Steve Kaufman always lets the instructors have Friday morning off while the campers participate in the band scramble so I had a lovely sleep in!
Yesterday was a busy day at camp with one class scramble, one regular class, one private lesson, and another Master class. For the class scramble each instructor gets to pick any music-related topic in the world to talk about for two hours and any of the students can attend. Naturally, I chose to talk about my book! As I walked into the building where my teaching room in, I met one of my beginning students coming out. He said he'd wanted to attend my Scramble but when he got up there, it was all women, so he thought he'd go somewhere else. I told that to the women when I got up there, and one of them said, "Now he knows how we feel!" I spent a wonderful two hours talking about the women in my book with other women who actually know something about bluegrass. That made it much more fun for me.
I'm feeling a sermon coming on, so if you're already a member of the choir, you can skim this part--or go to sleep which is what I frequently did when I was in the choir! ...continue reading
When I listen to quite a few modern bluegrass bands, one thing I hear is the banjo. Playing and playing. Loudly. All the time. Through the vocals. Through the choruses. Through the other instruments' breaks. And most of the time, the banjo player doesn't seem to be listening to the rest of the band, but is just playing his own [or her own!] favorite licks and droning rolls over and over. It's as if he thinks the rest of the band is playing and singing along with him! --- he's not thinking of listening and playing together with the group. The banjo is the giant in overshoes, stepping on everybody else's music.
But when I listen to old Flatt & Scruggs records, although Earl's the best banjo player in the world, he's not stepping over anybody else. Earl keeps his banjo out of the way of the vocals and other instruments, and never crowds the music or detracts from it. And that was part of the magical Flatt & Scruggs band sound, one reason why it was so good and so many people liked it.
There was an article about Earl in a recent issue of the Fretboard Journal. In it, John McCuen quoted Earl about backing up a lead singer: "If he's singing low I play high, and if he's singing high, I play low." Earl talks just like he plays, expressing the most with the fewest words! Just fourteen words, and he said so much! When he's backing up a singer, Earl's not just playing, he's listening. Earl's not there to show off his banjo licks. He's there to make the music sound better. He LISTENS while he's playing, to make sure he complements the music and doesn't intrude or cover anybody else up.
Earl's a musical genius, but you don't have to be one to follow his rule. Listen to his records to get the idea, and then keep it in mind when you're playing with others yourself. When you're playing the banjo in a group, don't let your banjo step on everybody else. Make the banjo be part of the group, not the giant in overshoes! Make yourself part of the music. That's How to Do It!
Earl Scruggs, with family and friends, played at the Ryman last week to kick off the Springer Mountain Farms Bluegrass at the Ryman concert series. He has played this series several times before, but this is the first time I’ve ever been free to go see him at the venue where he made bluegrass history when he stepped on the Grand Ole Opry stage with Bill Monroe. I hadn’t planned on going, but in the middle of teaching a lesson that afternoon it struck me—how the heck can I call myself a banjo player if I’m in town and Earl is playing and I don’t go see him? So I bought my ticket— at 5:00 that afternoon—and got a great seat in the tenth row (there are some advantages to attending concerts by oneself).
The Infamous Stringdusters opened the show, and Earl took the stage after intermission. I only had eyes for Earl, but for the sake of completeness I’ll tell you who else he had playing with him: Bryan Sutton (guitar), Jon Randall (guitar, mando), Randy Scruggs (elec. guitar), Gary Scruggs (bass), John Gardner (percussion), Hoot Hester (fiddle), and Rob Ickes (Dobro).
They kicked off the show with “Salty Dog” and it is hard not to get goose bumps of joy to think that you are sitting there listening to Earl play IN PERSON! (I’ve included a complete set list below.) Alas Earl seemed to have a bit of a cold and kept wiping his nose, and he was playing quite far back from his microphone, requiring the sound folks to really run it hot. But those are trivial details compared to the excitement of seeing the man in person. ...continue reading