Category Archives: Earl Scruggs

Start Young

If you don’t know who Ricky Skaggs is, then you really don’t know anything about bluegrass and old-time music. It’s important to distinguish those two terms. “Bluegrass” technically didn’t exist before the 1940s. It was literally invented as a form by Bill Monroe, recasting the traditional old time music of his Kentucky and Appalachian roots with a new sound built around his unique mandolin playing. The mandolin took a new role as a centerpiece performing lead instrument in

Ricky Skaggs and Bill Monroe

Monroe’s vision. He was truly a unique American music phenomenon.

Monroe inspired an entire generation of musicians and his influence lives on in all the varieties of bluegrass, newgrass, swing, jazz and a hundred other variations of playing involving the mandolin, but no one has embodied that variety more than a kid from Kentucky named Ricky Skaggs. His father started him out with a mandolin around age 6 and before he was out of his teens, he played on stage with Monroe himself, with childhood buddy Keith Whitley, Flatt and Scruggs and toured with the Stanley Brothers.

Bluegrass and its predecessor, the “old time” music, that was originally the dance music and music played in homes and small communities of the South that had traipsed across the Atlantic from the border regions of Scotland through Ulster and Ireland as immigrants to the New World, settling in the mountains of the South. They brought with them the instruments of their folk music, and it underlay their common life for generations.  Like all immigrants, their music was a powerful identity that helped buffer them against the hardships of fitting into a new and strange country that did not always want them.

Like all people, the love for their children motivated their work, way of life, and the sharing of their music. Today, like few other music forms, you will see men in their eighties at a bluegrass festival sitting in a circle jamming with teenagers strumming guitars and 6 year old fiddle and mandolin players. Ricky Skaggs was one of those children.

It gives hope to look at our children and imagine what they might do. They are not jaded yet by our own deep prejudices and ignorant opinions

about “how it is.” So today, I share this video I came across of little RIcky Skaggs, age seven, playing on television with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Teach your children well. And maybe their elder’s failures will give way to something wonderful, unexpected and new.

Doesn’t conflict at this moment in Lent to me at all, when we are wringing hands, troubled in mind, struggling with hope and anxious to the gills, to pick up my mandolin at home, play a tune, and feel something lift out of the room. Wherever that sound came from (and as a man of faith, I think I know), it says, “There’s still something unexpectedly beautiful up ahead. Go on, and don’t give up.” If you don’t know any seven year olds, I suggest you enlarge your life and bit, get out of yourself, and look for hope in the strings and paintings and delightful voices of the young.

Exploring the Discography of Life

“…there is a playful randomness about what we find and read.  Or rather, what finds us”

When I first rekindled my interest in songwriting and music again, sixteen or seventeen years ago, I began hanging out in music stores, playing the guitar again and digging out songs from my memory and on faded notebook paper from years ago.  One day, a worker in the store I frequent most, Fretted Instruments of Birminghm, said, “Are you just starting to explore the discography?”  I had just said that “I was getting into bluegrass music” and that was his reply.

I began to delve into just that—listening, going to shows, scooting to Nashville now and then.  I bought a collection of Bill Monroe’s music.  Over the coming years, I heard a lot of music live—Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs, Nickel Creek, J. D. Crowe, Earl Scruggs, Vince Gill, as well as a lot of lesser-known but excellent players and singers coming through the Station Inn in Nashville or here in Birmingham, Read the rest of this entry

Jim Hurst Can Play a Guitar

Jim Hurst picks.  He came dangerously close to Herb Trotman's "10,000 note limit"

Jim Hurst picks. He came dangerously close to Herb Trotman’s “10,000 note limit”

Last night, I went to hear JIM HURST, IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Guitarist of the Year.  That means he is a fast-pickin’ guy.  “Bluegrass,” like few other labels, can lock you in.  The people who love and adore it who are more on the “traditional” side (Has to be like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs played it or it ain’t bluegrass) will leave you for growing, experimenting and deviating.  The rest of the music listening world (Country, whatever that is anymore, sheesh!), folk, indie, etc. is disinterested because they never get beyond stereotypes like “Deliverance” and the Beverly Hillbillies. Read the rest of this entry

Doug, Doc and Earl…Bluegrass Breakdown and Cry

The Darling Boys are no more

This has been one of the unkindest of years in acoustic music.  First, Earl Scruggs, the Founding Father of bluegrass banjo, passed away (read my post on Earl’s death here CLICK)  back in March.  Then a few weeks ago, Doug Dillard, a rollicking banjo player who blazed a trail with the banjo across genres in the 1970s when he left the Dillards to join Gene Clark of the Byrds to form Dillard and Clark.

Of course, you’d know old Doug for another reason, if you ever watched the Andy Griffith Show.  He was the poker-faced Darlin’ Brother in the family band that descended like an affectionate blight on Andy and Mayberry every

The Darling Family, “that one makes me cry, Paw”

now and then, always intermixing their superstition and hijinx drama with some red-hot bluegrass while Paw (Denver Pyle) came along on the jug.

In fact, the Darlin’ Family were a rising bluegrass band discovered by Andy Griffith’s producer  in a nightclub in Los Angeles.  At the core were two brothers, Rodney and Doug Dillard, on guitar and banjo, and joined by Mitch Jayne and Dean Webb on bass and mandolin.  They hailed from Missouri and had been performing on the folk revival scene when Andy found them.  They moved to LA to have greater freedom to experiment with their music and its traditions.

The first bluegrass song I played was probably “Orange Blossom Special” with my Dad and Uncle Paul Furr on the fiddle on Uncle Paul’s porch.  Uncle Paul exposed me to my first outhouse, although it was a little upscale, known as a “two-holer.”  The second song I met growing up was “Bowed My Head and Cried Holy,” brought to me by my friend Paul in high school, while we were playing together.  I loved it right away and got the vinyl album.  In our current band, we learned Dillard’s version of this very old tune early on and still do it.  “Bowed My Head” was an old time tune that Bill Monroe and others did in an old time style, but Dillard and Clark did it with drums, pedal steel and Byron Berline on the fiddle.  It had an energy that would influence many others.  The New York Times says,

Known simply as Dillard and Clark, their group, with Mr. Dillard playing guitar and fiddle as well as banjo, recorded two albums for A&M before disbanding. The albums did not sell well but have come to be regarded as among the earliest stirrings of the West Coast country-rock movement and an important influence on the Eagles and other bands. (Bernie Leadon, a charter member of the Eagles, had also worked with Dillard and Clark.)

Doug Dillard’s playing has shown up in all our lives somewhere.  According to Billboard magazine’s tribute article,  “the brothers still worked together in front of the camera from time to time, being part of Harry Dean Stanton’s band in the Bette Midler film The Rose.”  The Dillards toured with many performers over the years– Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Carl Perkins, even Elton John.  They left a huge influence on what would become “newgrass” and crossover music in groups like the Eagles and many others.

Doug could make a banjo sing.  I read that when he first got his banjo he got his Dad to drive him to Nashville to Earl Scruggs’ house

Bluegrass banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs answered a knock at the door of his Nashville home in 1953 to find an eager-

Dillard and Clark, whose songs “Polly” and “Through the Morning, Through the Night” were covered by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on their hit CD a few years back, “Raising Sand”

looking banjo enthusiast on the porch asking Scruggs to put a set of his special tuner keys on the young man’s instrument. “He was so gracious,” Rodney Dillard said of the reception his older brother, banjo player Doug Dillard, received that day from the father of the bluegrass banjo. “He sold him the tuners, then sat down at his kitchen table and installed them on the spot.”  (LA Times—read the story)

The fine compilation of their hits is on a single CD called THERE IS A TIME: 1963-1970.  It contains all the great Darling Family songs from the show, but also a lot of the songs the Dillards did, from folk to country, old time and blended styles.  You can hear Doug Dillard’s melodic licks leap from the strings.

Anyway, I especially remember another song the Dillards did that is one of our mainstays, “There is a Time.”  (Listen)  It is a sad, mournful, truth-telling tune about how love is weathered down and dies in time.  Charlene sang it on the Griffith show and it was one of the most haunting tunes I ever heard.  Andy says at the end, “Well, that’s about the purtiest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Doug Dillard, Banjo player, also graduated with a degree in accounting.

One thing is different about Doug from his Andy Griffith character, who was always poker-faccd.  If you ever watch a video of Doug Dillard, he’s always smiling onstage.

Some years ago, Rodney was invited to do the song with the Dillards on the next generation of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken Volume III.”  Rodney wrote a fourth verse to add to the original three that seems somehow fitting.  Originally written with Mitch Jayne, who has since passed away, he sang it in a video that I leave with you as he mentions the loss of Jayne and, perhaps, fitting to hear as we think about his brother’s passing.  The new lyric says, hopefully

   Time is like a river flowing

            with no regrets as it moves on

            Around each bend a shining morning

            and all the friends we thought were gone

Rest in peace, I say once more, to another banjo legend.  Thank you, Doug Dillard.  The Darling Boys are no more.

Tomorrow, I’ll remember Doc Watson.  Two legends deserve their own mentions.

 

 

 

Farewell, Earl Scruggs, and Thank You

1964, on top of the world, with Lester Flatt

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. Read the rest of this entry