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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.

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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.

Mark O'ConnorI first met Chris Thile when he was 12 years old. I remember him being a really nice kid who seemed very talented on the mandolin. He and his dad were hanging out at the Gibson booth at the NAMM convention in L.A.

I saw him next in Nashville, around the time that I was leaving there to live in California. This was 1997, and I believe he was about 16 years old. He was playing at the Station Inn with a singer and some other high-profile acoustic players. I thought that, while Nashville loses one acoustic player in myself, at the same time it gains Chris Thile; a pretty fair trade. The trade actually was a little more ironic, in that I ended up moving to a section of North San Diego County just a few miles from where Chris was born and raised — and he’d just left the area the year before I got there.

We met up again when he came over to my place in San Diego while visiting his band mates. We spent the better part of the day hanging out, doing relaxing things and talking a lot. At that time, I began thinking about a way to accomplish my Thirty-Year Retrospective recording project, and I invited Chris to join me in the recording.

The very next year, though, Chris’ group Nickel Creek turned in their debut, self-titled record with Alison Krauss as producer that was a winner. Just a super album, and the sales and fame began to climb rapidly. Within a year, they were at a gold album status with more to come.

For me, though, it became a little frustrating because my album project was nearly impossible to schedule with Chris and his career on rapid-fire acceleration. If it hadn’t been for Chris’ desire to record my retrospective with me (which consisted of a lot of music that in fact influenced Chris in his formative years), the project may not have happened.

The recording took place in Nashville after three days of rehearsals, with additional pre-rehearsal, solo study time. The recording took place in front of a live audience in three concerts over three days. The result was 2 1/2 hours of music that was some of the finest acoustic and bluegrass-styled music I have ever been able to do. Chris Thile was integral in the project. Without him, the double CD would never have transpired.

Few people are irreplaceable, and certainly not for great lengths of time if so. At that time, there was not another player that could have made my Thirty-Year Retrospective possible. Thanks, Chris.

Mark O’Connor

Mark O’Connor teams up with Chris Thile and his new group, Punch Brothers, on July 2. Add O’Connor’s own “Hot Swing,” with vocals by international jazz sensation Sophie Milman, and you’ve got a show you won’t want to miss. Want tickets? Get ’em here.

Seattle is kicking off summer in style this year, with the weatherman calling for sun and summery temperatures (well, for Saturday, at least). Planning to get out and catch some rays? Stroll through the West Edge Chalk Walk or Fremont Fair and Solstice Parade? Maybe take in a baseball game or two?

Pump up for that great American pastime with Punch Brothers’ version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” that old saw of the seventh-inning stretch which celebrates its 100th birthday this summer.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Like what you see? Don’t miss Punch Brothers at Benaroya Hall on July 2, when they perform alongside SummerFest Director Mark O’Connor and his own “Hot Swing,” featuring vocal jazz sensation Sophie Milman.

And check back next week for Mark O’Connor’s take on meeting Punch Brothers’ own mandolin master, Chris Thile!

Video courtesy ESPN.