Music: Foggy Mountain Breakthrough

Legendary banjo artist Earl Scruggs enjoys the resurgence of the music he helped popularize

Apr 11, 2002 at 2:06 pm

There's been a lot of talk about Bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley's capture of this year's Grammy for Country Male Vocal Performance — a richly-deserved artifact of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack 's unexpected success — but it's not the only award that wound up in the hands of a legendary septuagenarian banjo picker.

In fact, if you ask banjo pickers to name the model for banjo players, the overwhelming response is Earl Scruggs, winner of this year's Country Instrumental Performance Grammy for a new recording of his "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." While Stanley is frequently welcomed to Southwest Ohio Scruggs' status as a musical icon has only been enhanced by the rarity of his concert appearances.

That alone would make the "Earl Scruggs: Family And Friends" event at Dayton's Nutter Center on Sunday worth the trip, but cosponsors Cityfolk and WBZI (out of Dayton and Xenia, respectively) had bigger things in mind almost from the beginning.

"Ever since we first sat down two years ago to talk about this, we've been saying it was my idea and it turned out to be Joe's dream," says Cityfolk's Dave Barber. "And as it turns out, the timing couldn't be any better."

"Joe" is WBZI's Joe Mullins, a dynamic combination of artist and entrepreneur in his mid 30s, who has had a finger in virtually every aspect of Bluegrass from running (and DJing on) the station to promoting concerts to playing banjo in the music's award-winning national supergroup, Longview. Together, Barber and Mullins have put together not just an Earl Scruggs concert, but an extraordinary tribute to a man they call "a true American innovator."

Born in 1924 in Flint Hill, N.C., Scruggs took up the banjo as a youngster. Sober and purposeful about the instrument from the start, he and his brother would hone their skills by starting a tune together in front of their house, then walking around opposite sides to see if they were still on the same beat when they met out back.

Bluegrass was born when the young man joined Grand Ole Opry star Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys at the end of 1945. Audiences responded at fever pitch to the their brilliance — bootleg recordings of some of their radio appearances document near Beatles-like hysteria — and the Opry announcer's frequent co-billing of "Earl and that fancy banjo of his" with Monroe pointed to one of the most important reasons. No one had heard anything like it before.

Since then, Scruggs has been a commanding figure whose admirers range far beyond the Bluegrass faithful. He and guitarist/singer Lester Flatt left Monroe's band in 1948, going on to become Country Music Hall of Famers themselves. By the end of the 1950s, Scruggs' banjo artistry had become so rich that comparisons in major publications to the greatest performers from the centuries-old classical world were unexceptionable. At the same time, Flatt & Scruggs enjoyed a rare degree of commercial success, thanks to hits like "The Ballad Of Jed Clampett" (the theme for TV's Beverly Hillbillies) and the boost "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" got when it was used in the soundtrack of Bonnie and Clyde.

Yet Scruggs has never been a musician content to stay in just one groove. Even before "Jed Clampett" hit the top of the charts, he was feeling creatively restless, stimulated in part by an encounter with Rhythm & Blues tenor sax giant King Curtis. During rehearsals for a 1960 TV show, the two spent a considerable amount of time jamming and, Scruggs says, "that stuck in my mind all those years. I guess I'd just gone my limit with Bluegrass."

So he moved on, forming the Earl Scruggs Revue with his sons Randy and Gary. The Revue was a groundbreaking Country Rock effort whose many campus appearances, often with Rock rather than Bluegrass acts, helped familiarize an entire generation with the sound of the banjo. In the same vein, he and his wife, Louise, acted as the critical bridge between California's Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Nashville Country community to create the recently reissued Will The Circle Be Unbroken.

Scruggs spent the 1980s and early 1990s mostly out of public sight. But when some health problems were resolved in the middle of the decade, it wasn't long before he reappeared onstage. Since then, he's released the star-studded Earl Scruggs and Friends and seen the first video from the set — "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," with guests ranging from Steve Martin to Vince Gill to Paul Shaffer — rocket into CMT's Top 10.

"This year the number of dates we're playing is in the double digits," laughs Glen Duncan, who plays fiddle with Scruggs between recording sessions with Nashville's biggest stars. "He's playing great banjo, he's playing great guitar, and he's having a lot of fun. He's always had that; you can hear it on those old records from the '50s, and you can hear it now, too."

Adding even more heft to the concert will be a set of complementary appearances by some of Scruggs' most notable banjo disciples, including Mullins himself. One of the great charms of Bluegrass is the way that even its greatest figures freely acknowledge and pay tribute to their influences. No one has had a greater impact than Scruggs, and from veterans like Sonny Osborne and J. D. Crowe to red-hot relative newcomers like Jim Mills (of Ricky Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder) and Rob McCoury (Del McCoury Band), their salutes promise to be a memorable evening of music — and that's before the man himself takes the stage.

In the end, though, Melissa Etheridge offers the best reason to catch the show. Asked by Boston Globe writer Steve Morse last summer why she wanted to be part of Earl Scruggs and Friends, Etheridge, he says, "shot this interviewer a look and said, 'Well, because he's Earl Scruggs, that's why.' "

EARL SCRUGGS and friends perform at Dayton's Nutter Center on Sunday.