Earl Scruggs Brings Out the Best

Posted in MusicWorld on May 31, 2002 by

A bunch of billies blend their genre-clashing talents on the latest bluegrass musical masterpiece, Earl Scruggs and Friends.

There's British-billy Elton John joining the maestro in the down-home Elton/Bernie Taupin tour de fields "Country Comfort." Sounding anything like a "Sir," Elton launches visions of a rocker gone country, adorned not in glitter but in jeans, and rocking not on stage but in a wooden chair on an Appalachian front porch.

Enter Kentucky hillbilly Dwight Yoakam, joining forces on "Borrowed Love," a Yoakam/Scruggs (Earl and son Randy) dirge, warning that borrowed love is never cheap. A real Billy - Billy Bob Thornton - adds his unique Texas/Hollywood take to the Merle Kilgore/June Carter Cash classic "Ring of Fire."

Those anticipating the high, lonesome sound of traditional bluegrass, elevated so elegantly through the years by such masters as Scruggs, Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe, are in for a shock with the appearances of global superstars who rushed to record with Scruggs: Rocker-billies Sting, Don Henley and John Fogerty; movie-billy Steve Martin, who handles his banjo solo with aplomb; cosmic-billy Leon Russell and veteran country-crooner blueblood billies like Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash, Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, and Travis Tritt.

This is not an album review. Its just one indication of the importance the music world regards the legend of Earl Scruggs.

Add Paul Shaffer and Melissa Etheridge to the heady company for the still-unassuming North Carolina native whose farmer/bookkeeper father also played some pretty mean banjo and fiddle, as did Earl's brothers and sisters. Early on, Earl lost his father, then lost himself in the banjo, rubbing melodies from his genie of wood and strings. At the tender age of 10, he honed a three-finger picking style that revolutionized the role of that instrument. Earl's obsession with the five-string banjo increased during his high school years in Boiling Springs, N.C., where he improved his stylings every chance between schoolwork and farm chores.

Young Scruggs played his banjo with abandon until he suddenly realized he was using three digits instead of two. For an entire week, he perfected the song "Ruben" using the three-finger method. He applied it to other songs, in different tunings, smoothing and straightening rollicking melodies into what has become known as the "Scruggs Style."

More expertise came as a member of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, where he and fellow member Lester Flatt later split to form the famed Flatt & Scruggs duo, scoring the first number one bluegrass smash, "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme song to the hit TV show The Beverly Hillbillies. Earl's evergreen "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" gained international fame when featured in the movie Bonnie and Clyde. Flatt & Scruggs broke up in 1969 when Earl formed the Earl Scruggs Review, backed by his sons, Randy (producer of the new album and an acclaimed musician himself), Gary and the late Steve. Keeping it in the family, Earl's wife, Louise, has been his long-term manager - not an easy calling in the then-female glass-ceiling Nashville days of the '50s and '60s.

From the Grand Ole Opry to grand new Grammys, Scruggs has enjoyed a career that's now at its zenith: BMI, CMA and Grammy awards, appearances on Letterman and Leno, and a role in the new Faye Dunaway movie, Colored Eggs.

Bluegrass music has come and gone in favor more often than Michael Jordan comebacks. But Scruggs has the perspective gained by a half century on the job: "It will always have its peaks and valleys," he observes. "But any good music is going to stay around."