The Jewels are Shining Brightly for This Renaissance Man

It’s been a little over a year since Randy Scruggs released his debut album, Crown of Jewels, and what a remarkable year it’s been for the talented musician, producer, songwriter and singer. In February he won his second Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental for his arrangement of the traditional fiddle tune “A Soldier’s Joy” with Vince Gill, the lead-off track on his album. He and Gill performed the song on The Late Show with David Letterman. Another track, “Lonesome Ruben,” was up for a Grammy in the same category. He is currently nominated for Musician of the Year for his prowess on guitar by the Country Music Association for the 33rd Annual CMA Awards, to be presented September 22, a category which encompasses some of country music’s finest.

A soft-spoken, unassuming man with a friendly demeanor, Scruggs is thrilled when discussing the prospect of the CMA award. “Musician of the Year, that’s certainly one that’s so personal to me in the sense that I literally started playing an instrument, or became a musician I guess, when I was 6 years old,” he remembers. “I picked up the autoharp, it was Maybelle Carter’s autoharp. The Carter Family were all friends of ours, and they were very inspirational to me as musicians, artists and also as people.

“When I started guitar (at age 12), I would literally fall asleep at night with a guitar in my bed and wake up the next morning and start playing again. My father was historically such an important person in what his accomplishments have been as a musician, and it just really creates a very unique picture there for me.”

Of course, Scruggs’ father is legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs of Flatt & Scruggs fame, a man who has influenced countless musicians, both bluegrass and otherwise. Randy first recorded with his father at the age of 13 and was also part of the Earl Scruggs Revue with brothers Gary and Steve for over 10 years, an act that had a more rock-oriented repertoire. Randy points out that his family has diverse musical tastes.

“When I was doing live performances with Dad, we were doing just all types of music. People were very quick to let you know it wasn’t bluegrass. It didn’t matter — we were just doing music that inspired us,” he explains. “It’s not being a rebel. He loves collaborating with other artists. It can be a bluegrass artist or a country artist or a rock artist. The real common thread is in what one gets from that particular musician or artist when they sit down with their instrument, whether it’d be a banjo or their voice or whatever it is. He doesn’t want to be pigeonholed, he just wants to enjoy music and play it.”

That same adventurous musical spirit rubbed off on Randy, as evidenced on his album, which has guest appearances by a diverse group of artists crossing multiple genres. A song co-written with Johnny Cash, “Passin’ Thru,” will be the lead track for a new Miramax comedy film Happy Texas, starring Steve Zahn and Jeremy Northam, due to be released in October. The soundtrack itself comes out in September on the Arista/Nashville label and includes such diverse artists as Kim Richey, Lee Roy Parnell, Keb’ Mo’, BR5-49, Flaco Jimenez, Alison Krauss and Robert Earl Keen.

Speaking from his publicist’s office in Nashville, Scruggs relates the reverence he has for this song in particular. “It scared me in a sense that I had gotten to a point — in terms of writing a couple of the verses and the music — that I actually felt sort of intimidated by myself because I felt like it was something very special,” he remembers. “But I also felt the meaning behind the song had a lot to do with certain things that I’ve heard from Johnny Cash as far as his feelings about life and what’s important. And I felt in some way or another I needed to call him, just to sort of give me that sounding board, because I respect him so much. He felt very strongly about it himself as well, felt moved by it, and that same day we actually completed it.

“When he (Cash) started writing it, and particularly that third verse, to me it really opened the whole song up also. In my mind, it took it back to even his early childhood because it’s talking about ’I have seen my bucket empty / I have seen my well run dry.’ To me, I really visualized the song even more so at that time.

“Bringing that into perspective, into how I feel today, we all are only here for a certain period of time,” he explains thoughtfully, “and the main thing is to stay true and honest to yourself and other people here now.”

Scruggs shares the passionate vocals on the song with rock singer Joan Osborne, a collaboration that came about almost by chance. He had admired her debut album, Relish, and her song “One Of Us,” but never expected to meet her. While sitting backstage at a Sheryl Crow concert in New York City, Osborne inadvertently sat down next to him, and he struck up a conversation. He was in the early stages of recording Crown of Jewels, had just finished writing “Passin’ Thru” and later called her to see if she would be interested in singing with him. He sent her a tape, and she agreed to the duet.

“For me, it was a very bold thing to say ’I want to sing a duet with you,’ because my background is more initially as an instrumentalist,” he says. “And all of the sudden now I was beginning to step forward and say I’m going to sing also. As I’ve gotten older and had more experience in traveling and in the studio and all that, there’s just something vocally, I think that there’s more character to my voice than there was years ago. It’s a time I really feel like I have something to say, and I feel it in my voice.”

The album as a whole has garnered critical accolades and has charted twice on the Americana chart. Scruggs has been touring throughout the year, opening for such heavy-hitters as Randy Travis, Faith Hill, Willie Nelson and currently Dwight Yoakam. He will be doing dates with Trisha Yearwood and some headlining gigs as well. It gives him a new perspective on the songs.

“You sense, if it’s a certain solo you’re doing, or the emotion of a certain lyric, you see it in the eyes of the people out there listening to you. It increases the dynamics of what you do as a performer, and then as far as your feeling about the songs that you perform. You sense that collaboration between you and the audience,” he explains.

He has also been active with the Country Music Hall of Fame, serving as its musical director of the groundbreaking ceremonies for the new facility this past June. He opened the ceremony with his rendition of “Amazing Grace,” an instrumental that brought him his first Grammy, and also led the all-star band for the finale performance of “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” Scruggs is enthusiastic as he contemplates the future of the new Hall of Fame.

“To me it represents all the great aspects of what artistry should be and has been historically to country music. It’s an international city here — people come from all over the world to see the Grand Ole Opry or to see the remnants or Jimmie Rodgers’ first guitar or Mother Maybelle Carter’s L5 guitar. It’s very special in particular because it feels like an extension of my family,” he says. “As a music family, we play music because it’s what we love. It’s imbedded in your soul and in your heart. The Hall of Fame, to me, the whole thing should represent that and does, and they’ve done a wonderful job.”

Scruggs recently was in the producer’s chair again, completing albums with Colorado-based Leftover Salmon, a “young, like hippy bluegrass, exciting band,” he exclaims, and working with country matriarch Loretta Lynn. Both are scheduled for release later this year. Scruggs has known Lynn since he was a young teenager and is excited to be working with her. “She’s such an incredible artist. She’s the real deal — she has so much to offer, not only as an artist but as a person, because her story is so deep and her ability as far as communicating. She’s one of the most honest of all artists I’ve ever worked with, in terms of what she wants to say. And people love her.”

In retrospect, Scruggs almost pinches himself when taking stock of what he’s accomplished recently. “This past year, when I look back on it, is really amazing to me — humbling, what with the Grammys and then to perform in different places from the Letterman Show to some great venues.

“It’s a really creative time for me.”