NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Salute to Earl Scruggs

New CD Package Presents Four Decades of the Banjo Master's Work

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

One of the sweeter aspects of country music is its rich sense of an ongoing history. The music is historically related to itself without necessarily being museum-stuffy. By that I mean that all relevant country music (fluff and dander excluded: they know who they are) has a historical tie or thread to what has come before. The music has an imprinted memory — but that ancestral thread more often than not inspires new music based on the roots. Unlike many forms of pop music, country is not an aural version of the movie Groundhog Day — doomed to repeat itself over and over into oblivion.

A gorgeous example of the relevance of country music’s past is displayed in a new CD package devoted to country music’s banjo pioneer. The Essential Earl Scruggs (Columbia Legacy) is a marvelous journey through the life of the banjo in modern country music (modern being 1940 to the present). The two CDs span four decades of Scruggs’ recorded work.

Bluegrass has often been described as folk music in overdrive, and Scruggs is the man who put the drive in overdrive. As master of the five-string banjo and the perfector of the three-finger “Scruggs-Style” syncopated method of picking, he was the first to make the banjo a lead instrument.

The album begins with the first recording Scruggs made with Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys — when bluegrass music was invented. “Heavy Traffic Ahead” was recorded in September of 1946 in Chicago with the classic Blue Grass Boys lineup of Monroe on mandolin and lead vocals, Lester Flatt on guitar, Scruggs on banjo, Chubby Wise on fiddle and Howard Watts on string bass (to be replaced by Cedric Rainwater). Scruggs relates in his liner notes that Monroe wrote the song as a band in-joke. Flatt was from the small town of Sparta, Tenn., which had a “Heavy Traffic Ahead” sign posted at the city limits. But it was also a reference to the band’s heavy touring schedule.

That band lineup lasted until Scruggs and Flatt left Monroe in 1948, formed Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys and signed with Mercury Records (later moving to Columbia). The recordings by that group sound as vibrant and vital today as they did 50 years ago. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was cut in 1949, became part of the soundtrack for Bonnie and Clyde 18 years later and won two Grammy awards.

Flatt and Scruggs became the country equivalent of rock stars, especially on the college circuit. Scruggs played the Newport Folk Festival, and as a result, he and Flatt got a network show on CBS — The Revlon Revue — Folk Sound USA. Scruggs began broadening his musical horizon and experimented on duets with saxophonist King Curtis. Scruggs began adding songs by the likes of Bob Dylan to the group’s repertoire. The staunchly traditionalist Flatt heatedly disagreed, and the group broke up in 1969.

Scruggs formed the Earl Scruggs Revue with his sons Gary and Randy and later added fiddler supreme Vassar Clements and Dobro master Josh Graves. That group and its recorded output remain underappreciated. Listen on this set for a representative song such as Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” and you see that the Revue was ahead of its time in combing the best of bluegrass, rock, folk and even jazz.

Scruggs was sidelined for several years due to health problems. Now fully recovered and 80 years old, he is still performing and playing with his virtuosity intact. Flatt & Scruggs were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985. As part of its current programs, the Hall of Fame is mounting a Scruggs salute spanning more than two years. In addition to a gala 80th birthday party celebration held in February, the museum plans four Earl Scruggs residency performances in the Ford Theater; the DVD release of Martha White/Flatt & Scruggs TV shows; an exhibit honoring both Earl and Louise Scruggs, his wife and business partner; and a series of public programs.