Earl Scruggs: Earl Scruggs and Friends

S. Renee Dechert

Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs and Friends

Label: MCA Nashville
US Release Date: 2001-08-28

One of the great things about Earl Scruggs -- besides, of course, the fact that he's a musical genius whose three-finger picking style revolutionized the banjo -- is his willingness to explore. You'll remember Scruggs as the guy, along with Lester Flatt, who left Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in 1948 to begin Flatt & Scruggs, one of bluegrass' most popular and influential bands. (In 1962, they also recorded the first-ever number one bluegrass song, "The Ballad of Jed Clampett", perhaps better known as the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies.) But in 1969, the successful duo parted ways over musical direction: Flatt wanted to continue playing traditional material while Scruggs had decided it was time to head for more modern music.

Along with sons Randy and Gary, he formed The Earl Scruggs Revue, which led to his explorations of rock and progressive bluegrass -- and some fascinating collaborations. Scruggs also worked with a variety of musicians on other projects. In 1971, there was Earl Scruggs: His Famly and Friends with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Doc Watson, and The Byrds. He worked with Tom T. Hall in 1982 on The Storyteller and the Banjo Man, and in 1983, there was Top of the World, which included performances by Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Dillard, and Lacy J. Dalton.

In addition, Scruggs was involved with both Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums, two of the most significant recordings in country music.

Simply put, Earl Scruggs isn't afraid to take his banjo out of the holler.

The 1990s found Scruggs stepping out of the spotlight, though, because of health problems and personal tragedy. But with Earl Scruggs and Friends, Scruggs, now 77, has released his first album in 17 years, and it's the kind of project he's always enjoyed. As wife Louise writes in the album's liner notes, "In this collaboration, he joyfully intertwines his melodies and techniques with those who gave him inspiration". In this case, the inspiration comes from rockers like Sting, Elton John, and Melissa Etheridge as well as country musicians such as Dwight Yoakam, Travis Tritt, Rosanne Cash, and Vince Gill. Randy Scruggs acts as producer while all songs were recorded and mixed by Ron "Snake" Reynolds.

Their efforts meet with mixed results.

A defining tenet of bluegrass -- and any successful collaboration, for that matter -- is selflessness: The players need to be willing to step away from the microphone and let others play. But too many of the performers on Earl Scruggs and Friends can't seem to leave the spotlight, and that, combined with production that often leaves Scruggs' banjo lost in the mix, makes the listener question just what kind of "friends" these are.

Perhaps it has to do with the opening track, Elton John's "Country Comfort", which sets a tone from which the album never fully recovers. John's voice and piano are too big, too "city", to give much credence to lines like "Well [Grandma] asked me if sometime I'd fix her barn" and "Country comfort's any truck that's going home". Even though Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote the song, the tone is never clear, and the mix is just confusing.

Much the same can be said of Melissa Etheridge's "Angels", where Scruggs' banjo seems forced into a rock song, and the Don Henley -- Johnny Cash version of "Passin' Through". Here Cash speaks words that create an opening and closing frame for Henley's singing, though his portrait doesn't fare well, especially by comparison. Oh, and Earl Scruggs' banjo is in there somewhere. . . .

Perhaps the worst is Sting's take on his own song, "Fill Her Up". Sting's voice is much the same as Elton John's: It's too urban for the song. Plus, there are problems with the song itself, which tells of a poor man working in a gas station with "oil on [his] hands and the smell of diesel". When a "big shot from the city" pulls in with a fancy car and pretty girl en route to Las Vegas, the singer decides he's had enough. So he takes the cash box while the boss takes a nap; his plan is to head west like the big shot.

But then he has a transcendental moment: "The evening sun is slanting through the pine trees real pretty / It's like I've walked into a glade of heaven". Now he knows what brings true happiness -- and it's not the money "cold in [his] hand" -- and while the song doesn't say it, clearly the singer's intention is to return the money (and stay poor). Although that's very charming, as are the backing vocals provided by Trudie and Joe Sumner, Sting's wife and son, issues of class are not so neatly resolved. And if ever there were an instrument with class associations, it's the banjo, but Scruggs' playing gets buried, too.

That's not to say there aren't some fine moments on Earl Scruggs and Friends. A case in point is Scruggs' duet with Dwight Yoakam on "Borrowed Love" where Yoakam's hillbilly twang and Scruggs' banjo, never silenced, work together wonderfully. Much the same is true of "Foggy Mountain Rock/Foggy Mountain Special", an instrumental medley that finds Scruggs working with Marty Stuart on acoustic guitar; the exchanges passed between the two artists are fascinating. Also effective is father Earl and son Randy's take on "Somethin' Just Ain't Right".

Earl Scruggs and Friends features duets with John Fogerty, Billy Bob Thornton, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill and Rosanne Cash that get the job done. And there's an all-star jam on "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" with Randy, Steve Martin (banjo), Vince Gill (electric guitar), Marty Stuart (mandolin), Paul Shaffer (piano), and others, but too often, the production is confusing, and the listener wonders where Scruggs' banjo is.

In the end, although it's great to hear Scruggs' playing again, it's difficult to listen to Earl Scruggs and Friends and not wonder what kind of company he's keeping these days. Even though every song is listed as performed by "Earl Scruggs with . . . ", too often, the friend just seems to take advantage of the host's hospitality.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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