Originally released in 1957, Foggy Mountain Jamboree catches Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys in their prime. The personnel includes some of the most important first-generation bluegrass pickers: Josh Graves, Benny Martin, Paul Warren, Howdy Forrester, Everett Lilly, Curly Seckler, and Howard Watts. Earl Scruggs’ banjo, naturally, is front and center. And, in combination with Graves on dobro and a variety of fiddle players, the picking here (“Flint Hill Special”, “Earl’s Breakdown”, “Foggy Mountain Special”, “Randy Lynn Rag”) could hold its own against anything rock ‘n’ roll had to offer.
Lester Flatt was a solid rhythm guitar player, but his main instrument was, of course, his voice. He digs into “Some Old Day”, “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” and “Your Love Is Like A Flower” with convincing authority. Buoyed by the band’s four-part harmony, his earnest reading of “Pray For The Boys” (“When in prayer your head is bowed, mention those who’re out there now”) ought to sit well today, even with the pacifists among us.
Particularly impressive, too, is the number of classic songs Flatt & Scruggs wrote together, either under their own names, or — for publishing reasons — their wives’ maiden names: L. Certain and G. Stacey. They were responsible for ten of the original album’s twelve tracks, as well as one of the three bonus cuts here.
Foggy Mountain Gospel collects every sacred song Flatt & Scruggs recorded in their nineteen-year tenure with Columbia. Along with a slew of singles and portions of high-profile live performances at Vanderbilt University and Carnegie Hall, two albums, Songs Of Glory and When The Saints Go Marching In, are included in their entirety.
Once again, the supporting cast of Graves, Warren and Seckler is all over this project, with Jake Tullock frequently playing bass or providing baritone vocals. (Chet Atkins even sat in on rhythm guitar during one 1955 session.) While these 52 tracks were all recorded from 1951-66, there’s plenty of Scruggs’ fingerstyle guitar work that previously marked their Mercury recordings of the late 1940s. Graves’ versatile dobro work — giggling happily through “It Won’t Be Long”, weeping a mournful intro to “Give Me The Flowers While I’m Living” — is impressive throughout.
Songs about mother (“Give Mother My Crown”, “I Saw Mother With God Last Night”, “Mother Prays Loud In Her Sleep”) are second only to songs about heaven. The theology isn’t too complex. The prospect of eternal security is never really questioned (“Hallelujah I’m so glad I’m in the heavenly fold”), but there’s no guarantee everyone’s coming along: “If you don’t go, it won’t hinder me/I’m on my way, thank the Lord, I’m on my way.”
I Saw The Light With Some Help From My Friends, like its reissued companions, seems important enough; it’s just not terribly interesting. Essentially an album by the Earl Scruggs Revue — though, strictly speaking, not billed as such — this project finds Scruggs performing with his sons Greg, Randy and Steve after his split with Flatt in 1969. Scruggs, in his mid-40s at the time, was hardly old; but in the minds of many, his music was. And this album was aimed at a younger, hipper segment of the population.
The concept, suggested by the title’s sly nod to both Hank Williams and the Beatles, was straightforward enough: Put traditional musicians and hippies in the same room and see what happens. John Hartford, among others, had already set the bar quite high with Aereo-Plain, which included three artists — Vassar Clements, Norman Blake and Randy Scruggs — who also appear on I Saw The Light. And these recordings were made in the summer of 1971, when Scruggs was also recording with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for their seminal Will The Circle Be Unbroken? album. But where the NGDB chose to immerse themselves in traditional country music, Scruggs’ talents were effectively swallowed up by the electric sounds of folk-rock.
So we have the Earl Scruggs Revue backing Arlo Guthrie on “The Banks Of The Ohio”. Linda Ronstadt fares much better on Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings”, and she and Tracy Nelson do a nice turn on Utah Phillips’ “Rock Salt And Nails”. Gary Scruggs, never a very convincing vocalist, tackles Leon Russell’s “Lonesome And A Long Way From Home” and Delaney Bramlett’s “Never Ending Song Of Love”. Even the Dirt Band are on board, though better versions of three songs included here — two written by former Monkee Mike Nesmith — had appeared on their album Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy in 1970.
Sadly, Scruggs’ banjo is relegated to a minor role; his licks here could have been played just as convincingly by any banjo player from that time period. The same can’t be said of Vassar Clements, whose soaring, jazz-inflected fiddle lifts this album.