by Ted S. McGregor, Jr.
There was a time when the banjo was considered more a prop for comedy than a serious musical instrument. All that changed in the 1930s when a four-year-old North Carolina boy named Earl Scruggs started playing the banjo his daddy left behind when he died. As time went by, Scruggs changed the way the instrument was regarded. In fact, his work with Lester Flatt (including the famous theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies) led to his sound being the inspiration for the term "bluegrass" in the late 1950s.
Now in the twilight of a legendary career, a variety of contemporary musicians (including Sting, Melissa Etheridge and Don Henley) have paid tribute to Earl Scruggs by recording new versions of their songs with his still-quite spirited accompaniment. Better than a straight tribute album, which can so often go off in wrong directions, Scruggs' playing brightens up most of the tracks on this CD. Some of the choices are inspired, like Elton John's reworking of "Country Comfort" from his 1969 album Tumbleweed Connection. Surprisingly enough, Billy Bob Thornton's gutsy remake of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" gives Scruggs perhaps his best chance to shine. But "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," the instrumental used in the film Bonnie and Clyde that won Scruggs his first Grammy, is the clear standout. It includes great guitar solos from Albert Lee and Vince Gill, and Paul Shaffer on piano and Leon Russel on organ really jam. Heck, Steve Martin (yes, the comedian -- in the early days he played the banjo as part of his act) even contributes a nifty solo.
As his wife Louise, who fell in love with him as he played on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in 1946, writes in the CD's liner notes: Earl Scruggs is a true original.