january 2009

Earl Scruggs with Family & Friends

When Earl Scruggs strolled on stage at the Ryman Auditorium in June 2007 he was 83 years old and 62 years removed from his first appearance in the hallowed hall as a member of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. In between those two appearances he had revolutionized the banjo with his three-finger picking style, had revolutionized bluegrass in the '50s with his partner Lester Flatt, had rekindled interest in bluegrass in the '70s in a progressive-leaning band he formed with his sons, and had inspired several generations of pickers, out of which several acknowledged masters of the instrument had been recognized (think John Hartford, John McEuen, Rob McCoury, for starters). He's had nothing to prove for a long, long time, but every time he's entered a studio or gone onstage, he's struck his classic quiet pose and astounded every one in sight with the fluidity, the technical mastery and the soulfulness of his playing. He did so again on the night documented on this fine CD, when any questions as to whether age might have tempered his attack were laid to rest for good by the third song, when he tore into the rolling, bending opening bars of his self-penned "Earl's Breakdown," a number that goes lickety-split for three-minutes-plus of breathtaking and breathless soloing. Earl gives wide latitude for his family and friends to make scintillating instrumental statements of their own, and so Randy Scruggs and Jon Randall on guitars, Hoot Hester on fiddle, Rob Ickes on dobro, John Jorgenson on mandolin—with Gary Scruggs on bass and John Gardner on drums keeping the frantic rhythmic pulse locked down—all get a turn at showing off for the master, and all do a spectacular job of demonstrating their technical facility and the depth of soul they can summon in their fingertips. But Earl is always coming back into the picture, following one hot solo with another, equally dynamic one of his own before adding a witty, disjointed "shave-and-a-haircut" lick to bring it to a hilarious close. Thus the pattern for the entire set. When he's not taking an instrumental lead, he's ready with some pointed commentary to inject into the mix to keep things flying along. And he's quite willing to yield the spotlight just as he does on "Earl's Breakdown." On Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," a tune associated both with the Byrds and the groundbreaking Earl Scruggs Revue, the loping beat is augmented by a lovely crying fiddle solo from Hester, an atmospheric, twisting, turning dobro response from Rob Ickes, a stinging electric guitar solo from Jorgenson, and an uncannily McGuinn-like vocal reading from Randy Scruggs. The wonders never cease—the band breaks into a buoyant jig on the 18th Century nugget, "Soldier's Joy"; gets low, slow and blue on another ageless chestnut, "In the Pines," a page from the books of Lead Belly, Bill Monroe, et al.; offers a tender, shuffling rendition of the Carter Family's touching "You Are My Flower," with a soft, emotional vocal by Gary Scruggs. Near the end Earl and company tear into an infectious, audience pleasing "Ballad of Jed Clampett," with tenor John Jorgenson taking a run at Lester Flatt's emotive baritone lead vocal and doing a fine job setting up the white-hot charge of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," another occasion for spectacular displays of fleet-fingered (and -bowed) virtuosity, with Ickes's dobro, Hester's fiddle and Jorgenson's mandolin tearing into impossibly propulsive solo turns, all being secondary, of course, to the Scruggs banjo rolling over everything in its path. Jay Orr's liner notes make it clear it was a night of nights, one not to be missed, but the audio document remaining from the event is a sizzling slab of musicality you can enjoy over and over again, because this music never gets old. Just make sure you're there the next time Earl shows up on stage. —David McGee

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