Earl Scruggs passed away yesterday, March 28, 2012 around 10:00am at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville. It is a sad day indeed. Earl was, by all reports, a kind and gentle person and I know that I am not aware of an unkind thing he ever said about anybody at any time. The bluegrass world and the banjo world especially owe him and his musical accomplishments a huge debt and we will all miss him.
Here is a reposting of one of the first posts I made on this blog. I will do a new one next week and feature some old Flatt and Scruggs recordings to celebrate Earl’s life.
Foggy Mountain Banjo by Flatt and Scruggs
Much has been said and written about this album and much more will be said and written about it too I assume. Recorded in 1961, this 25 minute long album has inspired and is still a staple of most (if not all!) bluegrass banjo players even today, nearly 50 years later. Earl Scruggs and his style of playing banjo had excited the music world and many were and still are studying his playing and learning his songs. Foggy Mountain Banjo was so influential to the listening public that many of the songs on the album can still be heard at bluegrass concerts and jams across the world- sometimes note for note. Songs such as Cripple Creek, Home Sweet Home, Lonesome Road Blues and Sally Goodwin have been played and recorded for years by professional and amateurs alike and chances are if you don’t know these songs by name, you would probably recognize them by sound! Also in the band at the time and also great inspirations to many acoustic musicians were Lester Flatt on guitar, Josh Graves on dobro, Paul Warren on fiddle, “Cousin” Jake Tullock on bass and drummer Buddy Harmon (the appearance of a drummer on a bluegrass album shocked many traditionalists!)
When you first listen to this album, you can’t help but notice that there are a lot of notes being played and you might imagine it would be somewhat difficult to learn a song off a record and wonder how so many musicians have been able to do it so consistently. So here is a bit of a history lesson for you younger listeners- when this album was recorded and released, it was an LP (which stood for Long Playing, a reference to the length of time the record would play!) and was played on a record player. Now in those days there were a few different kinds of records, there were 16 rpm, 45 rpm, 33 rpm (these were the LPs), and 78 rpm records. Because of this, record players had a little switch you could adjust to change the speed of the turntable (the turntable revolved at 33 revolutions per minute or 45 revolutions per minute etc, depending on the setting you chose). Somewhere along the line, someone figured out that if you played a 33 rpm record at 16, you could hear all of the notes, and though they were an octave lower to the ear, they were much easier to understand and figure out how to play! Another benefit to this is that if you slow down the record to roughly half speed, your instrument will still be in tune with the music you are hearing so you can actually play along with the record to help you figure out what is being played. I was lucky enough to have a record player that would play at 16 rpm and I know I personally spent many an hour trying to figure out what Earl was doing there, and I’ve listened to this album so many times that the songs are part of my mental soundtrack and probably always will be.
It is undeniable that the music on this album has excited people all these years, but there is something else too. The sound of this album has excited and inspired bluegrass musicians in ways that those six musicians had never dreamed possible. When banjo players talk about the sound of this album, they talk about and try to emulate the tone of Earl’s banjo- “that pre-war sound” of Earl’s 1930s made Gibson banjo. Banjo players have been known to spend insane amounts of time researching the details on Earl’s banjo, and even more insane amounts of money on everything from pre-war Gibson banjos, banjo picks made in same time frame as Earl’s, banjo parts made from the same metallurgical formulas as parts of Earl’s banjo, parts made from wood of that era. You would think I’m kidding if I were to go into details about the huge industry built around getting “that pre-war sound” of Earl’s banjo, so I will leave that for another time. Suffice it to say Foggy Mountain Banjo has done a great deal for Bluegrass music and banjo playing and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come.
So whether or not you are a musician, give this album a listen, it’s as valid now as it was 50 years ago when it was recorded.