Earl Scruggs, The Essential Earl Scruggs

3 Stars

Whether you know it or not, you have heard his playing before. At nearly 80 years old, Earl Scruggs, the Paganini of the banjo, has had a successful career in music for the past 60 years, and his remarkably virtuosic bluegrass style has become associated with the genre itself, an indelible part of the American soundscape that has inspired and entertained for as long as it has been heard.

Disc One of this compilation features recordings from the earlier part of Scruggs’ career, including “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” an effervescent instrumental from the start of Scruggs’ 20-year-plus collaboration with guitarist-vocalist Lester Flatt, and “Heavy Traffic Ahead,” an early track from his time as a musician with “the father of bluegrass” Bill Monroe and his band.

The second disc highlights Scruggs’ more recent work, including fusiony ventures into rock- and blues-influenced bluegrass, only some of which are as aesthetically successful as the other tracks in the collection, though all are interesting. The haunting beauty of “Nashville Blues” alone makes this disc worth hearing.

Some of my favorite tracks are the purely instrumental ones; it is in the nonvocal realm that Scruggs’ musical voice can be heard most clearly, and where the individual and collective talents of the musicians shine. The recordings all have a very clean sound quality, even the very early stuff from the 1940s is crisp and clear, making it hard to believe some of the tracks are as old as they are.

This recording serves as a decent retrospective of Scruggs’ prolific and extensive career, and also as an excellent introduction to bluegrass (the bebop of country music) in the past 50-plus years. The music has an incredible amount of heart and spirit, and I defy anyone to listen to this without at least cracking a smile.

By the way, in case you are still stumped about where you’ve heard Scruggs’ music before, it is his banjo that you hear in the theme song to the television series The Beverly Hillbillies.

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