march 2012

‘He Kept Sowing Seeds Right Up To The End Of His Life’

tim obrienTim O’Brien on Earl Scruggs

On the morning of March 29, the day the news of Earl Scruggs' death was announced, Tim O'Brien was at his Nashville home, trying to absorb the magnitude of the loss. He shared with us these thoughts that he composed in the moment and sent to a friend.

You may know Earl Scruggs died yesterday. I just found out and have been reading the papers around the world. This video was at the top of the London Guardian's story:

Earl Scruggs, 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown'

It starts with Earl at his most talkative. He's so appreciative of everyone who enjoys the music and especially touched to see and hear so many fine musicians who have followed his path. Earl knew he was a force--there was no false humility--yet he was generous and open with his music. He held regular picking parties and invited folks to join him in informal jamming to underline this.

The video is also a great review of him and his followers. The other banjo players are notables of the time and of all time. From the start to the end they are:

Earl: He happily lights into his own signature tune "Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

Sonny Osborne: Note the sweaty t-shirt, this is 1971. The Osborne Brothers were becoming the biggest stars in bluegrass about then.

Bill Emerson in pink Country Gentleman shirt: you see leader Charlie Waller with guitar and Doyle Lawson with mando in same colored shirts.

JD Crowe: First known through his work as sideman to Jimmy Martin, he'd gone out on his own by then, and he's already revered as a master on the music scene. He's hot enough he comes back again later.

Sab Watanabe: My Japanese buddy. His group Bluegrass 45 was booked by the Country Gent's manager that summer. They traveled all over the US and were poster boys for the international appeal of Bluegrass music. Sab is my age, still plays, promotes a bluegrass festival in Japan that's been going over 30 years, and publishes a magazine on BG in Japan called Moonshiner.

?: not sure who this is. Maybe Mike Lilly, who played with Larry Sparks for years?

Jimmy Arnold: A brilliant player and songwriter from Virginia who died of excess way too young. Who's the poor guy standing behind him who doesn't ever get onto the mic?

Don Stover: one of my favorites. He played with Monroe and more with the Lilly Brothers and on his own. "Things if LIfe" is his song. He was from White Oak West Virginia, but was especially influential in New England where he was based for much of his career.

Alan Munde: He's in his Jimmy Martin uniform, he was playing with him then. You see Jimmy Martin off to the side with guitar, and Jimmy's son Ray with similar vest at start of video. Alan later joined up with Byron Berline and others to start the California group the Country Gazette. In the late '70s they did their part to bring BG to a new audience.
?: Who is this? He plays a slightly different part from Earl, adding a tasteful harmony note along with the basic theme.

Rick Ryman: The hippy banjo player prototype! An old friend of mine, Rick lived in Denver when I first showed up in Colorado in the fall of 1974. He was a computer programmer, and his big house was a dormitory for traveling players. At the time of the video, he was in a hippy band from NC called the New Deal Stringband. He shows himself clearly--in an obvious love fest for Earl, he plays something totally other. Notice how everyone but him plays the same part over and over. The older fella plays a harmony note, but all but Rick don't presume to play anything non Scruggs. 

JD: "Why not, I'm standing here."

Randy and Earl: Randy always in his dad's shadow. You don't hear him play banjo much. It makes sense, since his dad had the banjo parts covered.

Earl: I love how the other players and the audience go nuts when he hits the high part. And then, because he's Earl and the king of taste and timing, he ends it.

You see a lot of folks on this video who don't get up to the mic--Bobby Osborne; Carleton Haney, who was the promoter of that festival in Camp Springs NC; Ronnie Reno on electric bass--he played with the Osborne Brothers then; Bill Yates the bassist for the Country Gentlemen; Little Roy Lewis, the brilliant banjoist and guitarist with the popular Lewis Family. Is that Jody Maphis of the Earl Scruggs review on the drums? And who's watching from the stage door? Could it be Dave Freeman of County Records.

By the time of this performance Earl had already sewn a whole lot of seeds. He kept sewing seeds right up until the end of his life, and those seeds are still being sewn.

Right now I'm listening to Tony Trishka talk about Earl with Tom Ashbrook on NPR. It reminds me of a forest fire where the burning pine trees shoot out spores in their passing, starting a new forest in the very act of their demise. It's a sad thing to mark the end of Earl's life, but a joyous time to view the obvious effects of his life's work. In a way it's a simple and powerful show of what love and creativity have to offer in this world.

Multi-instrumentalist roots musician Tim O’Brien won a Grammy Award in 2005 for Best Traditional Folk Album for his acclaimed CD Fiddler’s Green. A founding member of the beloved Hot Rize traditional/progressive bluegrass band (also the IBMA’s first Entertainer of the Year in 1990), O’Brien has flourished as a solo artist, producing consistently adventurous and conceptually sound albums. His most recent long-player is Chicken & Egg, released in 2012.

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