As one half of the Flatt & Scruggs duo, banjoist Earl Scruggs (1924-2012) made bluegrass history, developing a dynamic new "Scruggs style" of picking, which influenced generations of banjoists to come. Graduating from the Bill Monroe band, they gave Monroe some of his most serious competition in the 1940s and '50s. Flatt & Scruggs hit their commercial apex in the early '60s, when they became the best-marketed bluegrass band of the folk revival; at the decade's end, they parted ways, with Lester Flatt sticking to truegrass traditionalism and Scruggs going off to explore new stylistic innovations, notably with his sons Gary and Randy Scruggs in the progressively-oriented Earl Scruggs Revue. Here's a quick look at his work...
The Earl Scruggs Revue "Artist's Choice - The Best Tracks: 1970-1980" (Edsel, 1998)
Earl Scruggs "Classic Bluegrass Live: 1959-1966" (Vanguard, 2002)
The banjo king himself, playing live in three different Newport Folk Festival performances. Great stuff, with plenty of typical old-fashioned bluegrass showmanship. Much of this material has been previously issued on various Flatt & Scruggs albums or Newport samplers -- the most noteworthy tracks are from a 1959 set, played with the Hylo Brown band. Sizzles!
Earl Scruggs "The Essential Earl Scruggs" (Sony Legacy, 2004)
This 2-CD retrospective does an admirable job collecting representative work from throughout his career, although it mostly covers pretty familiar territory, with over two-thirds of the music devoted to classic recordings with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. While this approach is perfect for a newcomer to learn about a bluegrass legend, for longtime fans, it may be a disincentive to pick this one up... The stylistically innovative Scruggs Revue definitely gets short shrift in this collection -- perhaps a second volume of equal length, just looking at these key '70s/'80s newgrass recordings, would be in order?
Earl Scruggs "Five-String Banjo Instruction Album" (Peer International, 1967) (LP)
Earl Scruggs "Nashville's Rock" (Columbia, 1970)
Earl Scruggs/Various Artists "Earl Scruggs Performing With His Family And Friends" (Columbia, 1971)
(Produced by Neil Wilburn & Rick Powell)
A generous host, Earl Scruggs seems to have had a limitless love of collaboration, as seen on this early guest-fest featuring contributions from Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Doc Watson, and folk-rockers The Byrds. There's also a shrill though ambitious duet with Moog musician Gil Trythal, and more earthy offerings from North Carolina's Morris Brothers -- Zeke and Wiley Morris -- who were veterans of Wade Mainer's 1930's hillbilly band, and local heroes from Black Mountain, NC. This album was attached to a TV special featuring Scruggs, his sons, and an early lineup of his Revue -- the sessions were recorded in a variety of locales, at live venues and in people's homes. The tracks recorded at the homes of Watson and Baez have a real warmth and coziness, particularly her banter with Earl about their earliest meetings in the late '50s. There's also a brief clip of Scruggs at the 1969 Moratorium March on Washington, DC, indicating his political sympathies and alignment with the youth culture of that highly polarized era. Overall, it's a fine album, showing the breadth of Scruggs' open-hearted, open-minded musical approach.
Earl Scruggs "I Saw The Light With Some Help From My Friends" (Columbia, 1972)
Earl Scruggs "Live At Kansas State" (Columbia, 1972)
Earl Scruggs "Dueling Banjos" (Columbia, 1973)
Earl Scruggs "The Earl Scruggs Revue" (Columbia, 1973) (LP)
Earl Scruggs "Where The Lilies Bloom" (Soundtrack) (Columbia, 1974) (LP)
Earl Scruggs "Rockin' 'Cross The Country" (Columbia, 1974)
Earl Scruggs "Anniversary Special, Volume One" (Columbia, 1975)
Earl Scruggs "Anniversary Special, Volume Two" (Columbia, 1976)
Earl Scruggs "Family Portrait" (Columbia, 1976)
Earl Scruggs "Live From Austin City Limits" (Columbia, 1977)
Earl Scruggs "Strike Anywhere" (Columbia, 1977)
Earl Scruggs "Bold And New" (Columbia, 1978)
Earl Scruggs "Today And Forever" (Columbia, 1979) (LP)
Earl Scruggs "Country Comfort" (Columbia, 1980) (LP)
Earl Scruggs & Tom T. Hall "Storyteller And The Banjo Man" (Columbia, 1982)
Earl Scruggs "Top Of The World" (Columbia, 1983) (LP)
Earl Scruggs "Superjammin' " (Columbia, 1984) (LP)
Earl Scruggs "American-Made, World-Played" (Columbia, 1984) (LP)
Earl Scruggs/Various Artists "Earl Scruggs And Friends" (MCA, 2001)
An all-star cast joins the venerable bluegrass pioneer, although it must be said that many -- if not most -- of these guest performers are fairly questionable. Who, for example? Oh... Sting, Melissa Etheridge, Don Henley, Elton John, for starters. And Billy Bob Thornton, fercrissakes? What a loser! Anyway, I'm not sure what the presumptive link between bluegrass and yuppie celebrities is, but it doesn't really work for me. On the other hand, when Rosanne Cash, Dwight Yoakam and Vince Gill chip in, it ain't half bad. It's fun to hear Steve Martin have a chance to plunk away, too, on the super-duper jamfest... (Remember when he played the banjo on "Saturday Night Live," way back in the '70s? That boy can pick!) This disc is a real mixed bag -- mostly it seems pretty canned and predictable -- I can think of plenty of other bluegrass albums that are more sizzly and more fun to listen to... But it's still a perfectly logical extension of the old experimental Earl Scruggs Revue recordings.
Earl Scruggs/Doc Watson/Ricky Skaggs "The Three Pickers" (Rounder, 2003)
Riffing on the whole "Three Tenors" opera phenomenon, three bluegrass master musicians join forces for a warm, friendly session, originally filmed for broadcast on public television. The congratulatory back-slapping wears a bit thin ("You're the greatest, Doc!" "No, you are, Ricky!"), but the music is top-notch. When Skaggs sings, Watson picks or Scruggs does one of those amazing banjo rolls, it's simple perfection in action. The current queen of bluegrass, Alison Krauss, sings along on a trio of tunes, and musicians drawn from the cream of the truegrass pickers -- including Skagg's band, Kentucky Thunder -- back them up on most tunes. Both Watson and Scruggs are still amazingly deft and soulful at their art, even though Skaggs kind of dominates at times.
Earl Scruggs "Live With Donnie Allen And Friends" (2005)
Earl Scruggs/Little Roy Lewis/Lizzy Long "Lifetimes" (Mountain Home, 2007)
Earl Scruggs "The Ultimate Collection: Live At The Ryman" (Rounder, 2008)
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