Country music has few, if any, icons left who can attract musical collaborators as diverse as Don Henley, Elton John, Melissa Etheridge, Sting, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Martin, Travis Tritt, and John
Country music has few, if any, icons left who can attract musical collaborators as diverse as Don Henley, Elton John, Melissa Etheridge, Sting, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Martin, Travis Tritt, and Johnny Cash. Yet Earl Scruggs' musical genius has always had universal appeal, and many of the industry's top names jumped at the chance to be part of the new MCA Nashville release "Earl Scruggs and Friends," released on Aug. 28.
Produced by Earl's multi-talented son Randy Scruggs, the album features the elder statesman's signature banjo, alongside vocal performances by luminaries from the pop, rock, and country music communities.
"The first track we recorded with Elton John," Randy says. "When he came in, he actually brought a box set of early material that Dad had recorded. Elton was a fan of Dad's, and Dad was a huge fan of Elton's. It set the mood and the stage."
Randy says the song selection process was "always very open. The important thing to me was that it was something the guest artist would feel passionate about, and at the same time, something Dad could dig his teeth into, in terms of performance on the banjo."
As the first new recording from Earl in 17 years, the album represents a musical resurrection for the legendary picker. Plagued by health problems, he had been inactive in the music community for quite some time. But hip-replacement and heart-bypass surgeries gave him a new lease on life. "I'm feeling good and I enjoy performing and picking," Earl says. "I guess I don't feel my age."
Born in 1924, Earl first rose to prominence as a member of the late Bill Monroe's famed Bluegrass Boys. Debuting at the Grand Ole Opry in 1945, Earl earned acclaim with his unique playing style, but his career really took off when he and vocalist/guitarist Lester Flatt left Monroe's band in 1948, forming the famed duo Flatt & Scruggs. The two performed together until 1969, when Earl formed the Earl Scruggs Revue with sons Gary, Randy, and Steve.
Over the years, Scruggs' virtuoso picking could be heard in such memorable pieces as the Beverly Hillbillies TV theme ("The Ballad of Jed Clampett," which hit No. 44 on The Billboard Hot 100 in 1963 for Flatt & Scruggs) and in the Faye Dunaway/Warren Beatty film Bonnie and Clyde, which used Earl's classic "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" as the theme.
"Earl had written and recorded it in 1949," recalls Earl's wife of 53 years, Louise Scruggs, who is also his manager. "Warren Beatty called when he was producing Bonnie and Clyde and said he found this wonderful record of Earl's that he thought would work great in the movie. Ends up it won a Grammy, and Earl got the Millionaire Award [for airplay] from BMI."
Earl's life has been filled with such musical highlights. "Earl is a [Country Music] Hall of Famer, and I'm really glad we are able to record and document this part of his musical history," says MCA Nashville chairman Bruce Hinton. "All of us at MCA Nashville feel privileged to be associated with it."
Hinton adds, "There are just a few people in the entire 20th century that forever changed the ways an up-and-coming musician would think about how they were supposed to play their instruments and what their possibilities might be with it. That's a very unique legacy. You look at people like Louis Armstrong. No one had thought about playing a trumpet that way before him, or Chet Atkins on guitar. Earl has certainly brought that to the banjo -- not to mention he is one of the architects of bluegrass music."
Earl says his style was born out of necessity: "When I started years ago with the banjo, it was not much of an asset to the band the way it was being played. It didn't quite fit in as well as I thought it could." So he set about to change that, and he adds modestly, "I was excited that what I had to offer was accepted."
Earl is thankful that his health has improved enough for him to perform once again. "He went to have his hip replaced, and when he was in the recovery room, he had a heart attack, and he literally died," Louise says of the 1996 crisis. "His heart stopped, and they got him back again. He had six blocked arteries, and he had bypass [surgery]."
With his heart healed and his back and hip pain gone, Earl says, he feels like a new man: "It's the first time I've been without pain for several years. When you get feeling good, you want to pick." And pick he does on this amazing album, with a musical gift that is unparalleled.
"Earl Scruggs is one of the true pioneers of American music," insists Don Henley, who first met Randy in the early '70s. "He is a living example of a strain of musical authenticity that runs back to the earliest musical traditions of this country."
"It isn't often that you can have such a cast of individuals of this caliber come together and celebrate music," Randy says. "They were there because of my dad, but what my dad represents is what turned up within the recording of the music: outstanding and unique musicianship and artistry. That's what we wanted to capture."
Earl is pleased with the results. "They are all exciting to me," he says of the 12 cuts. "I'll start listening to the album, and sometimes I'll play one for two or three days just over and over, and then I'll move to another one. Later, I'll come back to that first one. So it's been an exciting trip for me."
And Earl says he would like to go out and perform select dates in support of the album: "Music has been my life. To me it's a prison to think about retiring or just quitting -- either word is a bad word to me."