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Published: 2003/08/28
by Brian Ferdman

The Three Pickers – Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Ricky Skaggs

Rounder Records 116 610 526-2

A few years ago, a producer had the ingenious idea to unite the three most
famous tenors in the opera world for one blockbuster concert. The result
was a rousing success that sold many albums. On a much smaller scale, the
same concept was recently applied as three of the most famous pickers in
bluegrass assembled for a North Carolina concert that was televised by PBS
and is now released on DVD and CD.

Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson are probably two of the most notable living
legends in the bluegrass world. Scruggs has been rightly credited with
revolutionizing banjo technique, and Watson's blend of speedy flatpicking
and resonant vocals have established a unique sound known as Mountain Music.
They are joined by multi-instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs, who is one of the
most successful bluegrass artists alive. The results of this virtuoso
combination are fantastic.

Time has certainly been kind to Scruggs and Watson. With both men in the
advanced stages of their lives, neither is showing any literal signs of
slowing down. They can still pick at a breakneck pace, and their ace
performances on this album stand in stark contrast to the litany of bloated
classic rock stars who now trudge through old hits at lagging tempos.
Skaggs is certainly in the peak of his career, and his dexterous abilities
are on display each time he switches instruments for another inspired solo.
Listeners are even treated to a rare educational performance of Skaggs'
banjo on "Soldier's Joy." He demonstrates the old-time clawhammer style of
banjo picking, while Scruggs gleefully duels in his signature three-finger

Vocally, this group utilizes a beautiful blend between Skaggs' high pitched
tenor and Watson's mellifluous baritone. Together, their passionate singing
wrings every drop of sorrow from somber ballads, such as "What Would You
Give In Exchange For Your Soul?" When special guest vocalist/fiddler Alison
Krauss joins in the fun, the harmonies become lush and swelling with
emotion. Their take on the tragic tale of unrequited love in "The Banks of
the Ohio" easily breaks the listener's heart.

In addition to The Three Pickers trio performance, each member's regular
backup band is also featured in the concert. Earl Scruggs with Family and
Friends successfully employ electronic and acoustic instruments in a
bluegrass-rockabilly hybrid sound, while Doc and grandson Richard Watson
contrast with a more traditional old-time folk feel. However, the standout
unit is easily Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. With nimble picking, they
deftly transcend genres from the traditional bluegrass of "Ridin' That
Midnight Train" to the Celtic themes of "Road to Spencer."

In the original Three Tenors concert, three massive egos engaged in a
dynamic display of one-upmanship, but that's anything but the case with The
Three Pickers. No one tries to show off, and every note serves the intent
of the song. Sure, there is some fast picking and frenetic soloing on
numbers, such as "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" and "Roll in My Sweet Baby's
Arms," but hot-dogging is thankfully absent from the concert. In fact, it's
notable that even though The Three Pickers are each prolific songwriters,
the vast majority of the songs are traditional tunes from the earlier part
of the twentieth century. This concert could have easily served as a
tribute to the individual talents of Scruggs, Watson, and Skaggs, but their
tremendous respect for the past never allows that to happen. Egos are put
in check, passionate performances are delivered, and _The Three
Pickers_ serves as a vibrant homage to the humble origins of bluegrass.

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