whatcha Got" and "Save It, Save It." Yoakam turns in terrific vocals on Chris Hillman & Gram Parsons's "Wheels" and on the traditional "Some Dark Holler." Harris sings a lovely duet with Matraca Berg on the latter's "Oh Cumberland." Best of all is Johnny Cash's tribute to his mother-in-law Maybelle Carter on "Tears in the Holston River."

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Saturday at the Ram's Head Tavern. * To hear a free Sound Bite from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8107. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)