Earl Scruggs: Family & Friends – Nutter Center (Fairborn, OH)
Bluegrassers love their music’s legendary figures, but they also want to see them working; as Ralph Stanley’s grueling show schedule suggests, “retirement” just isn’t in their vocabulary. On the one hand, this means that opportunities to hear them in person are unusually frequent, but on the other, it sometimes diminishes their stature, dissolving their historical significance in an often mind-numbingly long schedule of acts.
For more than a decade, health problems made that a moot point when it came to Earl Scruggs, five-string banjo pioneer and one of the 20th century’s most important American musicians. Yet when he returned to the stage, beginning in the mid-’90s, the problem threatened to arise. So when Dave Barber and Joe Mullins, movers and shakers in the bluegrass and folk scenes in Dayton, Ohio, took a notion to bring Scruggs in, they sought to put together an event that would explicitly underline just how important the banjo man has been. What they come up with was strong enough to attract attendance from around the world.
The idea was simple yet compelling: Precede the Scruggs appearance with a tribute that would feature some of his most distinguished followers — banjo players who could testify both personally and musically to the pioneer’s impact. Tapped for the job were a couple of legends in their own right and a brace of greats in the making: Sonny Osborne, J. D. Crowe, Tom Adams, Jim Mills, Rob McCoury and Mullins himself.
To back them, Mullins assembled a remarkable cast built around current and former members of Alison Krauss & Union Station: bassist Barry Bales, guitarist/vocalist Tim Stafford and mandolin player Adam Steffey, plus Terry Eldredge (guitar, vocals) and Ron Stewart (fiddle). Their familiarity with and confidence in each other lent an unusually solid feel to each performance, as the featured players opened the evening with three-song sets that paid tribute to the Scruggs legacy by mixing his classic compositions with their own signature numbers. Bluegrass isn’t made for arenas, and the musicians had to struggle with uneven sound reinforcement, but the technical difficulties were more than offset by the quality of the performances.
The highlights? Too many to list, but they included a blistering take on “Flint Hill Special” by Rob McCoury, Tom Adams’ spiky original “Box Elder Beetles”, Crowe’s loping reworking of “Nashville Skyline Rag”, and Osborne’s recreation of the solo performance of “America The Beautiful” (which he had played to open the International Bluegrass Music Association’s awards show last fall, in the wake of September 11). Rhonda Vincent, originally booked as a member of the backing band when Adams was in her group, appeared with the current edition of the Rage, bringing a seventh banjo giant to the stage in Kenny Ingram.
Still, all this (as well as an afternoon banjo workshop for more than 200 “VIP pass” holders) was prologue to the main event. Scruggs has been assembling lineups on a show-by-show basis, and the “Family And Friends” he appeared with were an especially delectable set, with bluegrass veterans Jerry Douglas (dobro), Jeff White (guitar) and Glen Duncan (fiddle) joined by drummer Harry Stinson, Gary Scruggs on electric bass and former Desert Rose guitarist John Jorgenson (pulling double duty on mandolin and Telecaster).
The 2,300-plus crowd erupted in cheers when Scruggs took the stage, and he did not disappoint. A healthy dose of banjo favorites including “Home Sweet Home” and his guitar gems such as “You Are My Flower” were complemented by staples that featured every member of the band, from the a cappella quartet reading of “Precious Memories” to Douglas’ supple reading of “Foggy Mountain Rock” and Jorgenson’s surprising rendition of “Ashes Of Love”. Relaxed yet animated throughout, Scruggs looked for all the world like just another grandpa.
Everyone-on-stage finales are something of a tradition in bluegrass, and the number was, inevitably, the quintessential banjo tune, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”. It wasn’t enough for the audience, though, and so the concert ended with “Lonesome Reuben”. That was the first tune to which Scruggs fit his history-making three-fingered roll in the 1930s, and ending the multi-generational tribute with it provided a perfect capstone to the evening.