Final Notes, Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs, banjo player, founding father of bluegrass, and National Heritage Fellow, died in Nashville on March 28. He was 88 years old.

Scruggs was from the Flint Hill section of Cleveland County, North Carolina, near the towns of Shelby and Rutherfordton. Cleveland County is located in a swath of the Carolina mountains and foothills that in the early twentieth century was something of a thermal band of banjo innovation. Trailblazing two- and three-finger banjo players were born or lived in the area, including Wade Mainer, DeWitt “Snuffy” Jenkins, Don Reno, Mack Woolbright, and Smith Hammett. Earl Scruggs started playing the banjo when he was only four years old, around the time that his fiddle- and banjo-playing father passed away. His four siblings and mother were all musicians as well. He started by learning to play in a two-finger style, but when he was about ten years old he made a breakthrough in his attempt to learn a three-finger version of “Reuben.”

As a young man working—as so many traditional musicians in that region did—in a textile mill, Scruggs would spend breaks playing with a musician friend. Scruggs told the Nashville Tennesseean years later,

Me and Grady Wilkie would sit in the backseat of my ’36 Chevy and play music. He’d play guitar and I’d play banjo until they’d motion us to come back into the mill. That’s when I finally realized that what I was doing was of interest to other people. They’d stand around and watch us pick. One of them hadn’t heard nothing like that before, and he took his hat off, threw it on the ground and said, ‘Hot damn!’ That’s the only time I’ve run into a guy that when he got excited would throw his hat down and dance on it . . . That’s hard on a hat.

From lunch breaks in the back of his Chevy, Scruggs graduated to touring and playing on the radio with Lost John Miller and his Allied Kentuckians, out of Knoxville. During this time Scruggs’ playing caught the ear of fiddler Jim Shumate. At Shumate’s urging, Bill Monroe auditioned Scruggs for the banjo spot in his band vacated by David “Stringbean” Akeman. In December 1945, Scruggs joined Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, part of a formidable lineup that also included Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise, and Howard “Cedric Rainwater” Watts.

Of the band’s first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry with Scruggs playing the banjo, Steve Martin has written, “There aren’t many earthquakes in Tennessee, but that night there was.” Though Scruggs would only be a member of the Blue Grass Boys for a couple of years, in that time the Blue Grass Boys changed American music, establishing what many still regard as the quintessential bluegrass sound. These were the Blue Grass Boys (occasionally with Birch Monroe, rather than Watts, on bass) who made the classic Columbia recordings of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Toy Heart,” “Little Community Church,” “True Life Blues,” “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky,” “I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling,” “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” “My Rose of Old Kentucky,” “Blue Grass Breakdown,” and “Molly and Tenbrooks.”

In early 1948, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt left the Blue Grass Boys, and founded the Foggy Mountain Boys. Around the same time that he teamed up with Flatt, Scruggs married the person who would be an even more important partner in life and business, Louise Certain Scruggs. Flatt and Scruggs, with the help of Louise Scruggs—Nashville’s first female music manager—and Martha White Flour, would in time become even more successful and widely known than the Blue Grass Boys. Despite Bill Monroe’s efforts to exclude them, Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys joined the Opry in 1955. Over the years the Foggy Mountain Boys would include such stellar musicians as Shumate, Wise, Rainwater, Mac Wiseman, Buck “Uncle Josh” Graves, Curly Seckler, Benny Sims, Benny Martin, Howdy Forrester, Hylo Brown, and Jim Eanes—among many other leading lights of bluegrass.

Earl Scruggs’ banjo playing reached its widest audience beginning in 1962, when he and Flatt agreed to provide music for The Beverly Hillbillies on CBS. (Louise Scruggs objected at first, troubled by the use of the “hillbilly” stereotype, but CBS was able to convince her of their good intentions.) The show’s “Ballad of Jed Clampett” reached the top of the country charts in 1962. In 1968 he published Earl Scruggs and the Five String Banjo, which would sell more than a million copies and help bring a new generation of banjo players to the music, twenty years after the publication of Pete Seeger’s How to Play the Five-String Banjo. Flatt and Scruggs made other prominent TV appearances as well, including the theme music for Petticoat Junction. Their first Grammy would come in 1969, for the recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” popularized in the movie Bonnie and Clyde.

Flatt and Scruggs’ years together also featured explorations of then-atypical settings for bluegrass music, like college campuses and folk festivals, and deviations from the canonical bluegrass sound, such as recordings with non-string instruments and performances of current pop music. Scruggs was musically inquisitive, while Flatt was more stylistically conservative, so when the duo split in 1969 Scruggs seized the opportunity for adventure and experimentation. He and sons Randy and Gary formed the Earl Scruggs Revue (in time they would be joined by son Steve as well) and first appeared on the Opry in late ’69. Their predilection for musical mélange was summed up well in the title of their 1972 recording, I Saw the Light With a Little Help From My Friends. The album featured the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, among other folk-rock stars, and it was an important influence on that band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken projects—in which Earl and Louise Scruggs played important musical and managerial roles.

The Tennesseean describes Scruggs’ career through the 1970s and ‘80s as “fiercely, yet quietly, creative.” In addition to continuing to tour and record, he received such honors as, in 1985, election to the Country Music Hall of Fame (jointly with Lester Flatt, who had died in 1979). In 1989 he was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. The 1990s were a difficult decade for Scruggs, beginning with tragedy in 1992 when his son Steve died; a period of deep mourning followed, during which he ceased playing music. He would go back on the road, but suffered from back ailments and a 1996 heart attack.

Scruggs’ native state recognized him with the North Carolina Heritage Award in 1996. He won a Grammy in 2001 for a new recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003, and carried on in his usual boundary-breaking manner with a 2005 appearance at the Bonnaroo Festival. He received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2008.

Earl and Louise Scruggs met at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in 1946, and when Louise passed away in 2006, her memorial service was held there. Earl Scruggs’ memorial was held at the Ryman as well, on Sunday, April 1. According to the Associated Press, an estimated 2,300 mourners and fans were in attendance.

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