Randy Scruggs - The Nashville Cats

First Published in Country Music International – September 1998

“I’ve had a lot of opportunities over the years, certainly because of my dad,” reflects Randy Scruggs. “But what was important to me, both as an artist and as a musician, was to cut my own path as well.”

Music is full of one-pace talents—a profound thinker who can’t sing or play, or a technical monster with a bad case of knob twiddles. But there is also a rare group of artists and musicians that makes lasting, substantive music—and Randy Scruggs is one. After years spent building notable success as an award-winning producer, hit songwriter and distinguished session musician, Scruggs has finally stepped into the spotlight with his first solo album CROWN OF JEWELS.

The son of legendary bluegrass banjo player Earl Scruggs, as a producer Randy counts Waylon Jennings, Sawyer Brown and Earl Thomas Conley among his many clients; he has penned hits for Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, and most recently Deanna Carter’s We Danced Anyway, and as a session musician has played with Rosanne Cash, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ricky Skaggs, and dozens more.

Randy grew up in a musical environment that most aspiring musicians could only dream about. As a youngster he came into regular contact with bluegrass picker friends of his father, not to mention the legendary Mother Maybelle and members of the Carter Family and even country-rockers such as Roger McGuinn and the Byrds. Music came naturally to Randy and his brothers, Gary and Steve, but he never felt overawed or pressurised to play an instrument.

“The whole family environment was one where we picked up instruments and played at home,” Scruggs relates. “Not in a professional environment, but in a home family environment, because we just loved to play music. We were inspired each day to continue to learn new things on our instruments, so it was a very, natural experience.”

“The first instrument I ever played, was when I was six years old,” he continues. “Mother Maybelle Carter had left an autoharp that I started playing on. Maybelle actually baby-sat for us for a few years—there was that sort of personal relationship between our family and The Carter Family.”

Randy recalls those early childhood memories on his album, playing autoharp behind the fragile voices of Emmylou Harris and Iris Dement on a beautiful version of the Carter Family classic Wildwood Flower. Like the other Scruggs boys, Randy was not a one-instrument picker. He can vividly remember going out on the road with Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, and it was then that he started playing guitar, banjo and mandolin.

“There were a lot of those bluegrass influences,” he explains. “But I had also met and been able to spend a lot of time with Doc Watson, who played a style of guitar called flat-picking. I really, really loved, and focused in on that, and became a flat-picker on acoustic guitar.” 

He had started playing concerts with Flatt & Scruggs when he was nine and also made regular appearances on their syndicated TV series. By the time he was 13, he was playing sessions and guesting with other artists. He fondly remembers being pulled out of middle school so he could record an album with country-great Waylon Jennings, a mentor who taught him an early lesson about individualistic expression. Shortly after high school, Randy teamed up with his brother Gary to form the Scruggs Brothers, releasing a pair of albums on Vanguard Records.

Randy, Gary and younger brother Steve later joined forces with their father to form the Earl Scruggs Revue. That was in 1969, and it caused a furore throughout both bluegrass and country music circles. It marked the end of the famed Flatt & Scruggs partnership as the Scruggs family band deserted bluegrass and acoustic music for a pioneering electric country-rock sound.

“Flatt & Scruggs were beginning to record songs by contemporary writers at that time,” Randy recalls, “like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Simon & Garfunkel songs. Dad has always loved a lot of different forms of music and been inspired by that, and with what was going on at that time, he was ready to try some different things.”

Randy stayed with the Earl Scruggs Revue for a dozen years, and when not out on the road, he maintained a pretty busy studio schedule, playing on recordings for Linda Ronstadt, Jonny Cash, Ricky Skaggs and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (including the group’s monumental WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN album), becoming one of Music City’s most sought after and respected studio performers. In 1980, Guitar Player magazine named him one of America’s top guitarists.

“Performing with my father and brothers was one of the most special times in my life,” says Scruggs. “We were creating a unique musical statement through a blend of traditional instrument sounds along with the electrified excitement of a contemporary format that reflected a new generation and time. Eventually, I left the band to build a recording studio in Nashville, not only to focus on a solo career, but at some point to develop, through the studio into doing production and songwriting for other artists.”

Within two months of opening the studio, Waylon Jennings asked him to produce his IT’S ONLY ROCK & ROLL album. As he was wrapping that project up, in came a new band called Sawyer Brown, and the album projects just started stacking up. At the same time, he started working with Earl Thomas Conley, not only producing, but also co-working, and that association marked the real beginnings of Randy Scruggs the songwriter.

“It was Earl who changed my whole approach to songwriting,” Randy explains. “He’s a poet. I remember Your Love’s On The Line, the first song we co-wrote, as being the moment when I realised for the very first time, the real craft, the beauty of creating a song.” 

Plans for a solo career went flying out the window as Randy immersed himself in studio work, songwriting and the occasional live gig. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s second volume of WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN in 1989 won the CMA Album of the Year, as well as four Grammy awards. Scruggs’s rendition on the album of Amazing Grace earned him a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental. A few years later he produced the compilation RED HOT + COUNTRYa benefit album for AIDS research, and was also at the helm of KEITH WHITLEY-TRIBUTE ALBUM, the record that spawned Alison Krauss & Union Station’s When You Say Nothing At All.

However, he still harboured a dream to pursue a career as a solo artist. A chance conversation with Jim Ed Norman, head of Warner/Reprise Nashville, led to him realising a lifelong goal. “We were just having an informal conversation, talking about dreams and goals, and is there anything that you haven’t done that you would really love to do,” Randy explains. 

“And we discussed my hopes of doing an album and setting out on a solo career, and he was really intrigued by that. He signed me as an artist almost there and then and that just set the ball rolling.” 

The resulting album, CROWN OF JEWELS, was much more than just a labour of love for Randy—it was the culmination of a lifetime of experience. He got to co-write with idols, lifelong friends and musical colleagues like Johnny Cash, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rosanne Cash. Singers and musicians from all musical persuasions were literally queuing up for the chance to work with this behind-the-scenes hero on his debut solo record.

The resulting album has a musical thread running through it, woven delicately and brilliantly by Scruggs to form an authentic musical tapestry. “Bringing together the talent, fitting the artists and songs, seemed closer to directing a movie than making an album,” says Randy. “I was given a tremendous amount of responsibility in my hands. I felt responsible for each artist and how they were represented on the album. It raised the bar for what I ultimately wanted to achieve.”