A trip to North Carolina to study bluegrass yielded this lesson: Earl Scruggs was the greatest there ever was
I spent a couple of months last year studying bluegrass in North Carolina, and I learned that there are is one tune you never ask a banjo player to play for you. Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Earl Scruggs's most famous instrumental, is a tune so familiar, so oft-played, that even suggesting it at a jam will mark you out as an idiot know-nothing newcomer. It's the equivalent of self-identifying as a Trekkie, when the correct term is Trekker.
If you know one banjo tune – well, if you only know one – it's probably Duelling Banjos, and you probably heard it in the film Deliverance, or in one of the endless pastiches you can now watch on YouTube (my favourite is this one from Father Ted). But if you know two, then the other one, I will bet you now, was written by Earl Scruggs. Scruggs was the most influential banjo player there has ever been: he was banjo's Bach, Beethoven and Bob Dylan all rolled into one. He pioneered the three-finger style of picking responsible for the sound you hear whenever you think of the instrument's fleet-fingered, jangling sound. Until then, banjo players was played in the traditional "clawhammer" style – Scruggs's use of the third finger allowed him to play the driving arpeggios that we associate with banjo music today.
It became a surprise top 10 hit in Australia and still gets played in clubs and karaoke halls. So why has the song’s appeal endured?
It starts with a slinky, bass-licked groove before the vocals come in: “Whispering our goodbyes, waiting for a train / I was dancing with my baby in the summer rain.”
That may not be the most distinctive opening, but Belinda Carlisle’s Summer Rain makes the most of such universal scene-setting, unlocking its full power-ballad potential with a sultry slow build, funky string accents and one hell of a heart-on-sleeve chorus.
Artists such as Lorde, Sparks, the Moody Blues and Metallica bring changes of pace to a prog-heavy playlist with twists and turns
Here is this week’s playlist – songs picked by a reader from hundreds of stories and suggestions on last week’s callout. Thanks for taking part. Read more about how our weekly series works at the end of the piece.
Augusta Holmès’ compositions won awards and acclaim from admirers including Liszt and Saint-Saëns, so why is she, and so many of her female contemporaries, all but forgotten today?
Augusta Holmès was a remarkably gifted French composer, pianist and singer with a voice of extraordinary range and colour. Rossini told an audience after one of her early concerts: “Mark my words, you will hear a lot more from her. Remember that Rossini told you this.” Liszt wrote that the works by her male contemporaries were mere trifles compared to her 1870 opera Astarté.
She was a prolific composer of music conceived for large forces. She wrote her own texts and libretti, and took part in designing sets and costumes for her operas. She was well connected in Paris’s cultural circles, counting among her friends and supporters Saint-Saëns (who repeatedly proposed marriage), César Franck, Vincent d’Indy, Stéphane Mallarmé, Rodin and Renoir, who painted her three daughters.
One critic of the 19th century wrote, 'We do not want to open the doors of our opera houses to women composers'
As they release new single Thought Contagion, Matt Bellamy and Dominic Howard will answer your questions on Friday, 16 February
Apparently Muse never sleep: five months after they signed off touring for 2017, the Devonshire band are back. Their new single Thought Contagion will be unveiled this Thursday – and fans can grill frontman Matt Bellamy and drummer Dominic Howard all about it in a webchat from 12.00pm GMT on Friday 16 February.
Muse have been cagey about what fans can expect from the follow-up to their 2015 album, Drones. This new release might not even be an album, but a series of EPs and standalone singles in the vein of last year’s Dig Down. In 2017, Muse bassist Chris Wolstenholme said the band were conscious of how fans consume music in the streaming age: “There’s so much emphasis on individual songs, that there was no reason why we couldn’t do that,” he told Music Feeds.
Katy Perry has expressed regret at the stereotypes peddled on her debut single. She’s not the only artist who has attempted to distance herself from badly aged material
What a difference a decade makes. “If I had to write that song again, I probably would make an edit on it,” Katy Perry recently told Glamour magazine of her 2009 breakthrough hit, I Kissed a Girl. “Lyrically, it has a couple of stereotypes in it. Your mind changes so much in 10 years, and you grow so much. What’s true for you can evolve.”
Given that I Kissed a Girl is little more than a piece of titillation – “I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it / It felt so wrong / It felt so right” – I’m not at all sure removing a couple of stereotypes from it would make much difference. And there was no mention from Perry of her contemporaneous and even more are-you-really-sure-you-want-to-go-there Ur So Gay.
It’s hard to know where to begin with a back catalogue that takes in 30 studio albums, hundreds of songs and somehow assimilates everything from rockabilly to techno to jazz to krautrock to classical music into a uniquely identifiable and inimitable “Fall sound”. When I first attempted to distil the labyrinthine Fall canon and into a mere 10 songs I started with a list of 23 and by later the same evening had somehow “whittled it” down to double the figure. In the end, I decided to start where it began for me: my favourite track on my first and still favourite Fall album, 1980’s Grotesque (After the Gramme).
Dwyer has released 21 albums with Thee Oh Sees – and 20 other records that range from German industrial electronics to heavy metal. He gives the backstories about key tracks in his vast back catalogue
‘My motto is: try everything, life is short,” says John Dwyer, the leader of San Francisco garage rockers Thee Oh Sees. “We are growing at every turn. Every day you get a little older, a little closer to the grave – you should taste it all.”
A master of contemporary garage rock, he came into prominence as part of the fruitful San Francisco scene of the early 2000s. Since then Thee Oh Sees have rattled out 21 LPs of bewilderingly consistent quality, under various iterations of their name, and Dwyer has written, recorded and released another 20 albums with other collaborators, encompassing everything from industrial electronics to improvised jazz and death metal.
The DJ and all-round music evangelist will be joining us to answer even your nerdiest pop questions on Wednesday 29 November at 1pm
“DJ” feels like a bit of a reductive term for what Annie Mac does. Sure, her job mainly involves playing records, in clubs or the radio. But more accurately she’s an irrepressible music evangelist, bringing exciting new artists to wider attention and tirelessly extolling the virtues of music.
Since 2004, the Dublin native has been a constant, reassuring presence on Radio 1. She currently helms the early evening show, formerly the province of Zane Lowe and Steve Lamacq, where the hottest record of the day is ordained and inevitably goes on to become a massive crossover hit. In 2009 she started her regular Annie Mac Presents club nights and compilation albums – her ninth one is due out this week, and she’ll be hoping it replicates the success of the previous five by topping the iTunes chart.
Ahead of Chance the Rapper’s bow as the emcee of SNL, we take a look at his musical forebears who have pleased, shocked and nosedived over the years
This weekend, Chance the Rapper will take the stage to host Saturday Night Live, leaving the musical guest duties to Eminem. Last weekend, Taylor Swift rejoined the late-night sketch institution for a couple of songs, but she also handled full hosting responsibilities back in 2009. Ever since Paul Simon emceed the second-ever episode back in 1975, SNL has granted adventurous musicians the opportunity to try their hand at sketch work.
Episodes hosted by nonprofessional actors are always dicey; there are few experiences more exquisitely painful than watching a good-natured quarterback stumble his way through a commercial parody. Musicians generally have a better go of things, channeling their natural stage presence into a more precise format. But when they tank, they tank hard. We’ve surveyed Saturday Night Live’s long history of turning the host’s mic over to music stars.