Category: Sting

Earl Scruggs: Remembering a bluegrass and American music legend

Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt

For better or worse, Earl Scruggs will be remembered by most Americans for his banjo picking alongside partner Lester Flatt in a dated 1960s cultural artifact: “The Beverly Hillbillies." 

For better, because the style that the bluegrass legend, who died Wednesday at 88, showcases will forever live in the memories of generations. For worse, because the song threatens to define Flatt and Scruggs, as well as the whole of the uniquely American form of bluegrass music, alongside the zany, know-nothing Clampetts of Beverly Hills. That placement has helped define bluegrass to the culture at large as music for hicks who dance at hoedowns and wouldn’t know a lick about “real” music. (Credit goes to "Deliverance" and "Dueling Banjos" for furthering the cause.)

That’s a shame, because a deep listen to Flatt & Scruggs reveals something so much bigger than a few unfortunate stereotypes. The sound that Scruggs forged, a three-fingered picking style in the 1940s as a central player in Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, came to define bluegrass. When he and Flatt struck out on their own in 1948 to form the Foggy Mountain Boys, the style had woven its way into the fabric of American music. 

It’s a sound that still thrives today in the work of Alison Krauss and Union Station, Ricky Skaggs, Bela Fleck, and Abigail Washburn, among many others. Virtually every time a banjo solo comes on the radio, it’s played in a Scruggs-inspired picking style, and every time a TV character steps onto a farm, you can hear the spirit of Earl Scruggs. You can even get a taste of it on Madonna’s new album, where her song "Love Spent" opens with a Scruggs-suggestive lick. 

But that influence has spread because Scruggs never defined himself as simply a bluegrass player. As his success on the country circuit rose in the 1960s and a generation of hippies discovered the glory of the old-time country music of Bill Monroe, the Foggy Mountain Boys, the Stanley Brothers and Dock Boggs, Scruggs expanded his reach.

In 1969, his and Flatt's television show featured his banjo playing alongside the Byrds, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and in the decades following, Scruggs played alongside younger musicians -- and no doubt taught them a thing or two about the banjo. In 2001, he confirmed that influence by releasing "Earl Scruggs and Friends," which featured collaborations with Sting, Elton John and Dwight Yoakam.  

The musical ideas on that recording, along with all the others, bore witness to a visionary who picked up an instrument once used mostly by former slaves and harnessed it to create amazing energy. Scruggs and the banjo ultimately went on to tell an incredibly important American musical story.


Walk of Fame: Earl Scruggs star

Earl Scruggs lets his banjo do the talking

Earl Scruggs, bluegrass legend, dies at age 88

-- Randall Roberts

Photo: Earl Scruggs, left, and Lester Flatt performing on a TV show in 1950. Credit: GAB Archive/Redferns

Amnesty International 'Chimes of Freedom' salutes Bob Dylan's music

Bob Dylan Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan gets a broad-spectrum musical salute with the  new four-CD, 75-song multi-artist tribute album “Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan: Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International,” being released as part of anniversary efforts for the human rights organization.

Participating arists include Adele, Elvis Costello, Pete Townshend, Patti Smith, Miley Cyrus, Ke$ha, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, My Chemical Romance, Queens of the Stone Age, Sting, Sugarland, Airborne Toxic Event and the Dave Matthews Band.

Dylan was selected as the focus of Amnesty International’s latest project because 2012 also will be the 50th anniversary of the release of his debut album, “Bob Dylan.” The “Chimes of Freedom” album seeks to raise funds for and awareness of the organization that lobbies on behalf of political prisoners and victims of human rights abuses throughout the world.

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Live review: Sting at the Wiltern

Sting Sting

Sting has long been a card-carrying member of rock’s aristocracy, so even turning up uber-casual in a humble gray T-shirt and blue jeans, as he did Monday for the first of three sold-out nights at the Wiltern theater, he’s never going to come off as an Average Gordon.

The tacit -- and witty -- message underlying Sting’s new Back to Bass tour is that he’s returning to the fundamentals of his music, signaling fans that he won’t be inundating them with flights into jazz-rock, touring with a symphony orchestra or breaking out an archlute to experiment with medieval troubadour balladry, as he’s been wont to do.

To a significant extent, that’s what the packed house got in a set that ran nearly two hours and included a generous dose of the hits that originally endeared him to audiences as the intensely charismatic frontman for the Police, and then as a boundary-bending solo artist.

Few rock stars could pull off a song introduction like the one he delivered leading into “Fields of Gold,” that exquisitely romantic 1993 hit whose lyrics could well have come from the pen of a 15th century troubadour waxing poetic about the British countryside's natural beauty.

He said the song had been inspired after he and his family moved to a new house. “More of a … castle really,” he confessed, a shred of apology slipping through the wry delight he displayed as he said it.

Sting is an aristocrat musically, temperamentally and officially, ever since the queen made him a Commander of the British Empire in 2003. No dressing down fashion-wise is going to mask that. Especially not when he casually trots out songs such as “Seven Days,” with its intricately complex rhythmic structure and art-song narrative form.

His freedom to take off on such journeys was aided by the fearless instrumental support of his five-piece band; on "Seven Days" in particular by drummer par excellence Vinnie Colaiuta. Father-son guitarist Domenic and Rufus Miller added a family band vibe to the night, multi-instrumentalist Peter Tickell supplied pyrotechnics in particular on a couple of extended fiddle solos, and singer-fiddler-percussionist Jo Lawry brought chemistry to her spotlighted exchanges with the boss.

Yet Sting kept things from careening too far into the musical stratosphere by weaving them seamlessly in among equally inventive, but consistently catchy, pop-minded numbers. A couple of the numbers tapped the Police catalog (“Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” “Demolition Man”), but most of the others were from his 25-year-old solo career. That included “Fields of Gold,” the eerily atmospheric “Ghost Story,” the funky expression of love and lust that is "Sacred Love," and the show-closing encore performance of “Message in a Bottle.”  On the latter, he stowed the bass and accompanied himself on acoustic guitar for the one fully solo performance of the night.

This tour returns Sting to more intimate surroundings following the juggernaut of the Police reunion tour that inhabited arenas and stadiums, yet ironically, there were times Monday where he struggled to make a connection with the crowd. A few times he resorted to hand gestures to coax fans into singing along with refrains, or to engage with him in call and response.

As Mark Twain so adroitly showed us in “The Prince and the Pauper,” it can be hard for the aristocracy to take the pulse of the common folk without going fully undercover. But as Sting left the stage  after  three curtain calls and a roaring concluding ovation, what sprang to mind were the words of another socially astute humorist, Mel Brooks: “It’s good to be the king.”


Sting's classical effect

Making nice pays off for the Police

Sting at the Hollywood Bowl: A little bit of classical, a little bit of rock 'n' roll

-- Randy Lewis

Photo of Sting at Monday night's sold-out concert at the Wiltern. Credit: Brian vander Brug / Los Angeles Times.

Lady Gaga, Coldplay, Bruno Mars, Carrie Underwood, Sting tapped for iHeartRadio Music Festival

Billed as "the biggest live music event in radio history," the two-day festival, set for the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in September, also features Alicia Keys, Nicki Minaj and Kelly Clarkson.


Though summer has already had its fair share of big-ticket, multiday festivals, Clear Channel is kicking off fall with what it's billing as "the biggest live music event in radio history."

The radio conglomerate on Monday announced the lineup for the inaugural iHeartRadio Music Festival, and the roster for the two-day festival, set for Sept. 23 and 24 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, is quite the who’s who among Top 40.

Night 1 features performances by Coldplay, Alicia Keys, the Black Eyed Peas, John Mayer, Carrie Underwood, Bruno Mars and Jane's Addiction. While Night 2 has Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler, Kenny Chesney, Nicki Minaj, Rascal Flatts, Kelly Clarkson, David Guetta, Sublime with Rome and special guest performances by Sting and Usher.

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Album review: Sting's 'Symphonicities'

Sting Leave it to Sting to join the current craze for big-band albums not with a set of standards or cool-hunting covers but with a collection of his own songs. Even during his early days with the Police, Sting carried himself with the assured air of someone whose artistic significance was a long-established fact; a couple of decades later, he gives the impression that a search for deeper, more worthwhile material simply yielded no results.

Yet if Sting's confidence can sometimes come across as arrogance, it's also what makes "Symphonicities" work: Here's a songwriter with enough belief in his creations to risk radically retooling them. Accompanied by London's Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra (with whom he's in the midst of a world tour), Sting reimagines "Roxanne" as a lush Latin ballad and gives "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" a swelling Celtic thrust.

Not everything on the 12-track disc is such a departure: "Englishman in New York," for instance, sounds more or less like the original studio version, as does "You Will Be My Ain True Love," the singer's Appalachia-inspired contribution to the film "Cold Mountain." For those selections, perhaps Sting concluded that perfection hardly needed improving.

-- Mikael Wood



Deutsche Grammophon

Three stars (out of four)

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