One of the great things about Earl Scruggs — besides, of course, the fact that he’s a musical genius whose three-finger picking style revolutionized the banjo — is his willingness to explore. You’ll remember Scruggs as the guy, along with Lester Flatt, who left Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1948 to begin Flatt & Scruggs, one of bluegrass’ most popular and influential bands. (In 1962, they also recorded the first-ever number one bluegrass song, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”, perhaps better known as the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies.) But in 1969, the successful duo parted ways over musical direction: Flatt wanted to continue playing traditional material while Scruggs had decided it was time to head for more modern music.
Along with sons Randy and Gary, he formed The Earl Scruggs Revue, which led to his explorations of rock and progressive bluegrass — and some fascinating collaborations. Scruggs also worked with a variety of musicians on other projects. In 1971, there was Earl Scruggs: His Famly and Friends with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Doc Watson, and The Byrds. He worked with Tom T. Hall in 1982 on The Storyteller and the Banjo Man, and in 1983, there was Top of the World, which included performances by Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Dillard, and Lacy J. Dalton.
In addition, Scruggs was involved with both Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums, two of the most significant recordings in country music.
Simply put, Earl Scruggs isn’t afraid to take his banjo out of the holler.
The 1990s found Scruggs stepping out of the spotlight, though, because of health problems and personal tragedy. But with Earl Scruggs and Friends, Scruggs, now 77, has released his first album in 17 years, and it’s the kind of project he’s always enjoyed. As wife Louise writes in the album’s liner notes, “In this collaboration, he joyfully intertwines his melodies and techniques with those who gave him inspiration”. In this case, the inspiration comes from rockers like Sting, Elton John, and Melissa Etheridge as well as country musicians such as Dwight Yoakam, Travis Tritt, Rosanne Cash, and Vince Gill. Randy Scruggs acts as producer while all songs were recorded and mixed by Ron “Snake” Reynolds.
Their efforts meet with mixed results.
A defining tenet of bluegrass — and any successful collaboration, for that matter — is selflessness: The players need to be willing to step away from the microphone and let others play. But too many of the performers on Earl Scruggs and Friends can’t seem to leave the spotlight, and that, combined with production that often leaves Scruggs’ banjo lost in the mix, makes the listener question just what kind of “friends” these are.
Perhaps it has to do with the opening track, Elton John’s “Country Comfort”, which sets a tone from which the album never fully recovers. John’s voice and piano are too big, too “city”, to give much credence to lines like “Well [Grandma] asked me if sometime I’d fix her barn” and “Country comfort’s any truck that’s going home”. Even though Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote the song, the tone is never clear, and the mix is just confusing.
Much the same can be said of Melissa Etheridge’s “Angels”, where Scruggs’ banjo seems forced into a rock song, and the Don Henley — Johnny Cash version of “Passin’ Through”. Here Cash speaks words that create an opening and closing frame for Henley’s singing, though his portrait doesn’t fare well, especially by comparison. Oh, and Earl Scruggs’ banjo is in there somewhere. . . .
Perhaps the worst is Sting’s take on his own song, “Fill Her Up”. Sting’s voice is much the same as Elton John’s: It’s too urban for the song. Plus, there are problems with the song itself, which tells of a poor man working in a gas station with “oil on [his] hands and the smell of diesel”. When a “big shot from the city” pulls in with a fancy car and pretty girl en route to Las Vegas, the singer decides he’s had enough. So he takes the cash box while the boss takes a nap; his plan is to head west like the big shot.
But then he has a transcendental moment: “The evening sun is slanting through the pine trees real pretty / It’s like I’ve walked into a glade of heaven”. Now he knows what brings true happiness — and it’s not the money “cold in [his] hand” — and while the song doesn’t say it, clearly the singer’s intention is to return the money (and stay poor). Although that’s very charming, as are the backing vocals provided by Trudie and Joe Sumner, Sting’s wife and son, issues of class are not so neatly resolved. And if ever there were an instrument with class associations, it’s the banjo, but Scruggs’ playing gets buried, too.
That’s not to say there aren’t some fine moments on Earl Scruggs and Friends. A case in point is Scruggs’ duet with Dwight Yoakam on “Borrowed Love” where Yoakam’s hillbilly twang and Scruggs’ banjo, never silenced, work together wonderfully. Much the same is true of “Foggy Mountain Rock/Foggy Mountain Special”, an instrumental medley that finds Scruggs working with Marty Stuart on acoustic guitar; the exchanges passed between the two artists are fascinating. Also effective is father Earl and son Randy’s take on “Somethin’ Just Ain’t Right”.
Earl Scruggs and Friends features duets with John Fogerty, Billy Bob Thornton, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill and Rosanne Cash that get the job done. And there’s an all-star jam on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with Randy, Steve Martin (banjo), Vince Gill (electric guitar), Marty Stuart (mandolin), Paul Shaffer (piano), and others, but too often, the production is confusing, and the listener wonders where Scruggs’ banjo is.
In the end, although it’s great to hear Scruggs’ playing again, it’s difficult to listen to Earl Scruggs and Friends and not wonder what kind of company he’s keeping these days. Even though every song is listed as performed by “Earl Scruggs with . . . “, too often, the friend just seems to take advantage of the host’s hospitality.