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Earl Scruggs feels useful again

By Tom Netherland, September 2001

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"I don't think it was odd on this end other than it's a unique pairing, but the gist of dad's career is of doing things that are unique and doing things that inspire him and inspire other artists when they're with him, collaborating," Randy says. "With Melissa Etheridge, to me, she has a certain style - certainly a vocal style - but a style when she plays her 12-string guitar that to me in some instances is like a rolling banjo because she finger picks. She has just such a style."

Wait a second. Did Randy Scruggs just compare Etheridge's guitar playing with the banjo stylings of his father? Yep.

"There may be under the surface some similarities that made creative sense. And again, dad is such an inspiring musician as far as what he does with the banjo, and Melissa is such an inspiring vocalist," Randy says. "Our family has always loved her work, and also other female artists that could give such passion, like Janis Joplin. Dad had been at a Joplin concert in New York, and (they had) gotten to know one another."

Therein lies a reason why Flatt & Scruggs broke up. Ever the traditionalist, Flatt had no compulsion whatsoever to venture from the confines of traditional bluegrass. Scruggs did...and still does.

"So, this was a unique album that was about trying some new things with other artists that can totally inspire you," Randy says. " It's a new chapter, but one that sort of echoes what dad is about. I think he's always pushed the envelope creatively."

Indeed, even by phone, the elder Scruggs sounded younger than he has in years. In part due to a heart surgery several years ago, Scruggs said that he's indeed feeling better than he has in years.

"Oh yeah, I was ready for this one," Earl says. "I guess Randy played as big a part, he and my wife, in getting these things to happen. They know I still want to be a part of the industry."

If only there had been tickets sold to the recording sessions. Randy reveled in the process, watching wide-eyed as his dad worked a spell on all who watched once again. Though he's Earl's son, Randy said that his dad is playing as well as ever right now. Credit practice and occasional pickin' parties, Earl says.

"It was such fun, and he's playing so great," Randy says. "It was cool to be back in because the greatest fun of all is actually being in the studio when the recording starts to happen. You'd think it was somewhat nerve-wracking to go in with artists such as Earl Scruggs with Sting, or Earl Scruggs with Elton John, but in this case there was such respect for each other, such incredible musicianship. I was there as fan as much as a producer, so it was a great thrill."

"By the same token, there was tremendous expectations on their part, because they want to be presented in as best light as possible, so I take on that responsibility as producer and really respect that. Therefore, you try to create an atmosphere that's relaxed, but what will make it relaxed is them knowing that it's going to be recorded in the best way possible and hopefully capture some magic in the studio."

With such names as Johnny Cash, Don Henley and Marty Stuart among the album's ranks, magic must have been flying all about. Even after 56 years of recording, from traditional bluegrass to progressive rock, Earl Scruggs can still coax the fire from his six-string.

"To me, it was one of the easiest albums I ever did," says Earl Scruggs. "We worked with professionals all the way, so that makes your job on each individual as well as the producer, an easier one."

Easier in past due to the usage of minimal overdubs. Such technology may accentuate what Shania Twain does, but it would have deterred that Scruggs sound.

"On this particular album, we wanted to create as live a feel as possible.. We tried to have the whole band there so there would be minimal overdubs. So, dynamically what is captured on the recording is the actual dynamics that went down in the studio. I think that's important with a project of this nature."

As for whether this will be the grand old man's swan song is anyone's guess,. He feels like a kid, plays like a master and rolls in the sweet arms of music once again. Maybe there is no fountain of youth, no magic pill, but Earl Scruggs has found what works for him: Music.

"That's just what I've lived for since I was a kid," Earl says. "It makes me feel like I'm useful again."

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