An All-Star Session With a Banjo Legend

Randy Lewis is a Times staff writer

What: "Earl Scruggs & Friends," the first new album in 17 years from the 77-year-old bluegrass banjo master.

When: In stores Tuesday.

Who: Scruggs, with sons Randy (who also produced the album) and Gary Scruggs, teams with Elton John, Sting, John Fogerty, Johnny Cash, Don Henley, Melissa Etheridge, Dwight Yoakam, Rosanne Cash, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Martin, Vince Gill, Leon Russell, Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt.

Why: The man who practically invented the three-fingered style of bluegrass banjo playing during his tenure with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys says that after recovering from a hip replacement and heart surgery four years ago, he felt better than he had in ages. He was eager to return to the recording studio--but only for a special project with numerous artists whose music he admired. He let each musician pick the songs they recorded: John chose "Country Comfort," from Scruggs' 1971 album, "Tumbleweed Connection"; Fogerty selected the bluegrass standard "Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,"; and lifelong banjo enthusiast Martin jumped in on "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."

Quoth the Father: On approaching "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" for the umpteenth time, Scruggs says, "With all these artists participating, it was almost like a new song again. It's the same old song for sure, but it had that feeling for me." On bluegrass music falling in and out of the public eye over time: "It'll always come back. Any good music is going to stay around. It'll always have its peaks and valleys, but it'll always stay around.... Seeing young kids playing banjo, to see what these little 10-or 12-year-old kids can do in bluegrass and other forms of country music, it's very encouraging and exciting."

Quoth the Son: Son Randy says, "Historically, Dad has always been partial to collaborative efforts--he's always been really stimulated and inspired by playing with other great artists and instrumentalists.... But this album was mainly to celebrate Dad's playing abilities right now. It's just amazing what he's doing on the banjo at this point. The idea was just to be really creative, not put any barriers or walls up and just create music for the sake of enjoying the music."

First Stops: "Fill Her Up," written and sung by Sting, begins as a pure bluegrass jaunt that evolves into characteristic Sting pop-rock; "Passin' Thru," a hauntingly confessional bluegrass-gospel number written by Cash and Randy Scruggs and sung by Cash and Henley; "Borrowed Love," an old-timey style tale of forbidden love written by Yoakam, and Earl and Randy Scruggs.

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