Album Review: Tony Trischka, ‘Earl Jam’

Tony Trischka is a banjo player’s banjo player; deeply influenced by Earl Scruggs, Trischka dwells within the rhythms and rolls of traditional bluegrass even as he ceaselessly searches for ways to innovate within that tradition. In 2020, he discovered over 200 songs and tunes from rare recordings of private jams between Scruggs and John Hartford. Trischka set about transcribing many of these pieces note-for-note, and he gathered 15 of them on his stunning tribute album to Scruggs, Earl Jam. He’s joined by an all-star cast of musicians as they celebrate Scruggs’ music and Trischka’s stylings.

The supercharged “Chinese Breakdown” rolls off slowly and then gallops off at breakneck tempo with Dominic Leslie’s scampering mandolin weaving over and around Stuart Duncan’s lithe fiddling and Trischka’s fiery banjo runs; Mike Bub’s driving bass propels the tune. Del McCoury calls off the rousing hoedown tune “Little Liza Jane,” driven by Brittany Haas’ searing fiddling with which Trischka’s rollicking banjo licks play call and response.

Trischka’s sparse, plaintive banjo notes introduce “Amazing Grace,” leading into Sierra Ferrell’s otherworldly vocals and her somber recitation in the middle of the third verse; the McCrary Sisters transport the song with their ethereal harmonies, and the soaring final verse takes us to church. Trischka is joined by Molly Tuttle on vocals and guitar, Sam Bush on vocals and mandolin, and Bronwyn Keith-Hynes on fiddle and harmony vocals on a inspiring version of the Dillards’ standard “Dooley.” Michael Cleveland’s melancholy fiddle introduces “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” before the song scampers off in a different key, riding on Trischka’s propulsive banjo rolls, Leslie’s flittering mandolin runs, and Cleveland’s and Hass’ wheeling fiddling.

Trischka’s banjo establishes a swinging tempo that’s picked up by Darol Anger’s and Casey Driessen’s fiddling and Ferrell’s and Phoebe Hunt’s and Lindsay Lou’s gorgeous vocals on “San Antonio Rose.” Trischka enlists the Gibson Brothers for a jumping version of “Lady Madonna”—which Earl Scruggs never recorded but which the Earl Scruggs Revue sometimes performed live—that features a scorching jam among Cleveland, Jacob Jolliff on mandolin, and Trischka at the end of the song. Cleveland, Trischka, Jolliff, and Dudley Connell on vocals and guitar never let their foot off the pedal on their breathless take on “Cripple Creek.” The album closes with a hand-clapping a cappella version of “Amazing Grace” on which Ferrell and the McCrarys’ raise the roof with their vocals.

Each of the 15 tracks on Earl Jam shines with a luster that glimmers as Trischka and his gathered friends cast new light on the song or tune. This little gem of an album is a perfect present to Scruggs, who would have turned 100 this year, as well as a rousing salute to Trischka’s artistry.


 Earl Jam is available HERE


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