Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Flatt & Scruggs: All Time Great Recordings

OK, I know it's not fair to judge an entire career on the strength of a greatest hits Lp, but you've gotta start somewhere, right? True confession time: I've come to country music late in my musical life. In my youth, I was a rocker, period - there was only rock and roll. Classical? Obsolete. Country? Hick music. Especially hillbilly stuff like Flatt & Scruggs -- that was music for a generation of Dust Bowl refugees, as far as I was concerned. Wisdom doesn't always come with age, but often, you do have to wait a while until all the parts of your brain fill out, yeah?

So, again, I've come to country and roots music late. I think it started in the 90s with the Alt-Country movement - I was playing Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and Golden Smog on the radio, and these guys had a sound I liked a lot. Which led to digging further into their influences, and hearing Lyle Lovett, Roseanne Cash and Rodney Crowell. Which in turn led to Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. And from there... well, here we are.

Now I'm first to admit that bluegrass, as a style, is an acquired taste. Pickin' and grinnin' don't go down so easy with everyone. But if you don't appreciate Flatt and Scruggs, you can't really appreciate the Greateful Dead or the Doobie Brothers -- no, really; you can draw a straight line between them.

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were two of country's biggest stars, starting in the 1940s and going straight into the '70s. Flatt, who possessed the archetypal country voice and the ability to play guitar, teamed with Scruggs, a truly inventive banjo player - an innovator on the same level as Les Paul. He actually invented a three-fingered way of picking the banjo that gave his runs a sound no one else could duplicate.

Flatt & Scruggs were big in the '40s with the hillbilly cats, but when the '50s folk music revival came on, they got really big, scoring a string of Country Top 40 hits that ran for most of the '60s. They finally broke through to the general audience with the theme songs to "Beverly Hillbillies" and "Petticoat Junction", as well as the film score to "Bonnie & Clyde".

This two-record set was issued about 1970, and contains 20 songs that were pretty big winners chartwise during the 1960s. It's a good showcase for Flatt & Scruggs' talent ("Foggy Mountain Breakdown"), humor ("99 Years Is Almost For Life"), influence ("Salty Dog Blues"), and country sentiment ("When Papa Played the Dobro"). Some of the music is just stunning - "Foggy", of course, is a seminal country song that's been covered by nearly everyone of note who could lay claim to proficiency with banjo or fiddle over the past 60 years. Other songs show that they were in touch with changing times - first a cover of Johnny Cash's 1958 smash "I Still Miss Someone", then a downhome version of Mel Tillis' "Detroit City".

There's nothing here from their '40s or '50s catalog, of course, but this set is what it is - a decade's retrospective from a duo who'd made their mark, and then some. If you see it, pick it up! Mine cost me a whole dollar in a ratty thrift store, and I consider it the find of the month, no doubt. The entire country-rock movement of the early '70s would not have happened but for these two.

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