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Earl Scruggs

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Earl Scruggs CD
(MCA Records) Producer: Randy Scruggs
Prime cuts: “Country Comfort,” “Ring Of Fire,” “The Angels,” “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,” “Passin’ Thru,” “Foggy Mountain Rock/Foggy Mountain Special”

Critique: Country’s iconic founders are rapidly disappearing, leaving us to wonder who will fill their shoes, but fortunately the marvelous Earl Scruggs is very much alive and picking. If the recently-departed Chet Atkins personified the guitar for millions so does this 75-year-old North Carolina genius loom colossal on the five string banjo. Decades before Bela Fleck or the Dixie Chicks, Scruggs made his instrument — once dismissed as a minstrel’s prop — hip and legitimate. Afficiandos may rhapsodize about his subtle innovations but everybody felt their pulse quicken as Scrugg’s barbwire syncopations accompanied Bonnie and Clyde along the dirt roads of the Great Depression.

Earl Scruggs And Friends, the maestro’s first album in 17 years, seems long overdue, but those looking for a tribute CD will be in for a surprise. Homage is paid to a few Scruggs standards here but mostly this is a collection of new material, or material with no previous Scruggs connection, played and sung by an unlikely gallery of Scruggs worshippers including Elton John, Don Henley, Melissa Etheridge, Billy Bob Thornton, Sting and Steve Martin, alongside more expected cronies like Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Johnny Cash and Scruggs’s sons Gary and producer-guitarist Randy. Sounds like a novelty outing? In fact it all works to organic perfection, amounting to one of the year’s outstanding musical events.

Thornton, for instance, may be no great shakes as a pure singer but his rumbling revisitation of “Ring Of Fire” drips with cool. Etheridge’s self-written “The Angels” is scorchingly passionate and John Fogerty’s reworking of “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” sounds so much like something from a ’40s radio show you half expect an announcer to begin hawking baby chickens or miracle ointment. Comedian Martin joins an all-star cast in a version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” that proves his own banjo skills are no laughing matter. Cash’s canyon-deep recitation, juxtaposed with Henley’s grainy tenor, reminds us that we’re merely “Passin’ Thru.” Perhaps so, but for the meantime let’s be grateful to Earl Scruggs and his many friends for gifts like this landmark album. A humble masterpiece. Grade: A

— Larry Wayne Clark

This review originally appeared in Music Row magazine. 2002, all rights reserved