Thursday, June 7, 2012

Producer Tim Austin On "Foggy Mountain Special: A Bluegrass Tribute to Earl Scruggs"

Earl Scruggs almost single-handedly perfected and popularized the rolling, three-finger banjo technique (“Scruggs Style”) that has become the signature sound of bluegrass. Over a period of a couple of years, many of the best banjo players in bluegrass convened in Nashville to record a tribute to him. The result is the new Rounder Records' release Foggy Mountain Special: A Bluegrass Tribute To Earl Scruggs.

The producer of Foggy Mountain Special, Tim Austin, assembled a dozen of bluegrass music’s top banjo players and ten stellar backup musicians to record the 12 tunes in this collection. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Tim Austin to discuss the making of Foggy Mountain Special.

I’d like to ask you if you can first describe your own experiences and history with the music of Earl Scruggs. When did you first hear his music?

Tim Austin: My grandfather gave me two Flatt and Scruggs albums when I was about 9 years old. One of which was Live at Carnegie Hall. This got me totally into bluegrass, especially Mr. Earl Scruggs. 

How did your affinity for his work deepen?

Tim: I picked up the banjo when I was 12 years old. I bought the Earl Scruggs Banjo book and the cassette. I began my journey as all banjo players do, trying to pick like Mr. Earl.

What has his work meant to you, how has it inspired you personally over the years?

To be honest with you, I feel Mr. Earl has been a major part of my life. I feel everyone should own a banjo and experience what it can do for the mind and spirit. When Mr. Earl is playing, it's not just a banjo you hear, it's him talking through it.

In your own words, can you describe what you believe were his most significant contribution(s) to bluegrass, as well as popular music?

Tim: With Mr. Earl practically owning the 3 finger roll, he created a sound no one else had. How many folks can say that? Because of that, when you hear a banjo playing, you've got to think that Mr. Earl invented that.

With that said, there is a lot of banjo in popular music today. As far as bluegrass goes, I believe Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe created Bluegrass music. 

For listeners who may only be discovering the music of Earl Scruggs (sadly, now that he has passed), which recordings would you suggest newbies to begin with?

Tim: Well, if they aspire to play the banjo, his instrumental album is pretty much the banjo bible. I would also start with all the Live WSM recordings to hear the fire in his picking. They all are a testimony of how the banjo is played.

For casual to intermediate fans who would like to dig deeper into the Scruggs catalog, what recordings would you recommend for the adventurous listener?

Tim: Live at Carnegie Hall. 

How and when did you get the idea for composing a tribute album to Earl Scruggs?

Tim: Well, I did a Tribute to the Stanley Brothers. That album was nominated for a Grammy. After that I had in my mind to do a Bluegrass history kind of record. After trying to compile that, many of their songs basically were Mr. Earl Scruggs recording that kept coming up, so I decided I needed to show my respect to him. In 2006 I approached 2 labels about doing this project. Ken Irwin at Rounder was the most interested and we made a deal to do it.

How did you get the process started?

Tim: I picked out about 20 songs that I wanted to do. Then after talking with Ken and presenting him my list, we decided on the 12 banjo pickers to contact.

Can you talk about how you selected the banjo players and accompanying musicians for the sessions?

Tim: I picked out my favorite banjo pickers who have spent their lives wanting to pick like Mr Earl Scruggs. Most of these folks are as close as you are going to get to the real thing. These folks are all my friends, some closer than others, But we all have a mutual love and respect for Mr Scruggs.

I believe the first song was with Joe Mullins. Wow, did he come to pick or what. He not only came to pick, but his admiration for Mr. Scruggs set the tone of the first session.

I also think that when J.D. Crowe came in, this was a dream come true for me. I have always wanted to record him. We cut that song about 12 times. I think the band all wanted to play with J.D. 

What would you say the players' participation meant to them personally and in the greater context of bluegrass as far as memorializing these Scruggs tunes?

Tim: Everyone of them came because of Mr Earl. They all wanted to show their respect for Mr. Scruggs almost as if he was in the studio with us. I wished now that he would have been there. Come to think back on it, he was there.

Did you select the songs for the tribute, or did the artists?

Tim: I selected the song list and each artist picked out their own song. All except for "Nashville Skyline Rag". In the session Ron Stewart suggested that one to J.D.

I feel that all these artist had their favorite for some reason or another. Probably was their favorite one to pick.

Could you give an example of a particularly unexpected rendition of a tune that still resonates with you from the sessions?

Tim: Well, Tom Adams did his song with 2 fingers. He's like all the rest of the players wanting to show his admiration and respect as we all did for Mr. Earl. It came out awesome as he changed the arrangement around a little to accomplish it.

It also wasn't just a session, but the process of making a record to tell Mr. Earl we loved him. 

What was most rewarding for you working on this tribute?

Tim: First and foremost, it was a honest homage to Mr. Earl. The most rewarding gift would have been a smile on his face hearing it for the first time. That isn't going to happen. Now, it is a tribute to him so the whole world will know that the Bluegrass industry would not be here as we know it, if it weren't for him.

I have Flatt & Scruggs music on my Ipod. I visit with him regularly.

Regarding the tribute, I believe that the real thing can never be reproduced. We basically came at it with the intention of showing Mr. Earl how he influenced us or really made us want to play the banjo just like him.

What’s next for you?

Tim: Same as always, I would like to produce a new band who loves their music and needs a helping hand.

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