Bugle Call Rag – new banjo single from Russ Carson

Over the past eight years, Russ Carson has risen to considerable prominence in the banjo world since taking the job with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. On top of burning up the five on stage with Ricky, Russ has developed a sizable online presence as “81 Crowe,” his social media moniker, posting videos of all things banjo on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and the like.

81 Crowe refers to Carson’s banjo of choice, a 1981 Gold Star J.D. Crowe model, which he has retained throughout his professional career. While most of his peers are chasing down prewar Mastertones, Russ is equally infatuated with the Gold Stars made at the start of their design and manufacture by the Saga corporation. In fact he told us yesterday that he just ran down the twin to his gold plated Crowe, serial #3, which he says is an identical match to his long time axe, #5.

But let’s save that for later…

Russ has recently signed with Engelhardt Music Group, and is nearly finished with a new banjo album where he revisits some of the classic of the genre. EMG is releasing a debut single today, Carson’s take on a Dixieland standard from 1922 that Earl Scruggs brought to bluegrass in the early ’60s, Bugle Call Rag.

It’s a very interesting cut of this tune, given that Earl’s arrangement so dominates the thinking of every bluegrass banjo player alive. Yet Russ manages to play it in a way that brings Scruggs to mind – and J.D. Crowe’s version from Holiday in Japan – without the sort of direct quotes that we have come to expect. He truly makes the tune his own, and the way he slightly revises the licks and phrases associated with the masters is a joy to behold.

He tells us that the whole thing has been great fun, in talking about the making of the album and this first single.

“It’s ’bout time! I’ve wanted to do this for a number of years, but every time I was ready, something happened. Instead of rushing it, I figured I’d just go with the flow. So when Adam Engelhardt approached me, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.

I learned Bugle Call Rag as a kid, from a video my dad recorded of the Rounder Album Band – Crowe, Rice, Alison, Jerry – for a TV special. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen as a kid. Now the tape is almost unwatchable, I’ve rewound it so much. It’s almost gone.

This is a fun song to play, but it’s very challenging to play.”

Everyone is smokin’ on this track. Russ’s Kentucky Thunder bandmate Jake Workman is on guitar, with Aaron Ramsey on mandolin, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Mike Bub on bass.

Have a listen…

Oh my!

Of course we had to talk banjos a bit when we caught up yesterday, and Russ was so excited to have found the twin to his beloved 81 Crowe, and it came with a pedigree.

“I found Gold Star #3, which Crowe had used on a west coast tour with Bluegrass Album Band. It looks just like #5, gold and maple, but they sound completely different. #5 sounds like J.D., but #3 sounds like Foggy Mountain Banjo.”

The new acquisition only came recently, so it’s #5 on the new album.

Carson said that there is no release date yet for the full project, but expects it sometime in October. The single is available now from popular download and streaming services. Radio programmers can get the track via AirPlay Direct.

“I’m really excited for folks to hear some of this stuff. It’s a tip of the hat to my heroes – Sonny, Earl, Crowe, Tony – mostly classics, half songs that I grew up with, and half really deep catalog. There’s only one original of mine on there.”

In speaking of heroes, Russ summed it up nicely…

“Earl made me want to play the banjo, and JD made me fall in love with it.”

Look for more details about the Russ Carson solo project in the coming months.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.