Earl Scruggs, “pioneer” as the Huffington Post put it, of the Three-finger Banjo style, has died. For some of us, he has been a mentor and inspiration our whole lives. He was not merely a pioneer, he was the King. And there are many legends on the banjo–Bela Fleck, Ralph Stanley, Jens Kruger, Don Reno, J. D. Crowe, and many greats. But no one like Earl.
As a displaced North Carolina boy moving around the country, my Dad kept me connected to music. He had a Silvertone electric guitar from Sears and a Harmony archtop acoustic guitar. The electric would shock you if you played in bare feet on the garage floor so I tended to play the acoustic. I didn’t know much about Earl Scruggs, but I kept running into him over the years.
When we moved to Irving, Texas in the late Sixties, I learned to play very slow rhythm guitar to a very slow “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” (LISTEN) with my seventh grade friend, Brad Phillips, who was the odd combination of a banjo playing Episcopalian.
Next we moved to Ohio and in high school one of my most important lifelong friends also played the banjo and we always did some Earl Scruggs songs. In college, my next door neighbor, Norman Keesee, and I had a short-lived band called “Friends and Brothers” that broke up after its only tour when we discovered that we were neither brothers nor friends with the other member of our band. We played Scruggs.
In my current band, our banjo player, Greg Womble, regularly leads us in playing “Groundspeed,” one of his favorites by Earl. Earl’s tab book has been the bible of three-finger style for multiple generations of players.
Last year, I realized that Earl Scruggs was to appear in Atlanta, and got tickets for Greg and me. I wanted to see the legend live before he died. We drove over to Marietta, Georgia to the Civic Center there and were treated to hearing Pat Terry open and Earl come out for the main show.
We were like teenaged girls driving over, listening to his CDs, “Foggy Mountain Special,” “The Complete Mercury Sessions,” and “Live at Carnegie Hall,” while we chattered about it. I bought a $25 black t-shirt with Earl’s face in color on it and brought a black and white picture I had bought in Nashville from 1964 of he and Lester Flatt and coaxed his sweet cousin to see if Earl might sign it for me backstage. Since I was from North Carolina, she winked at me, she’d go back at intermission and see if he’d do it. He did. He stands there in the picture, cool, steely-eyed and totally in control of the picture, waiting for the next break.
The crowd that night were all devoted fans. They knew his prime was long past. His beloved Louise had already gone. He was frail. He had to be helped on the stage. It was obvious that the other players, led by his devoted sons, had to carry the force of the music, something Earl would never have done in earlier days. It didn’t matter. We all came to pay homage. And whenever he played we applauded wildly. Bluegrass fans love and respect their ancestors.
In his prime, Earl’s playing was a volcano on a musical island. He popularized the banjo in a way that few people ever change an instrument in their lives. Most banjo players on the earth play Earl Scruggs music. When Steve Martin returned to musical performing a few years back, he made a wildly popular music video of Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” (LISTEN) filled with legendary player offering their tributes to their master. It was pure Earl “guy music,” finger-blurring, testosterone-flying, hard charging, foot-stompin’, “go get your girl and dance” music. It’s a rush.
Even if most people don’t know who he is among younger generations, if you say, “The guy who did the Beverly Hillbillies song,” or “the song from Bonnie and Clyde movie” they say, “Oh, yeah.” On March 9 this month, we ended a packed house concert at Moonlight On the Mountain here with a medley and all of our guest player friends who came to
do a few songs here and there with us together. We sang, “Sitting On Top of the World,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Groundspeed” (LISTEN) by Earl Scruggs. The room was full, happy, people singing, tapping feet, clapping, laughing. Earl would have loved it.
When I am 88, if somebody hums a song I wrote and smiles, the labor over it would have been a gift from God to me. Music can do that. Earl Scruggs was privileged to spend his life infusing joy and a little respite from the hard things of life with only five strings with which to do it. A legend is gone. Rest in peace, Earl Scruggs. The thought of you, Bill Monroe and Lester maybe getting together again is pretty exciting.