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Mark O'ConnorWhen I was an 11-year-old growing up here in Seattle, I was introduced to bluegrass music through recordings, and Earl Scruggs became one of my musical heroes. Even though I was learning the guitar and the fiddle, I wanted a banjo, too, and I bought the Earl Scruggs banjo book. I also took private banjo lessons, and even entered a local banjo contest in Woodinville. (Anybody remember the Seattle-area’s first bluegrass festival back in 1973?)

Butch Robbins, a great young banjo player booked at the festival — and a fantastic musician who played with Bill Monroe for a time — showed me some Scruggs licks, including the main finger roll in Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” To play that riff, I had to drop my right thumb from the fifth string to the second, over and over and over. Butch told me that this was how Earl Scruggs did it, and I shook my head in disbelief!

Even though my own banjo playing exploits were very short-lived (I quit playing the banjo when I was 12, though I did place second at the Woodinville contest!), I never quit being a huge Earl Scruggs admirer. I met him in person when I was 12, and attended many summer festivals at which his old playing partner Lester Flatt performed with his Nashville Grass group. The Earl Scruggs Revue, starring Scruggs and his three musician sons — Gary, Randy and Steve — took the stage at some point during these festivals, too. It was magical to be around this scene as a youngster.

Later, as a professional musician, I was invited to perform on Earl Scruggs’ second instrumental album, an album he loved doing because it featured his sons. I was the only additional instrumentalist invited to record with them; it was an amazing week of recording for me, because I felt like I was invited to the Scruggs dinner table as another brother, just hanging out and hearing lots of wonderful stories, and seeing how the Scruggs boys revered their legendary father.

Just last December, I was invited to play with Earl and Randy Scruggs again, this time at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. I was proud to do so. I showed up to the rehearsal and camera blocking and I assumed that I was going to be a part of a bigger band with Earl. But they decided it was going to be just a trio, made up of Earl, Randy and myself. Once again, I was able to share such a wonderfully close time with one of the legendary musicians of American music, a man who invented and made popular a great music tradition.

And, by the way, ol’ Earl tore it up! The audience loved it. Surely a musical highlight of the night for them. It was there at the Kennedy Center Honors that I invited Earl Scruggs to be a part of SummerFest. What a fitting closing finale for our festival!

Mark O’Connor

Earl Scruggs and an array of artists, including Abigail Washburn’s Sparrow Quartet featuring Béla Fleck, perform on July 14 to round out SummerFest 2008. Want tickets? (Really, who wouldn’t want tickets?) Grab them here.

It’s a banjo bonanza! Last week, we blogged the Benaroya Hall debut of the up-and-coming Sparrow Quartet, featuring the cross-cultural stylings of Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck. This week, we’re shouting out to the legendary Earl Scruggs, banjo master and bluegrass icon. Here’s a peek at just a few of his many accomplishments:

  • Scruggs Style. Scruggs was instrumental (pun intended) in developing and popularizing the three-finger style of banjo picking — one which allows for more expressivity, precision and versatility — now referred to as the Scruggs Style.
  • Major Kudos. He is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, holds a National Medal of Arts Award and has a star embedded in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. What’s more, in 2005, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum dedicated special tribute in honor of his contribution to the world of music.
  • Recordings, recordings, recordings. Scruggs’s discography includes more than 30 CDs and DVDs, including solo albums, as well as those recorded with Lester Flatt and as part of the Earl Scruggs Revue. Even more impressive? Scruggs has worked with some of the biggest names in music, including The Byrds, Maybelle Carter, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Dan Fogelberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Kenny Loggins, Waylon Jennings, Linda Ronstadt and Loudon Wainwright III, among others.
  • Long Live the Legacy! Now 84 years old, Earl Scruggs is in his sixth decade as a recording artist, and still going strong. This past February, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards, joining the impressive ranks of Doris Day, Cab Calloway and Itzhak Perlman.
  • And speaking of Grammys… Scruggs has snagged not one, but two Grammy Awards for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” now a bluegrass standard. Watch him pick this iconic tune on the David Letterman Show with actor, comedian and fellow banjo player Steve Martin (with whom he won the second Grammy) below:

Banjo-ista Abigail Washburn brings her Sparrow Quartet — featuring Béla Fleck on banjo, Casey Driessen on violin, and Ben Sollee on cello — to Seattle for an evening of folk and bluegrass, all in the Quartet’s signature East-meets-West style. Want a taste? Check the video:

The powerhouse foursome performs alongside banjo icon Earl Scruggs on July 14. We can’t wait.

Get tickets.