Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine, May, 2012
A few hours after hearing of Earl Scruggs’ passing, a flood of thoughts and memories is with me… and I’m sure with many of you.
Quite a large number of musicians, from highly influential ones to unknown ones, can tell you exactly when they first heard Earl Scruggs on a record or on radio or TV, or live — and how it transformed them. How many people in human history, just playing a musical instrument, have caused such a powerful and widespread effect?
Earl’s unique accomplishments make a staggering list:
* There is perhaps no musician in history whose way of playing a particular instrument has been more central to the popularity of that instrument, for an extended time, in this case over a half-century… and counting. To this day, 3-finger style bluegrass banjo is generally called simply, “Scruggs style”.
* Perhaps foremost for B.U. readers: There are only two individuals without whom there would be no bluegrass music as we know it today. Their colossal careers both stretched well over a half-century. Bill Monroe performed from the 1930s into the 90s. Earl was a professional picker in the 30s and was still playing on stage through 2011 – a force in no less than nine decades. For all the contributions of so many other greats, these are the two men without whom “bluegrass as we know it’” just wouldn’t have happened.
* The instrumental pieces created by Earl (Foggy Mt. Breakdown, Shuckin’ the Corn, Earl’s Breakdown, Foggy Mt. Special, Ground Speed, Lonesome Road Blues and so many more) remain the most-studied and most-played banjo instrumentals, worldwide, just as they have been since the 1950s. Players struggle to play them “right”, or “just like Earl.” They represent familiar common ground for all bluegrass banjo players. This dominance of one person in creating the core repertoire of an instrumental style is unparalleled.
* Since the 1940s, Earl inspired untold thousands of people to start playing banjo so they could sound like him. In the 1960s his instruction book and record made that process much easier, if still difficult. With the advent of home video, Earl thought of doing a teaching video, and discussed it over a period of years with this writer, but the project never came to fruition.
* For all his greatness on the banjo, Earl’s influence as a bandleader and his expertise as both a 3-finger guitar player and harmony singer were linchpins in the Flatt & Scruggs sound that carried bluegrass far and wide as its preeminent band from 1948-69. The Foggy Mt. Boys’ ultra-precise, powerful-yet-relaxed good-humored music and presentation were a reflection of Earl’s and Flatt’s personalities and musicianship. The recent release of 10 hours of their early 60s TV shows establishes the down-to-earth genius and power of that band.
* The banjo Earl acquired in 1948, that he played for the next 64 years, a flathead Gibson Mastertone (1934 Granada), became the prototype banjo for use in bluegrass music, and the foundation for all bluegrass banjo designs since. It was late in his career that Gibson finally formed a relationship with the innovator responsible for decades of their banjo sales, and the Earl Scruggs model became the industry standard for a long period following. Earl was also responsible for such innovations as the hooks (sometimes called “pins” or “spikes”) used for raising the 5th string, the Scruggs-Ruben capo, and his well-known D-tuners (“Scruggs pegs”).
* When it comes to awards and lifetime-achievement designations, Earl received about any that can be named. But beyond those, his jaw-dropping recordings of just two tunes, The Ballad of Jed Clampett and Foggy Mt. Breakdown, heard worldwide over a period of several decades, will outlast any memory of specific awards.
* In any assessment of his music and influence, Earl was likely to point out the importance of the work of his wife Louise as the manager and general caretaker of his career. Their 58 years together saw them both rise from humble rural origins to the pinnacle of success in their field, as well as being the parents of three talented sons, with whom Earl joined in the Earl Scruggs Revue for the entire 1970s — one of the happiest periods of his life.
Earl’s first acquaintance with the banjo was at home in Flint Hill, NC, hearing it played by his father and siblings. At age four, shortly after his father’s death, he heard a blind man, Mack Woolbright picking a banjo and years later said he found the sound “thrilling”. He started playing his father’s banjo sitting alongside it before he could hold it, and at age 10 the oft-told “Eureka moment” happened, when he realized he was playing a smooth 3-finger roll. He came out of his room shouting, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it!” And…. he sure had!
Earl’s smoothness and clarity was never recorded until he was 22, but it’s clear from reports of others’ reactions that Earl’s musicianship was extraordinary early on. He performed on radio and with professional bands when still in his teens, and Dec. 8, 1945, just shy of 22, landed a prime gig with Bill Mornroe’s Blue Grass Boys on the Grand Ole Opry — and suddenly became a sensation, often receiving equal billing with his boss.
Though 3-finger pickers were not uncommon in the Carolinas in the 40s, the Opry and the commercial record business at the time were a world apart and virtually unaware of that style of banjo playing. Within a few years other banjo pickers with similar styles were more widely heard, but Scruggs’ near-flawless, smooth and powerful technique and his catchy phrasings and nuances established him as the dominant force in banjo playing. His clarity and his tone, never harsh, no matter how powerful or fast… and to a great extent, his taste, economy, and keen melodic sense came together in a package of almost effortless-appearing supreme musicianship. With the success of the Flatt & Scruggs band, the exposure of his sound traveled the world.
Writers have gone to great effort to describe Earl’s style in words: Rippling, electric, hard-driving, corruscating, “lightning bolts from heaven”, machine-gun, evanescent… and that’s just a start. I ask you the reader… what words have you used to describe the sound?
As a man, Earl enjoyed his family and friends to the utmost. Earl and Louise’s home in Nashville was a welcoming place for many musicians, and his annual birthday parties were legendary. The folk and rock music taste of his sons led to a broadening of his musical ventures as well as friendships. He and Louise proudly enjoyed relationships with movie stars and celebrities as well as with friends and kin from “the old days”. For years, Earl would regularly enjoy the company of his buddies in the world of small-craft aviation, taking friends for rides and making emergency blood deliveries in rural areas. Many of the other aviators remained unaware or unconcerned with his stature as a musician.
Earl’s life was not without extreme setbacks and heartbreaks… a serious auto accident in the 50s on the way to his mother’s deathbed, causing the replacement of both hips, an unwitnessed single-plane accident hours after which he was found semiconscious on the runway, a 10-year period (the 1980s) with back problems so severe he was virtually unable to perform, emergency quadruple bypass surgery after a heart attack that fortunately occurred in a hospital, the unspeakably tragic suicide of his youngest son, Steve — and even in his 80s, a fall of more than 4 feet from the unprotected edge of a stage, his injuries causing another extended hospitalization.
Earl was by turns shy and loquacious, exacting and flexible, formidable and modest. His preferred mode was almost always “understatement”, especially in his public persona, his music, and even in his humor. He was comfortable being cordial and hospitable, and though aware of his accomplishments, wouldn’t be heard to brag or compare himself to other musicians. He revered musicians like Maybelle Carter and Doc Watson for their directness and musicality, and never seemed envious of others capable of playing beyond his limits. When asked why he didn’t play melodic or clawhammer style, he would just say “I like it, but that’s not my style.” Playing music with him was an exercise in, on one hand “trying not to think about who you’re playing with”, and the plain and simple fun of making music with a sympathetic and super-competent musician.
Earl was extremely appreciative of his fans and did not take them for granted. In later years, signing banjo heads and photographs and taking pictures with fans would occupy him for an hour or more after a show. There are even tales of star-struck musicians appearing at his door and receiving a kind welcome, such as Earl’s first meeting with a young John Hartford.
We who got to see him in person or interact with him are a large number — but a number that will no longer grow. We are the ones who as long as we live can say, “I saw Earl Scruggs.”