june 2012

Earl Scruggs: Still pointing roots music in the right direction

Honoring The Master In Full

By David McGee

foggy mountain specialFOGGY MOUNTAIN SPECIAL
A Bluegrass Tribute to Earl Scruggs
Various Artists
Rounder Records

In the planning stages since 2009 (when Tom Adams’s superb liner notes were penned), this tribute to Earl Scruggs may have been a long time being born but, coming in the wake of the banjo titan’s death this past March, it could only have been more timely had it seen the light of day when Earl was still with us. Be that as it may, the dozen cuts here by a true all-star collection of pickers from across generational lines attests to a number of enduring and endearing qualities about Earl Scruggs: first, of course, his virtuosity, and it takes the likes of Ron Stewart to tear up “Pike County Breakdown” (and get a breathtaking assist from Dan Tyminski’s red-hot mandolin and Randy Kohrs’s frantic dobro) in a way that would have made Earl holler, or Craig Smith (with Ron Stewart contributing a soulful fiddle solo) to send the album home with a furious, driving flourish on the classic “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which sounds ever-fresh in the flawless, speed pickin’ hands of Smith, Stewart, Tyminski (guitar), Adam Steffey (mandolin) and bass man Barry Bales; second, we are reminded again of the long sweep of Scruggs’s art, in the way Larry Perkins struts through the ageless “Sally Goodin” (with Steffey flat tearing it up on mandolin when his turn comes), or Tony Trischka coaxes such rich sounds out of his instrument in a nod to both Scruggs and “Take It, Away” Leon McAullife on the latter’s evocative “Steel Guitar Rag” (which happens to give Stewart another shot at a rousing fiddle solo that bobs and weaves delightfully all over the place), or the new-old confluence of influences in Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline Rag,” a showcase for some tasty J.D. Crowe 5-string work and, again, Stewart elevating the track with his soaring fiddling.

J.D. Crowe and the New South’s 1984 version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline Rag.’ For Foggy Mountain Special Crowe recorded a new version with Dan Tyminski (guitar), Barry Bales (bass), Ron Stewart (fiddle) and Adam Steffey (mandolin).

Then consider the under-acknowledged sense of humor Earl had when it came to arrangements. Ron Block picks up on this in fashioning a most discursive banjo conversation on “Foggy Mountain Special,” which gives leave to Tyminski (guitar), Steffey (mandolin) and Stewart (fiddle) to go skipping through the track, and even Bales gets a delightful stop-time solo to make his mark on the buoyant proceedings. And I don’t want to meet the listener who doesn’t break out in a smile upon hearing the first flurry of cascading notes from Kenny Ingram’s 5-string—which are promptly seen and raised by Stewart’s smoking fiddle solo before Ingram answers him with another furious flurry—on “Ground Speed.” And not least of all is the soul of the man, and on this count all of the artists here—including Charlie Cushman, Jim Mills, David Talbot, Tom Adams (who goes his liner notes one better with his swinging take on “Foggy Mountain Rock,” Joe Mullins and all the sidemen—understand and demonstrate how Earl Scruggs always made it more about heart than about technique, even if the latter was too profound to ignore. That Earl Scrugs left a great legacy is unquestioned, and this Foggy Mountain Special tribute underscores anew his spirit as an enduring beacon pointing roots music towards the right path in his absence.

Foggy Mountain Special: A Bluegrass Tribute to Earl Scruggs is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024