Ricky Skaggs – Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass (2008)

With today’s passing of Earl Scruggs at age 88, we returned to a stirring tribute to the three-finger banjo style of this Country Music Hall of Famer by Ricky Scaggs. Scruggs was also an inaugural inductee into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in 1991.

Fitting honors, indeed, for someone who influenced nearly every banjo player who followed, even as his sound — first as a sideman with Bill Monroe in the Blue Grass Boys, and then during his partnership with Lester Flatt as Flatt and Scruggs in the 1950s and ’60s — became a foundational element in bluegrass music. Flatt and Scruggs won a Grammy in 1969 for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

Scruggs moved well outside of those cozy environs, though, playing folk festivals with the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Byrds — and collaborating on some very interesting recordings with saxophonist King Curtis, pop star Elton John and sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, among others. But for next-generation players like Ricky Scaggs, and for the legions of fans now mourning the beloved North Carolina native, Earl Scruggs will always be one of “the fathers of bluegrass.”

On this sad occasion, it seemed appropriate to take a look back at Ricky Scagg’s memorable tribute …

They are the two-by-fours that make up country music’s earliest construction, rootsy legends whose very names conjure never-faded invention and old-timey amusements. That’s probably why nobody messes with Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. It’s like tugging on Superman’s cape.

Well, except 13-time Grammy-winning bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs, whose tribute to them focuses on a still-staggering period of artistic brilliance between 1946-47. History (more on that later) and the title, Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass, give you a sense that he’ll get it right.

He does.

Flatt and Scruggs (who later formed a seminal group of their own) were performing behind Monroe back then as part of the Original Bluegrass Band, which also included Chubby Wise and Howard Watts. Together, they produced unforgettable tracks like “Toy Heart” and “Little Cabin Home On The Hill,” both recreated here. Over the course of two short years, the bluegrass genre was born — with Monroe’s late-1940s outfit as its wellspring. Skaggs found himself marveling all over again at this heady period of exploration when he stumbled across a stash of old Original Bluegrass Band concert recordings.

Skaggs figured, and he was right, that much of this magic — and just what it meant to today’s popular songs — would be lost to time. “We wanted to tell their stories through music, honoring their arrangements and their tempos, bringing 1946 to the present for the next generation of listeners,” Skaggs said. “Every generation needs to be educated. If you don’t tell the stories of the fathers, the next generation will forget. That’s what this record is about.”

Skaggs, even with his aptly named Kentucky Thunder backing group, is careful not to mismanage these long-held notions — offering a timely reminder of what made bluegrass music the careening joy that it is. After all, before a run of multi-platinum country records in the 1980s, Skaggs could be found playing the Grand Ole Opry at age 7 with, yes, Flatt and Scruggs.

Still I’m happy to report, and Earl Scruggs would have loved this, that they don’t spend the whole record walking backward. Notable, and thrilling, exceptions to this nostalgic aesthetic include Cody Kilby’s stinging guitar work on the instrumental “Bluegrass Breakdown,” a part that Flatt once played in a repetitive, casually old-school manner.

Skaggs has convincingly argued for Bill Monroe’s place in the infrastructure of rock music. Listen closely to Honoring the Fathers and you’ll hear elements of the legends of Bob Dylan, of Elvis, of Led Zeppelin, of the Byrds, of R.E.M.

Elsewhere, Skaggs’ sizzling musical companions run through “Why Did You Wander” so fast that you can’t help but imagine them catching up with that long-lost lover. “Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong” features an atmospheric two-part harmony by Skaggs and Paul Brewster.

No bluegrass record is complete without a moment of emotional redemption through the gospels of picking and praying — and this one includes two gems. “Mother’s Only Sleeping” provides uncommon hope for a bereaved child, while the mid-tempo number “Remember the Cross” is an incandescent call to our better angels.

The circle is completed, by the way, on “Goin’ Back to Old Kentucky,” the album’s opening cut. That was Scruggs, then the lone survivor of Monroe’s original group, playing banjo.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.