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Bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs throws a pickin' party with some famous friends

Story by Chris Neal

Earl Scruggs settles into the living room couch in his house just south of Nashville. He points to another couch, across the room.

"Travis sat there in that seat," he says. "I don't know how many hours we played before we quit."

Travis would be Travis Tritt, and he's just one of the stars who has dropped by Earl's house for his monthly "pickin' parties" - musical free-for-alls where dozens of friends play music until the wee hours.

Not surprisingly, Travis also pops up on Earl's latest "pickin' party" - his first album in 17 years, Earl Scruggs & Friends. The CD features collaborations between Earl and a who's who of country and pop stars, including Vince Gill, Johnny Cash, Sting, Melissa Etheridge and even funnyman Steve Martin, who plays banjo on "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."

"It was exciting to do it that way - fresh talent and fresh songs and everything," declares Earl. "It's fresh all the way through!"

All the guests were big fans of the man who has turned millions on to bluegrass with his distinctive banjo picking - none more so than Elton John. When the pair recorded together in Atlanta, the British rock legend brought in an Earl Scruggs CD box set for his favorite picker to autograph.

"He said he had left his original one back in England, so he picked up a new one that I could autograph for him," recalls Earl. "I thought, 'Well, this is going to be an enjoyable session.' "

Earl assembled the album with the help of sons Randy and Gary - who both play on it - and wife and manager Louise, who wrote the poignant liner notes.

"A lot of work goes into one of those things, and we got extremely good help," admits Earl. "Randy works tireless hours, and my wife has always been a plus. She doesn't play anything, but she has a vision of how things should be done."

The result is an energetic, fun-filled album that finds the banjo master playing better than ever - a relief after a 1996 heart attack kept him from playing for a while. "I'm feeling extremely well," he reports, "and when you're feeling good, with no pain, that's the time to pick."

Earl, 77, has been picking since he was a boy growing up in Flint Hill, N.C. "I was raised up with a banjo in the house," he remembers. "There was just something about it that I'd go back to."

Very early on, Earl developed the rapid-fire, thumb-and-two-fingers picking that would come to be known as the "Scruggs style," his trademark.

"I just knew I had something different," he says. "When I came to Nashville, people would come up and say, 'How many fingers do you have?' "

He joined Bill Monroe's band in 1945, helping lay the foundation for the bluegrass sound. In 1948, he and guitarist Lester Flatt left to form the legendary Flatt & Scruggs, popularizing bluegrass around the world with hits like "The Ballad Of Jed Clampett" and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." When Flatt & Scruggs split in 1969, Earl started the Earl Scruggs Revue with sons Gary, Randy and Steve.

"With that hard-driving banjo style, he gave bluegrass music its definitive sound," explains friend and fan Vince Gill. "Earl is to the banjo what Chet Atkins was to the guitar."

Along the way, Earl has always been energized by playing with musicians from different generations and styles, a habit that continues with Earl Scruggs & Friends. "That's really extended my interest in music," he reveals. "I didn't get a chance to get stale and settle down on what I'd done years ago."

And as long as Earl's work is fresh and exciting to him, he'll keep right on playing. "I've never toyed with the idea of retiring at all," he confesses. "It's just part of my life."