The cover photo on The Essential Earl Scruggs shows the world’s most famous and influential banjo player seated, holding his instrument with both hands. He’s not quite impassive — the corners of his mouth are turned up ever so slightly — but he gazes calmly at the camera with a characteristic look compounded of modesty and self-assurance. At the time it was taken, more than twenty years ago, he was already closing in on his 60th birthday and his final recordings for Columbia, the label he’d been associated with for more than three decades — first as a member of Flatt & Scruggs, then with the Earl Scruggs Revue, and intermittently as a solo artist.
It might seem a little peculiar, then, if not downright surprising, that the label waited until this year’s celebration of his 80th birthday to release anything close to a full-fledged Earl Scruggs anthology. Yet it must be said that the wait has been worthwhile, for a selection made with less of the perspective that elapsed time affords might not have so firmly underlined his most durable, if not always most popular, work. As it is, this two-CD set digs deeply where it should and touches lightly where it needs to.
Almost ten years younger than anyone else in Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys — he joined the group on the eve of his 22nd birthday — Scruggs drew attention almost immediately for his sensational style. Though there were other North Carolina banjo players who used three of their right hand fingers for picking before he came along, Scruggs had worked out an approach that replaced his predecessors’ haphazardness with a disciplined yet almost infinitely variable system of three-fingered “rolls” — triple-note patterns that played against rural music’s typical two- or four-beat measures.
The rolls generated rhythmic tension that propelled the music forward, yet allowed melodies to be embedded within surrounding cascades of notes, no matter how fast the tempo. Supplementing them with a breathtaking array of licks and riffs — compiled through experimentation, hard work and sheer inspiration, and deployed with an unerring blend of taste and showmanship — Scruggs turned the banjo from an instrument used mostly to accompany dance fiddlers and comedians into one that could be used in almost any musical setting.
The first disc of The Essential Earl Scruggs is chronologically ordered, beginning with three of the 28 tracks recorded by the 1946-48 edition of the Blue Grass Boys and proceeding to the group Scruggs and guitarist/lead singer Lester Flatt formed after leaving Monroe’s employ. The 28 recordings they made for Mercury are represented by five selections, including — of course — “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “Old Salty Dog Blues”, all of them somehow familiar to college kids and barroom denizens who couldn’t tell Scruggs from Skaggs to save their lives, followed by a dozen selections from the scores of sides the duo and their band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, recorded for Columbia between 1951 and 1957.
For this era — as, indeed, throughout the compilation — the anthology focuses on banjo instrumentals. The path-breaking “Earl’s Breakdown”, which introduced the concept of tuning the strings while playing well before the invention of the pedal steel guitar, is here, as is “Foggy Mountain Chimes”, with its ringing harmonics and Benny Martin’s delicious double stops on the fiddle, and, among others, the blues-based “Foggy Mountain Special” and “Shuckin’ The Corn”.
There’s a taste of Scruggs’ distinctive guitar picking, too, on “Jimmy Brown, The Newsboy”, and an assortment of songs that show off his banjo picking in a pleasing variety of contexts — though sadly, only the briefest taste of his baritone singing (on the gospel quartet “Get In Line Brother”), a role for which he has yet to get the credit he deserves.
The second disc contains another eight numbers from the Flatt & Scruggs canon, three of them drawn from Earl’s masterpiece, Foggy Mountain Banjo (1961), and all but one an instrumental. The remainder of the disc is a miscellany serving a variety of purposes. Two numbers are taken from Scruggs’ first appearance at the Newport Folk Festival with Hylo Brown & the Timberliners; as the emcee’s introduction makes clear, the focus was on Scruggs, who had been invited to appear on his own and drafted Brown and company for accompaniment. There’s also one from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s historic Will The Circle Be Unbroken extravaganza.
For hard-core bluegrass fans, the set might as well end right there. By the time the last Flatt & Scruggs number served up here (Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline Rag”, recorded in the summer of 1969) was released, the duo had gone their separate ways, and if the Circle track “Nashville Blues” paid homage to what had been, what came next — including both the Earl Scruggs Revue (with sons Randy, Gary and Steve) and nominally solo efforts — was a kind of bluegrass-country-folk-rock hybrid for which such fans had little if any sympathy.
The Essential offers only nine tracks covering that territory, and three of them feature guests — Tom T. Hall on “Song Of The South”, taken from an entire album he and Earl released in 1982; Johnny Cash on a peppy version of “I Still Miss Someone”; and Ricky Skaggs on a restrained remake of Flatt & Scruggs’ “We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart” — while another three are instrumentals. Though the Revue’s blend of styles and influences deserves some exploration by listeners interested in alt-country history, they’ll have to look elsewhere.
Yet if the final third of Scruggs’ Columbia career gets only a once-over-lightly treatment, it’s enough to make an interesting point — one suggested, if not quite underlined, by Earl’s mention in the liner notes of a musical encounter with saxophonist King Curtis in 1960. Scruggs’ horizons may have expanded beyond bluegrass, but what really piqued his curiosity was not how he might change what he did to fit new kinds of music, but rather how what he did could fit without being changed in any essential way. No matter the musical context — even the recent collaborations with pop, rock and country superstars on MCA’s Earl Scruggs & Friends — if it were to be stripped away, what would remain would be, by and large, the same sparkling rolls and licks the man has been playing for more than 50 years.
That’s an approach that flies in the face of several aesthetic conventions, and Scruggs’ wide-ranging embrace of contexts has earned him a fair amount of derision among the roots-minded. That’s their right, of course, but it would be a serious mistake to allow it to cast a retroactive pall over his many accomplishments and the rich body of music he created in his first 25 years. The Essential Earl Scruggs does a fine job of sampling that work, and of giving a taste of the rest.