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Earl Scruggs Obituary

Posted on by pete

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.”

Pete’s 22-page chapter about Earl Scruggs and his playing in Masters of the Five String Banjo is the most in-depth overview and analysis of his style ever published. Click here for excerpts.
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40-year Country Cooking anniversary!

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First recordings of Pete Wernick and Tony Trischka, released in October, 1971.

The album 14 Bluegrass Instrumentals was Rounder Records number 0006, one of its first two bluegrass releases, that came out in October, 1971. It did well for the company in its early years, even becoming a Book of the Month Club selection, and reaching sales figures comparable to those of Hot Rize much later on.

Looking back, the album was something of a milestone, one of the first releases ever by a “Yankee” bluegrass band doing what they specialized in: creative instrumental bluegrass. The centerpiece was a number of twin-banjo arrangements Tony Trischka and I had worked up (“Theme Time”, “Farewell Blues”, “Big Ben” and several others, and it showcased the first general-distribution recordings by me and Tony, and of Russ Barenberg as well as early work of Kenny Kosek, and Harry Gilmore, then known as “Tersh”, and later known as Lou Martin. We had some original tunes (“Huckling the Berries”, “Armadillo Breakdown”), and a few other new tunes including the first recording of David Grisman’s “Cedar Hill”, Grisman’s first composition, and his first to ever to appear on record.

Despite primitive recording technology, the record sold well enough to encourage us, and within a few years all the band members were pursuing careers in music, which none of us had even dreamed of prior to making this record. That says a lot about what Rounder was making possible in those days!

While the LPs are long gone, a CD lives on, bolstered by cuts from our later albums, now called “26 Bluegrass Instrumentals“.

1971 was quite a year for bluegrass, exactly 25 years after the classic Monroe/Scruggs/Flatt/Wise/Watts band hit the recording studio. Other first rumblings that year were by Newgrass Revival, the Seldom Scene, the Country Gazette, the newly renamed J.D. Crowe and the New South, among others. Note that for the first time in bluegrass, the band names didn’t end with an “s”. Mountain-Boy hat-wearing bluegrass was entering a new stage. And here we are, 40 years later, and it all keeps evolving.

Thanks and congratulations, Rounder and my fellow Country Cooking alumni, Tony, Russ, John Miller, and Joan Wernick!

Pete

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Earl Scruggs at the Monroe Centennial (Part 3 of 3)

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What follows is reported here with some reluctance, and a measure of grief.

The eagerly-awaited performance of Earl Scruggs, Family and Friends, went off as scheduled at the Riverpark Center in Owensboro, the night of Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday. The band, including Randy and Gary Scruggs, Rob Ickes, Hoot Hester, Jon Randall, and John Gardner couldn’t have been more elite and expert.

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A Statement re Earl Scruggs at the Monroe Centennial (Sept. 13, 2011, Part 2 of 3)

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As a preface, I’ll point out that it has long been a peeve of mine (and many others in the bluegrass world) that Earl Scruggs has not always been given his due as a major driving force in the development and popularity of bluegrass music. This issue can and likely will be debated for a long time, but the more I learn about bluegrass history, the more I see that his contribution has been minimized by people who focus instead on Monroe — as the “father” (which I do think Monroe was) of bluegrass, and as the one focal point of the entire scene.

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Monroe Centennial in Owensboro, KY (Sept. 12-14, 2011, Part 1 of 3)

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I felt I could not miss this event, no matter how much it didn’t fit my schedule. It was a great time, with a lot of love, some fine music, and some special highlights that you’re bound to hear about sooner or later. Since a couple of them are somewhat momentous, and I’ve seen nothing on this list about it, I thought I’d share some highlights with you all, the hardest of the hard-core bluegrass devotees!

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Bluegrass in 2011

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I’ve continued to chew this last month on Chris Pandolfi’s thoughtful message to all of us in the bluegrass community, to the effect that the Stringdusters, in pursuit of a viable market for their music (so they can continue to stay in business and make a living), are turning to examples like Railroad Earth, whose souped up not-really-bluegrass plays to large audience of boogieing partiers… and would like that kind of music to be called “bluegrass” by the IBMA, so we can all make a viable living in this century.

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