Remembering Earl Scruggs the Guitar Player

To mark the life of the great Earl Scruggs who died Wednesday at the age of 88, I would like to celebrate a lesser known portion of his work. Earl Scruggs was an amazing guitar player! I first became familiar with his guitar playing watching reruns of the Flatt & Scruggs television program. In many episodes, Scruggs would mix up the arrangement by finger picking a song or two on the guitar using his banjo finger picks.

Scruggs was from the state of North Carolina, and was quoted by NPR as saying, “My music came up from the soil of North Carolina.” Indeed, his hometown of Shelby sits right in the North Carolina Piedmont and his guitar playing was some of the finest Piedmont blues you could hope to hear. He perfectly captured that combination of ragtime, country and blues that distinguishes the style.  And just as with his banjo playing, he picked every song flawlessly.

I was lucky enough to see Earl Scruggs play at UCLA’s Royce Hall back in November. I remember one of his sons saying to the audience as Scruggs traded his banjo for a guitar that one of his favorite parts of every show was getting to hear his father play the guitar. It was definitely the part of the show I was most looking forward to and I feel very fortunate that I got to see it even just once.

Scruggs’ guitar playing may only ever be a footnote to what is an undeniably historical, musical legacy. Compared to his innovations with the banjo, he did not reinterpret the guitar as an instrument the way he did the five-string banjo. Indeed, that little splash he made at The Grand Ole Opry more than sixty-five years ago is still rippling around the globe, sweeping away armies of new devotees every year. On the guitar, Earl Scruggs was just immensely talented and immensely entertaining. But his skill on the guitar demonstrates the great depth of his musicianship and talent. He was truly an American treasure and with all of the recordings like the one below and the innumerable pickers he has inspired, there are great players yet unborn who will thank Earl Scruggs for showing them how it’s done.

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Coal Tattoo

Coal mining songs make up a significant and powerful contribution to the bluegrass and folk music repertoire. The Merle Travis classic “Dark as a Dungeon” has become a bluegrass standard and never fails to affect the listener with its grave image of a miner digging at the bones of those who worked the mine before him. The great West Virginia singer/songwriter, Hazel Dickens penned many songs about the coal mines and miners and was featured in the 1976 Barbara Kopple film, Harlan County, USA. And one of my father’s very favorite songs to sing, and one that I often heard as a boy, is “Coal Tattoo” by Billy Edd Wheeler.

While bluegrass and traditional country music are often appreciated by listeners for their link to the past, it would be a mistake to think the dangerous work of coal mining and the need to sing about it are themselves things of the past.

The current state of coal mining in the U.S. and around the world is being covered in great detail by reporter Ken Ward, Jr. of The Charleston Gazette on his blog, Coal Tattoo – a blog that takes its name from the Billy Edd Wheeler song mentioned above. Continue reading

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Live at The Fowler

Some of my very good friends joined me for the Fowler Out Loud show a few weeks back. It’s always a great time playing there. Here’s a clip featuring some of my friends from The LA BlueGrassHoppers. That’s Scott Linford on the clawhammer banjo and harmony vocals, Joseph Lorge on the bass guitar, Nicolette Yarbrough on the fiddle, and Jeffrey Riggs on the mandolin. Every time I think I’ve heard Jeffrey play all the instruments he knows, he breaks out a new one and plays it beautifully. I didn’t even know he played the mandolin until he showed up at the gig with this one. You can hear for yourself just how wonderful a surprise it was. Here’s “While Away.”

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Fowler Out Loud!

 

I will be performing at the UCLA Fowler museum on Thursday, January 26th at 6 pm for the Fowler Out Loud series. Special guests will include Leland Jackness, Jonah Rivera and friends from The L.A. BlueGrassHoppers. Admission is free! Parking information can be found at the UCLA web site.

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Live in Venice

My good friends Leland Jackness (L) and Jonah Rivera (R) joined me for a set at The Talking Stick in Venice last week. Thanks to everyone who came out for the show.

Here’s a clip of Leland helping me out with a song of mine called “Big Oak Tree.”

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Son Jarocho

I have become a fan of son jarocho music from Veracruz. It has wonderful songs, beautiful singing, amazing picking and an endless supply of cool rhythms. I recently saw local group Cambalache perform at UCLA. They put on a wonderful show and have steadily been working as ambassadors and educators for son jarocho all around Los Angeles. As a gift to yourself this holiday, check them out as soon as you can.

In the meantime, you can follow band leader Cesar Gonzales through his jarana workshop in an L.A. Times multimedia piece. You can also find all kinds of great son jarocho through the Smithsonian Folkways record label.

A son jarocho band you might be familiar with from their work on the Frida soundtrack is Los Cojolites. They led a workshop at UCLA earlier in the year and I got to learn some rhythm on the jarana from their lead requinto jarocho player, Noe Gonzales Molina.

Here’s a great clip of Los Cojolites playing at Guadalupe Strings in Los Angeles a few years ago:

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The Geator with The Heator!

Jerry Blavat is a living legend along the South Jersey Shore. Since the 1950’s he’s been a huge influence on the Jersey Shore sound and probably the person who most influenced what people imagine a summer down the shore ought to sound like. As a kid I would go see Jerry Blavat D.J. at benefits and reunions. The records he spun on the radio and at events influenced what folks wanted to hear when they came down the shore. He therefore influenced what the local bands should play, and what a young guitar player should learn if he wanted to get a gig. Jerry Blavat made the popular music of the ’50’s and ’60’s into the traditional music of the Jersey Shore.

It goes without saying then that I did a double, double-take when I was in the Santa Monica Public Library and I saw Jerry Blavat’s memoir on the new release shelf – You Only Rock Once: My Life in Music. Here’s an interview with co-author Steve Oskie from the Philly-based website, cinedork.com.

If I’ve heard the Geator say it once, I’ve heard him say it a thousand times and so I’ll return the favor. Jerry -“You’re the best, baby!”

P.S. If you’re interested in another kind of Philadelphia sound, check out Philly Tawk. You’ll thank me the next time you’re trying to get directions off the Schuylkill Parkway.

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