From Beethoven to Emily Dickinson and Earl Scruggs: The Musical Archaeology of Tony Trischka

It is natural that a second generation bluegrass banjo player would have soaked up as much of Earl Scruggs’ style on the five string as possible when starting out; it is just as natural that they would push outside of those boundaries of the territory staked out by their pioneering forebears. In Tony Trischka’s case, part of this instinct to turn bluegrass on its head early on in his career involved doing things like adding saxophone to an instrumental version of “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms”, which began with a cacophonous drum solo. Now, we find the habitual trailblazer discovering and reinterpreting never before heard jams from none other than Earl Scruggs himself. It is a bit of a full circle moment, although that is not to say that Tony Trischka ever left the traditional bluegrass fold, either. He is and always was a banjo renaissance man, respected by fans of the roots music avant-garde and the three finger roll alike.

In the past couple of years in his now nearly sixty year career, Tony Trischka has been excitedly traveling down an even deeper Earl Scruggs rabbit hole than even he could ever have imagined. Already at work on another book of re-transcriptions of Earl Scruggs’ music, which had previously been transcribed by guitar players, a friend named Bob Piekel sent Tony over 200 home recordings of Earl made by John Hartford, which included other greats like Tony Rice, Mac Wiseman and Del McCoury playing for fun over many years in the 1980s and 1990s. These tapes revealed a side of Earl’s playing, both in style and repertoire, that no one outside of those small circles of musicians ever heard, including multiple versions of songs like “Gentle on My Mind” and “Here Comes the Bride”; Earl playing blues licks on “Cripple Creek”; syncopations that he used only in those private settings. Brimming with inspiration, Tony Trischka crafted an album based on the John Hartford tapes, bringing in players like Sam Bush, Molly Tuttle, Michael Cleveland, Billy Strings and Mark Schatz, to record his new collection titled Earl Jam: A Tribute To Earl Scruggs

Tony Trischka plays banjo alongside Darol Anger on fiddle

Just after Earl Scruggs’ 100th birth anniversary, and just ahead of his own 75th trip around the sun, I sat with Tony Trischka at the Earl Scruggs Center following his performance at the Remembering Earl concert, which included the Travelin’ McCourys and Jerry Douglas. This episode contains the bulk of that conversation, which was also partially excerpted in our earlier episode titled “An Update, and Two Quick Takes With Tony Trischka and Travis Book”, which includes a portion of Tony’s interview that does not appear here.

Songs heard in this episode:

“John Henry Medley: John Henry/Bonaparte’s Retreat/Twists and Turns” by Tony Trischka, from Territory

“Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” by Tony Trischka, from Heartlands, excerpt

“Quite Early Morning” by Pete Seeger, from Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, excerpt

“Dooley” by Tony Trischka, featuring Molly Tuttle and Sam Bush”, from Earl Jam: A Tribute To Earl Scruggs

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This series is a part of the lineup of both public radio WNCW and Osiris Media, with all of the Osiris shows available here. You can also hear new episodes on Bluegrass Planet Radio here.

Thanks to Mary Beth Martin and Zach Dressel at the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby, North Carolina for all their help in setting up my interview with Tony Trischka, and to Corrie Askew for producing the radio adaptations of this series on public radio WNCW, where we worked with Joshua Meng, who wrote and performed our theme songs.  This is Southern Songs and Stories: the music of the South and the artists who make it. – Joe Kendrick