Album of the Week #19 – Foggy Mountain Banjo

| April 3, 2012 | 0 Comments

Foggy Mountain BanjoOn Sunday, my father (Joe Mullins) and I sat and listened to every minute of a funeral for a man I had only been around once. Why would the passing of someone who I didn’t even know personally cause my eyes to swell up with tears?

Even though I only had the privilege of seeing Earl once, he has dramatically changed the course of my life. Let’s look at only a handful of reasons why my life has been altered due to Earl Eugene Scruggs.

For one, there is enough evidence to suggest that there would not be bluegrass music without Earl Scruggs. The middle finger on his right hand transformed the banjo from what was often little more than a stage prop, to a powerful tool for solo and accompaniment playing with seemingly endless possibilities. Earl’s unique style of playing the banjo was the missing piece to Monroe’s puzzle, and solidified what we now know as bluegrass.

In addition to having played an integral part in creating the music we all know and love, Earl has influenced my life in deeper ways.

My father has been professional banjo player for thirty years. Ever since I can remember, I have heard my dad picking Cripple Creek and Reuben. Had there never been a Scruggs’ style banjo, my father may have never picked one up, which would result in him not having a job for much of my childhood. It would also not allow me to currently hold the positions of publicist and webmaster for Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers.

Taking a step even further back, my grandfather, Paul “Moon” Mullins’ life was changed drastically thanks to Earl Scruggs. He told me that the first time he ever heard bluegrass music was when he saw Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs & The Foggy Mountain Boys playing at the courthouse in Frenchburg, KY. This powerful moment transformed three generations of his family. Paul then learned how to play the fiddle while serving the Army in Alaska. He later became a fiddler for The Stanley Brothers and The Boys From Indiana, among others, and wrote the bluegrass standard, Katy Daley.

He and my father also formed the popular eighties and nineties bluegrass band, The Traditional Grass. Moon was also a well-loved and influential bluegrass disc jockey for forty-five years. My father continues to follow in these musical footsteps with his contributions to different bluegrass bands and projects over the years, has been a bluegrass disc jockey for twenty five years, and now owns and manages some of the most influential bluegrass radio stations in the Ohio Valley. In addition to writing for Bluegrass Today, I continue this tradition by being an on-air radio personality and managing a bluegrass record store. None of this would have happened without my grandfather seeing Earl Scruggs in Frenchburg, KY all those years ago.

I’m sure my story is just one of millions about lives that have been transformed due to the power in Earl Scruggs’ right hand. It is just one more example of the harvest which has been reaped from the seeds Earl started sowing over sixty years ago.

Let’s go back one year… Exactly one year before The Master passed away, my father and Jim Mills took the stage of the Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival for a banjo workshop. Dozens of banjo players sat anxiously awaiting their nuggets of knowledge. Amidst the laughter which comes from old friends spending time together and discussing their passion, the audience walked away with one goal. That goal was to acquire this week’s Album of the Week. Both my father and Jim Mills stressed the importance of Foggy Mountain Banjo on their formative years as a picker. Within in minutes, the Classic Country Connection was sold out of Foggy Mountain Banjo and had already taken down at least half-a-dozen special orders for this Holy Grail of bluegrass albums.

I know that Joe Mullins and Jim Mills are just two of the countless banjo players who spent hours slowing down the LP and soaking in every note of Earl’s five-string. We have all heard these songs performed by banjo players worldwide, and they will continue to be played until they drop the bomb.

When Foggy Mountain Banjo was released in 1961, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs & The Foggy Mountain Boys had been getting the job done for nearly a decade. The whole world already knew that Earl Scruggs was the greatest banjo player to ever live, and he wasn’t even forty! The back of the album bears a quote from The New York Times: “Earl Scruggs bears about the same relationship to the five-string banjo that Paganini does to the violin.”

Earl’s importance to American music was immediately understood by all who listened. Unlike many great artists, Earl’s legacy was established long before his death. Foggy Mountain Banjo even boasted of “The Original ‘Scruggs-Style’ Banjo Picking” emblazoned across the back. His unique style of playing already bore his namesake, and he had only been in the spotlight for roughly fifteen years! That is the power of Earl’s banjo.

Most banjo players have AT LEAST one of the Foggy Mountain Banjo standards worked into their repertoire. See how many you can associate with your favorite banjo pickers other than Earl Scruggs.

Side 1Ground Speed

Home Sweet Home

Sally Ann

Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine

Reuben

Cripple Creek

Side 2Lonesome Road Blues

John Henry

Fire Ball Mail

Sally Goodwin

Bugle Call Rag

Cumberland Gap

In the days before AcuTab and instructional videos, having Scruggs’ versions of all of these songs on one LP was a banjo goldmine! Viewed as the Banjo Bible, it is a must-have for any aspiring banjo player. It was then, it is now, and it always will be.

Although the original album Foggy Mountain Banjo is recently out of print (again!), I’m sure you know someone who has a copy of the old LP. Also, Earl’s versions of these bluegrass standards can be found on many compilations.

Earl’s impact can not be overstated. Today, The Essential Earl Scruggs is the #105 Top Album on iTunes, appears on the home page under New & Noteworthy, and is #1 under What’s Hot. There are also links to a special Remembering Earl Scruggs iTunes page all over the site. His impact on American music will never be forgotten.

While listening to Earl’s funeral on WSM yesterday, as I’m sure many of you were, I was moved to tears when I came to the realization at how much Earl and his music changed my life for the better. This realization came at about the time when the audio from Earl’s lesson on how to play Cripple Creek was streaming across the globe, and my father and I had to move closer to the speaker because noise was coming from upstairs. Unbeknownst to what we were doing downstairs, my little sister was in her room with one of Dad’s extra banjos, trying to learn how to pick Cripple Creek

“The beauty of simplicity will never be surpassed.” –Earl Scruggs

P.S.- There is one more way which Earl Scruggs almost changed my life. My mother vetoed the proposition by my father to name their firstborn child Eugene after The Master.

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Daniel Mullins

Daniel is from southwestern Ohio and has been around bluegrass his entire life. He manages the Classic Country Connection, a music store in southern Ohio which specializes in bluegrass, classic country, gospel, and Americana music. He is the host of the Bending The Strings radio program, which plays a variety of bluegrass, newgrass, and Americana music. He also maintains the website for Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers.
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Category: Earl Scruggs, Reviews