Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… A pianist and a drummer walk into the studio to record an updated version of Foggy Mountain Banjo.
But this one’s no joke. Tyson Rogers and Bryon Larrance are celebrating how the five string has been a thread in their jazz careers by enlisting some A-list grassers to help them reimagine the monumental Earl Scruggs recording mentioned above.
Though it is credited as a release from Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, few would challenge that Foggy Mountain Banjo was Scruggs’ masterpiece, as definitive a statement of an individual stylist’s work as might be imagined in any genre. Today, 53 years after its initial release, students of the five string banjo still scour these recordings, and failing to respond to a request for one of these tunes at a jam is a matter of great shame for a banjo picker.
So what would encourage a pair of Nashville country and jazz players to reinterpret such an iconic album – with piano and drums?
Bryon said it was as simple as this…
“We are both huge fans of Earl and the banjo in general. We wanted to make a project that was artistically interesting and traditionally intact (as much as possible with piano and drums).”
But there’s a bit more to it. These two developed their passion for the banjo professionally, meeting as members of Ryan Cavanaugh’s group No Man’s Land. Down the road, the two found themselves working together again, this time in the Alison Brown Quartet. Both of these outfits were far from traditional bluegrass, but it showed them that drums and piano weren’t mortal enemies of the banjo, and that an artistic compromise between the banjo and their own instruments could succeed.
We all know that after he left Flatt & Scruggs, Earl recorded and performed with ensembles such as those as well. Tyson recalls getting to speak with Earl Scruggs before he passed, and asked why he had used non traditional instruments on his projects. His answer was simply that, “They were too good not to use.”
Larrance had actually started out playing fiddle as a child, but fled for rock and jazz by the time he was in high school. Rogers had stayed closer to country, and as a student of the playing of Floyd Cramer, was well-versed in using piano in a country/bluegrass setting.
All that to say this… Tyson and Bryon have assembled a core rhythm section (Barry Bales on bass and Johnny Warren on fiddle), and are cutting tracks now with top bluegrass banjo players for an eventual release. The first cut is Cripple Creek, with Sammy Shelor on banjo. It’s very close to the sound of the original recording, all the way down to the ’60s reverb. Rogers’ piano is akin to Cramer’s versions of Earl Scruggs classics, and Bryon’s drums are appropriate and unobtrusive.
You can hear the track on Soundcloud.
They hope to get back to work on the record in May, and more details are expected then. If the rest of the project succeeds like this first tune, it should be a winner.