The importance of being Earl

The late Bill Monroe may have been the father of bluegrass music, but it was the distinctive banjo playing of Earl Scruggs that most listeners came to recognize as the voice of an entire style. Scruggs, who died on March 28 at the age of 88, left an indelible imprint on American music, influencing virtually ever player of the five-string banjo to follow.

Born in January of 1924 to a farming family in Shelby, North Carolina, Earl Scruggs began playing banjo at the age of four. A shy, introverted boy, he devoted countless hours to perfecting his right-hand technique, eventually hitting upon a syncopated three-finger "roll" that was distinct from the "clawhammer" picking style typical of American folk and country players. While still in his late teens, Scruggs went to work in a cotton mill—farmwork was too hard on his hands, he said—and began playing with local country groups in the evenings.

Word of his prowess spread fast, and by late 1945 the successful bandleader Bill Monroe was urged to hire Earl Scruggs to fill the vacancy left by the departing banjoist and comedian Dave "Stringbean" Akeman. On the eve of Scruggs's audition, according to Monroe biographer Richard D. Smith, band member Lester Flatt urged his boss not to bring another "clunky" instrumental sound into the group: "This Scruggs fellow can leave his banjo in its case," he advised. Within minutes of hearing the shy banjo player, Flatt reportedly whispered to Monroe, "Hire him no matter what it costs." Earl Scruggs joined the Blue Grass Boys at a salary of $60 a week; his life—and country music—would never be the same.

A little over two years later, both Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt left Bill Monroe's band and formed a group of their own, the Foggy Mountain Boys (named after the Carter Family standard "Foggy Mountain Top"). Within a year the new group enjoyed far more success than Monroe ever would, with chart-crossing hit records in 1962 ("The Ballad of Jed Clampett") and 1969 ("Foggy Mountain Breakdown.") Notably, Flat and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys were more willing to reach out to young listeners, as exemplified in their 1969 concert—complete with light show!—at San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom. A few years later, following the dissolution of the Flatt and Scruggs partnership, Earl Scruggs famously performed "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" at an anti-war rally in Washington D.C. (At around the same time, interestingly enough, "Stringbean" Akeman, the man whom Scruggs replaced in Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, recorded a single that was also harshly critical of "this crazy Viet Nam war.")

Earl Scruggs' decidedly youthful approach to bluegrass music continued throughout the 1970s. His next band, The Earl Scruggs Revue, used drums and an electric bass, and drew upon the musical contributions of his sons Randy, Gary, and Steve. And, in 1972, Scruggs raised eyebrows—and ultimately coerced some of his Nashville colleagues—in joining the Nitty Gritty Dirt band for their landmark three-record set, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. (In a 2002 interview for Listener Magazine, the Dirt Band's John McEuen told me that Bill Monroe declined to participate, largely because of Scruggs's involvement; years later, in the wake of the record's success, Monroe approached the young musician at a festival and asked to be included "the next time you do one of those Circle records.")

No doubt most bluegrass fans cherish their memories of seeing and hearing Scruggs perform live. My own favorite Earl Scruggs memory is from relatively late in his career, at the 2005 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in New York's Hudson River Valley. Just as Earl and his all-star band took the stage for the Saturday night set, a thunder storm erupted and the sudden, harsh downpour sent the band offstage and the audience running for cover. I took shelter under the awning of a CD vendor located near to the stage, and was prepared to stay there and wait things out—until I heard live music coming from the sound system. As it turned out, Scruggs asked for a single microphone to be set up backstage, and he and his band gathered around it to perform one old fiddle tune after another while waiting for the rain to stop. Priceless.

The importance of banjo player Earl Scruggs to the history of country music simply can't be overstated, and his distinctive, driving sound remains instantly recognizable, nearly 70 years after he left that cotton mill. His passing will be deeply felt.

dalethorn's picture

Being a big fan of raw hillbilly music, I tended to disagree with a lot of the experimentation Scruggs was involved in. Bad enough that he and Flatt and others were trying to set records for who could play fastest back in the early days, but then Scruggs drew a lot of attention and badly-needed support away from traditional artists in Bluegrass. Not entirely his fault necessarily, just a consequence of not being concerned with the other people trying to keep traditions alive. Then places like Jamboree in Wheeling started their "modern country" experiment, and who needed that? With a million music venues in the U.S., did these people have to steal from the genres that were already on life support? I shudder to think of what would happen if the big music companies tried to muscle Mary Poppins and Sound of Music into the Met. "But experimentation is good" they would say.

deckeda's picture

Or somehow took it away? See also: free will.

Also, I think you forgot to tell the neighborhood kids to "get off your lawn."

dalethorn's picture

I understand perfectly what you're saying. So if the Met decided to bring a Mantovani band in to play during Carmen, that would be OK to you, and the opera fans should accept it as free will?  We're not communicating because you're not addressing all of the issues.  There's the issue of free expression (i.e. for example, mix a noise band with a renowned jazz band and see if the fans 'like' it), and there's the issue of calling something what it ain't.  Justin Tubb had some words to say about it on What's Wrong With The Way That We're Doing It Now.

Edit: I'm reminiscing now about "semi-classical" music, "newgrass" and "new country", and a few other choice marketing ploys of recent decades. I listened to a lot of college radio where these new-country genres were heavily featured, and I could see a clear pattern - that the very liberal folks who ran these venues were scared s***less of the raw, unsophisticated (and possibly racist etc.) material that might be just outside their door in L.A. or New York. Heck, you can't even play the original Money For Nothing now on Youtube.

Srpadg's picture

My own memories of Earl Scruggs date back to ~1974-76, at the Great Southeastern Music Hall in Atlanta, GA...sitting on the floor with 100 or so like-minded fans, drinking beer served in pails, listening to Earl and the Revue absoutely tear it up.  "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" was out, and my circle of "classic rockers" were totally into the Earl Scruggs (and Vassar Clements) shows at the Music Hall.  A virtuoso at banjo, who loved his fans, who pushed the envelope with the younger generation, and who for me defined bluegrass music - long live the memory, influence and music of Earl Scruggs.

dalethorn's picture

Yep, you described it perfectly. Getting drunk on pails of beer, it would have sounded real good. I remember listening to WSLR (a country station in Akron) once when tripping on some Owsley-attributed substance, and it was like listening to Hendrix without the dope. Yep, that's it.