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Earl Scruggs feels useful again

By Tom Netherland, September 2001

Few musical innovators match the contributions of Earl Scruggs. Most obvious among his gifts, the three-fingered style of banjo picking that debuted in 1945 with Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys.

Since then, Scruggs proves troubling for many bluegrass fans. On one hand, from 1948 through 1969, the cadre of classics produced with Lester Flatt typically produces gushes from acolytes.

On the other, Scruggs' open acceptance of folk and so-called progressive bluegrass angered the purists. His early 1970's country-rock band, the Earl Scruggs Revue, left many a fan scratching their heads.

But not everyone balked. Those who "got" Scruggs, knew all along that he was and remains nothing if innovative, and innovators rarely stand still. Even today, at 77, Scruggs still pushes forth, currently in the form of "Earl Scruggs and Friends," his first new album in 17 years.

"To me, I just really got an urge to do a project of this nature, expecially after laying off a bit," Scruggs says softly by phone from Nashville. "I was just chomping at the bit to get started. It sure is great to be back."

What a way to come back. Scruggs skeptics need look no farther than the album's assemblage of guests to understand in part the master's pull. Track one, "Country Comfort," with pop-rock superstar Elton John. Track two, "Borrowed Love," with country twanger Dwight Yoakam.

"As an album of this nature starts to take place, it starts to get a life of its own," says the album's acclaimed producer, Randy Scruggs, Earl's son. "But at the same time, there was a lot of planning in advance, and we had a group of artists that we hoped would take part, and basically those artists that we contacted were all excited about doing it. It really wasn't that complicated, other than finding that window of opportunity in terms of schedule."

Elsewhere, rock's Melissa Etheridge, John Fogerty and Sting are among a list that numbers more than a dozen of music's marquee names. Unlike some storybook film, they did not magically appear.

"The primary challenge on this was just setting it up, scheduling," Randy says. "With artists of this caliber and particularly being international artists who are literally all over the world at any given time, it's just the logistics of finding that place in their schedule along with dad's schedule. Other than that, it was just a total thrill. An exciting experience."

That experience first took shape two years ago. Neither Earl nor Randy knew Elton John, much less had met him, yet through the years each had become fans of Sir Elton.

"That was the very first recording that we actually did, and what better way to kick off this project than a track with Elton?," Randy says. "Our whole family has been longtime fans of Elton and his music.

"The Earl Scruggs Revue, in the ‘70's, used to perform "Country Comfort," so that was a song that we always loved and dad always loved to play."

Okay, fine, but liking one's music and arranging for one to come sing with you are two entirely different things. Especially when the singer in question is Elton John. An Atlanta resident, John rarely appears as a guest on others' records.

"We made a call to Elton and heard back on the same day, and he said that he'd absolutely loved to do it. Again, such a great experience," Randy says. "He came into the studio with a box set that he wanted dad to autograph, that he'd had a collection of some of dad's early music, so he was a big fan of dad's as well as our being fans of his. He's such a great artist and inspiring to be in the studio with."

John's gesture, though perhaps surprising to some, eased whatever tensions the elder Scruggs faced in the time leading up to the recording session.

"I had a feeling that everything was gonna be alright," Earl says of when John requested an autograph. "If that makes any sense, it relieves you of any stress that you may have."

All parties got on famously. So much indeed that during John's most recent Nashville area concert appearance, he invited the entire Scruggs family to attend as his guests.

"Elton dedicated the song 'Country Comfort' to dad," says Randy.

Not bad for a still-quiet country boy from the hills of North Carolina. As opposed to perception's bent, an Elton John-Earl Scruggs pairing isn't that far flung. Had they chosen to cover John's raucous "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting," then yes, that would have been a stretch.

"Just the fact that dad's playing is so incredible, and I think it began to surface again over the past few years," Randy says. "I think he was ready to take on the challenge of a new album. As a musician, you want to always be doing your best work. I think this is some of the most incredible playing that I've watched and been a part of and see happen in the studio. It was the right time, I think."

Yet "Country Comfort" works.

Likewise the seemingly noggin' scratching inclusion of raspy-voiced rocker Melissa Etheridge, appears one fated to miscue. Not so, says both Earl and Randy.

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