[18 July 2005]
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Country and bluegrass fans will see an embarrassment of riches this summer. Not only are nine out of every 10 summer festivals devoted to either genre, but they’ve now got four discs of reissued, re-mastered, and newly compiled music from the legendary duo of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Although Sony/Legacy has occasionally drawn ire (some from me, yes) for dubious choices and thin compilations, they have done masterfully right by Flatt & Scruggs, offering up fine bonus tracks on the reissues and a thorough examination of 20 years of the duo’s gospel cuts. As well they should—Flatt and Scruggs are as deserving of word association with “pioneer” as Willa Cather and Neil Armstrong. The trails they blazed throughout their careers are tended faithfully to this day by bluegrass innovators and copycats—so faithfully that line between those two groups of followers is often razor thin.
Foggy Mountain Jamboree is the lodestone here for both grizzled devotees and curious youngsters (myself included). And for those long hip to its charms, there is no need to explain what’s contained herein, save the three bonus tracks and fancy-ass re-mastering. But for those of us Blue-Staters raised on DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince instead of Flatt & Scruggs, here’s a primer. The keyword in Foggy Mountain Jamboree is Jamboree, a party, celebration, damn good time. Make no mistake: this is party music. You put the needle to the record (or laser to aluminum, or iPod witchcraft to pixie dust) and you dance like a fool. The hallmarks of bluegrass are virtuosic musicianship, blazing speed, and solos aplenty. “Flint Hill Special”, which opens Jamboree is about as pure in form as you can get. Flatt’s rhythm guitar is rock-steady on the instrumental cut, but it doesn’t just keep time. His chord shapes and phrasing subtly compliment the more noticeable solo work on the cut. Chubby Wise’s fiddle flies, as does Scruggs’ passionate speed-banjo. Individual notes, when they’re not being rifled through by the lead instruments, also have the ability to surprise, catch you off guard as they’re bent, stretched or stutter-stepped into the hard-line meter.
“Foggy Mountain Special” is another perfect instrumental example of Flatt & Scruggs’ indelible contributions to bluegrass. For one, it’s bursting with infectious joy—evident in the playful bass-note climbing and exuberant performances, but also in the feeling you get listening to it. Even if bluegrass style is not your thing, there is no mistaking what the sound intends. This is not reflective or soul-searching music. But it’s rich with cocky fun, strutting, laughter, and dancing. Dancing, yes. We all know where that, plus a little moonshine, can lead. In that respect, it’s not unlike most club music (even notwithstanding Rednex’s nails-on-chalkboard take on “Cotton Eye Joe”). “Your Love Is Like a Flower” is graced with Flatt’s tenor, a bittersweet pastoral love song describing just the kinds of intense but fleeting encounters struck up at local dances everywhere across time.
Not to blaspheme too much with all that movin’ and shakin’, Flatt & Scruggs were also big purveyors of gospel tunes, evidenced in particular by the last cut on Jamboree, “Reunion in Heaven”. The bonus tracks (“Dear Old Dixie”, “On My Mind”, and “Pray For the Boys”) are inserted sideways into the reissue, so that “Heaven” retains its album-closing position. It’s an odd move, but it works, since the chaste, reverent, and down-tempo tune functions exactly like the Sunday morning after a Saturday night barnburner. It’s also presented on Legacy’s two-disc, 52-track Foggy Mountain Gospel compilation, an exhaustive collection of Flatt & Scruggs’ gospel songs recorded over a 20-year span. They run the gamut from the omnipresent (“When the Saints Go Marching In”, “Paul and Silas”) to the unique (“Mother Prays Loud in Her Sleep”, “Bubbling in My Soul”).
Culled from such a wide span of albums, Foggy Mountain Gospel is reminiscent of the God third of Johnny Cash’s Love, God, Murder compilation trilogy, only with three times the amount of testifying. It’s an extremely handy organization of material, allowing not only listening enjoyment but also a music student’s repository of American Gospel tradition. By isolating these tracks from their albums, it’s also a considerable amount to digest at one time. The songs are by nature short and compact, not unlike a sip of wine and communion wafer. But also like bread and wine, you can get filled up mighty quick. I find myself going to Foggy Mountain Gospel for singular, selected pleasures rather than a wall-to-wall experience. “Angel Band” is a remarkable song in just about anyone’s hands, and of course Flatt & Scruggs’ version is a standout. “When the Angels Carry Me Home” is a boisterous call-and-response, and “God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign” is cheery and smile-inducing with its banjo and harmonica soloing, despite the apocalypse envisioned in the final verse.
The unflinching uniformity of style and sound on Foggy Mountain Gospel, while representing pure commitment and reverence to form, in part led to the dissolution of the partnership between Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in 1969. Facing a third decade of recording and performing, Flatt wanted to continue mining the traditional vein of bluegrass while Scruggs sought to diversify, branch out and meld their style with the emerging folk and country scenes. The third offering of Legacy’s current reissue batch is credited to Earl Scruggs with Special Guests, I Saw the Light With Some Help From My Friends. Recorded in late 1971, and released in ‘72, it features sons Gary, Steve, and Randy as well as such renegades and longhairs as Linda Ronstadt, Arlo Guthrie, Vassar Clements, Norman Blake, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. As you’d expect, the flavor here is more along the lines of relaxed post-Sweetheart of the Rodeo country than even-keeled bluegrass. Think Nudie suit as opposed to suit and tie. The all-star ensemble covers everything from Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” and June Cash’s “Ring of Fire” to Monkee Michael Nesmith’s “Some of Shelley’s Blues”. “Propinquity” shuffles on a sparse bass drum and cymbal beat, and with two separate banjo lines. Scruggs keeps on rolling gently with the chord progression, then adds another a few octaves up that takes more liberty with the steady rhythm. As with Foggy Mountain Jamboree, Legacy also inserts three bonus tracks before the final title track. If you’ve got a few hours to kill, and also all three of these records at your disposable, “I Saw the Light” is a fitting conclusion, drawing all the elements of Jamboree, Gospel, and Light into one joyous, danceable song of praise.