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Posted October 1, 2010
Where would the music be without Earl?
Orignally from North Carolina, Earl Eugene Scruggs is an indisputable master of the three-finger style of bluegrass banjo playing. By age 15, he was playing pro with Zeke and Wiley Morris (The Morris Brothers). He joined Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in 1945, then formed Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1948 .In 1969, Scruggs parted company with Flatt to form a country rock band, The Earl Scruggs Revue, with his sons, Gary, Randy and Steve. That group disbanded a decade later. In 1992, President Bush presented Earl with a National Medal of Artistic Achievement. The year 1997 saw him back on stage at the IBMA Awards Show, Grand Ole Opry, and various festivals. John Hartford once asked and opined, “Who was the first threefinger style banjo picker? It doesn’t really matter, because without Earl no one would be asking that question.” In Twentieth Century America, the terms “Banjo” and “Scruggs” are nearly synonymous. Once can barely speak of one without mention of the other. That is why I was particularly excited to hear about Columbia/Legacy’s release of the double-CD “Essential Earl Scruggs,” in early 2003 to coincide with Scruggs’ 80th birthday. Spanning the seminal picker’s career, the 40 tracks from 1946 to 1984 give us a good overview of his music. Only three tracks (Heavy Traffic Ahead, It’s Mighty Dark to Travel, Molly and Tenbrooks) emanate from Scruggs’ involvement with Bill Monroe in the late-40s, and this cursory treatment is unfortunate. The great majority (about 26 tracks) document the great collaboration of Earl Scruggs with Lester Flatt. I’m not certain how many of the tracks here overlap with another 2-CD set, “The Essential Flatt & Scruggs.” I recently learned on the BGRASS-L listserv that Flatt & Scruggs had 20 entries on the Billboard chart between 1952 and 1968, with 15 of them reaching the Top 40. One could certainly argue that all twenty are essential listening. So where are the likes of charting tracks like Legend of the Johnson Boys, New York Town, My Saro Jane, California Uptight Band, and Like A Rolling Stone? Certainly, a song’s charting success may not be a good measure of its essentialness today. Songs like Roll in my Sweet Baby’s Arms, Salty Dog, Jimmie Brown the Newsboy, Get in Line Brother, and most of Scruggs’ great instrumentals are a basic, indispensable foundation of the bluegrass repertoire. Be sure to tune into Scurggs’ lead guitar work on Jimmie Brown. The cornerstone of bluegrass is well represented here. Of special note are “John Henry” and “Cumberland Gap,” recorded live in 1959 at the Newport Folk Festival with Hylo Brown and the Timberliners, and the 1961 cut of “Foggy Mountain Top” with Mother Maybelle Carter. Johnny Cash appears in the 1975 recording of “I Still Miss Someone,” and Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas and Bobby Hicks make the 1982 rendition of “We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart” quite special. The pioneer banjoplayer’s contributions to Earl Scruggs Revue is documented in four tracks. “Nashville Blues,” recorded in 1971 with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, was originally released on the seminal “Will the Circle be Unbroken” album. Scruggs’ 1982 collaboration with Tom T. Hall is captured with “Song of the South.” Rich Kienzle’s liner notes document the musical innovator’s life. Bela Fleck adds a page of insight also. Earl had hip replacement surgery and suffered a heart attack requiring bypass surgery in October, 1996. It’s very gratifying to read Earl’s own extensive liner notes in which he concludes, “After eighty years, I am thankful that I am able to go out on the road and enjoy working concerts with more enthusiasm than ever.” Every bluegrasser today shWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.