Randy Scruggs has felt the double-edged sword of being a second generation artist. The son of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs (Flatt & Scruggs), Randy has been afforded opportunities most musicians could only dream of. The flip side, of course, is that the child prodigy has braved expectations and comparisons most musicians couldn’t imagine.
His father’s influence on him comes from many different areas, but the one Randy finds most enduring is the banjo player’s simple love for music. “I see that passion when he picks up an instrument,” Scruggs relates in between sips of soda at his publicist’s office in Nashville. “I see it, too, in the faces of the people that hear him play. It’s reflective. The passion he puts into the music becomes a part of those people who are exposed to it. I hope that my music is reflective in that way, that it goes beyond just being a personal statement and affects people in a positive way.”
After years of building careers as an award-winning producer, hit songwriter and distinguished session musician, the behind-the-scenes hero finally stepped into the forefront to make a personal statement of his own with Crown of Jewels. The Reprise Records project showcases Scruggs in the company of country stars Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, Travis Tritt, Iris DeMent, Rosanne Cash, Mary-Chapin Carpenter and rockers Bruce Hornsby, John Prine, Joan Osborne and Roger McGuinn, all of whom jumped at the chance to work with Scruggs on his debut solo record.
At the nucleus of the star-studded affair is Scruggs himself, who, for the first time in his illustrious career, was involved with every aspect of the album–from writing and singing, to picking and producing. His guests are “just some friends” (Scruggs isn’t one to name drop) who he has crossed paths with during his tenure as a subtle, yet important, creative force in the music industry.
“These are not artists that were just pulled out of a hat,” he explains. “There is a personal attachment to me for each artist that is on this project. Bringing together the talent, fitting the artists and songs, seemed closer to that of directing a movie than actually making an album. I was given a tremendous amount of creative freedom, but I also had a tremendous amount of responsibility on my hands. I felt responsible for each artist and how they were represented on the album. It raised the bar for what I ultimately wanted to achieve.”
Crown of Jewels is the culmination of a lifetime of experience–musical activity that began at an early age when Randy participated in impromptu jam sessions that regularly occurred in the Scruggs household. It was during one of those musical evenings that neighbor and family friend Mother Maybelle Carter introduced six-year-old Randy to the autoharp and his fascination with the instrument led him to learn many of the songs of the Carter Family and other traditional artists. Over the years, other house guests included such notables as The Byrds, Ravi Shankar, Johnny Cash, Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young.
Randy picked up the acoustic guitar at 12. At age 13, he played on his first recording and soon thereafter his guitar work became a regular feature on recordings by Flatt & Scruggs. In 1969, Randy teamed up with his brother Gary to form The Scruggs Brothers, releasing a pair of rock albums on Vanguard Records. Randy, Gary and younger brother Steven then joined forces with their father to form the Earl Scruggs Revue. During his time with the Revue, Randy continued working as a session player for top talents like Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Cash, Ricky Skaggs, Waylon Jennings and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (playing on the group’s monumental Will The Circle Be Unbroken album), becoming one of Music City’s most sought after and respected session players. In 1980, Guitar Player magazine named Scruggs one of the nation’s top guitarists.
The same year, Randy opened his own studio and production company, and by 1989 the Country Music Association named him Producer of the Year for his work on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s second volume of Will The Circle Be Unbroken. The multi-artist project won the CMA Album of the Year, as well as four Grammy awards. Randy’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” on the album earned him a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental. Randy’s other production credits include: Red, Hot and Country, a high-profile compilation benefiting AIDS research and awareness programs; Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album, featuring the Alison Krauss & Union Station Top 10 hit “When You Say Nothing At All;” and Iris DeMent’s latest album, The Way I Should.
Scruggs, the songwriter, has had over 100 songs recorded by major artists, including Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Ricky Skaggs, Sawyer Brown, Steve Wariner, John Anderson, Waylon Jennings and Earl Thomas Conley. Deana Carter gave Scruggs his sixth No. 1 song when she recently took “We Danced Anyway” to the top of the charts.
His expertise as a writer, producer and player has helped shape the works of countless musicians and singers, many of whom returned the favor with their participation on Crown of Jewels. As a producer, Scruggs continuously strives to capture special moments in the studio, something he achieved again and again with his first solo effort.
There’s Emmylou Harris, full-heartedly assuming the role of Sara Carter, swapping vocals with Iris DeMent and trading guitar licks with Randy on the Carter Family chestnut “Wildwood Flower,” a song Randy learned first-hand from Mother Maybelle Carter as a little boy. Then there’s the blazing interplay between Randy, his father, and dobro whiz Jerry Douglas on the old Earl Scruggs instrumental, “Lonesome Ruben.” “The faders were brought down at the end of the last note,” Randy makes known, “so, what you don’t hear on the CD is the release of air and laughter we blurted out after putting that much energy into the song.”
Another very special moment happened during the recording of “City of New Orleans.” Randy and John Prine share lead vocals on the track, backed by an all-star choir consisting of John Hiatt, Matraca Berg, Jeff Hanna (of the aforementioned Dirt Band), Amy Grant, Gary Chapman, Iris DeMent and Randy’s daughter, Lindsey. On banjo is Earl Scruggs, on mandolin is Marty Stuart and on 12-string guitar is Byrds founder Roger McGuinn. “This was the first time that most of these artists had been together in the same room, although they each share the same love for each other’s music,” says the session leader. “’City of New Orleans’ is probably the most broad-based song on the album in terms of the artists who participated on it. I think that has to do with the integrity of the song itself. It was written by (the late) Steve Goodman, who I performed with at festivals and colleges when I was playing in my dad’s band.”
One of four instrumentals, “A Soldier’s Joy” is the lead off gem on Crown of Jewels. The re-make of the popular fiddle tune features Randy on acoustic guitar and Vince Gill, an ol’ pickin’ buddy, on electric guitar. “As a flat picker, one of the first artists I focused on was Doc Watson,” begins Scruggs, explaining his reasons for covering the song. “He does a flat-pickin’ style which is a lot like being able to play (fast, repetitious) fiddle melodies on an acoustic guitar. Years ago Doc came to Nashville from North Carolina to appear on an album with Lester Flatt and my dad. He became ill during the sessions and stayed at our house until he felt better. I was sorry that he became ill, but I was elated that I had an opportunity to talk with him in-depth and study his playing. “A Soldier’s Joy” is one of the songs Doc used to play back then.”
Among the Scruggs originals written specifically for Crown of Jewels is “Passin’ Thru,” a song Randy penned with country music icon Johnny Cash. Although the two found themselves in a producer-artist relationship making the Red, Hot & Country project a few years earlier, this song marks the first time they have ever written together.
“It felt great to do something with him on a writing level,” says Scruggs, “because it’s such an intimate process — perhaps the most intimate element of making an album. The key to writing meaningful songs is to be able to get at your deepest emotions — remove the veil and expose it all.”
“My Secret Life” spotlights the Man In Black’s talented daughter, Rosanne Cash, the first person Scruggs called on for this project. Both descendants of country legends, the two are longtime compatriots and Randy’s acoustic guitar playing is a highlight of Rosanne’s 1987 No. 1 hit, “Tennessee Flat Top Box.”
“The whole album is a reflection of my musical experiences,” Scruggs notes. “It is something that stems from my roots — influences that have piqued my interests and sustained me through the years. I wanted to put across a statement that was personal in terms of really looking inside myself and saying this is who I am as an artist.”
Crown of Jewels also illustrates Randy’s simple love for music, that trait he admires so much in his famous dad. Like his father’s best music, Crown of Jewels is an album that goes beyond just being a personal statement and affects those who hear it in a positive way.