Earl Scruggs, R.I.P.


That’s the only name you had to say in bluegrass circles and everyone immediately knew the subject.  Jimmy Martin could open the seminal Will the Circle Be Unbroken album by saying “Earl never did do that,” and you knew exactly what he meant.

Few people define an instrument and a musical style so completely as Earl Scruggs, who passed away today at age 88, did for bluegrass banjo.  Bill Monroe will forever be known as the Father of Bluegrass, but it wasn’t until he brought a young Earl Scruggs on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium for a Grand Ole Opry show in 1945 that the full sound of bluegrass was realized.  I’ll let Richard Smith, author of Can’t You Hear Me Calling:  The Life of Bill Monroe, pick up the story from here.

For Earl’s first night on the Opry, Monroe picked out a fast number that would show off the newcomer’s dazzling style – “White House Blues,” an old song recounting the 1901 William McKinley assassination.  It was a perfect selection.  Scruggs stepped up to the microphone with apprehension, knowing that nothing like this had been heard on the Opry or even over WSM radio.

Used to the banjo as a country comedian’s prop, or hearing it picked or strummed in one of the quaint old styles, the audience was totally unprepared for the speedy, leaping avalanche of notes that issued from the five-string in the hands of this twenty-one-year-old from North Carolina.

They went wild.

John Hartford once stated that “bluegrass was invented on the stage of the Ryman,” where Scruggs made his debut with Monroe.  And from that electrifying beginning in 1945 until today, musicians from every genre and corner of the planet recognized the unique musician that was Earl Scruggs.

Peter Cooper, writing in today’s Nashville Tennessean, had this to say about Earl’s ability to work across musical genres and to bring together disparate points of view:

Rather than speak out about the connections between folk and country in the war-torn, politically contentious ‘60s, he simply showed up at folk festivals and played, at least when he and Flatt weren’t at the Grand Ole Opry.  During the long-hair/ short-hair skirmishes of the ‘60s and ‘70s, he simply showed up and played, with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and The Byrds. And when staunch fans of bluegrass – a genre that would not exist in a recognizable form without Mr. Scruggs’ banjo – railed against stylistic experimentation, Mr. Scruggs happily jammed away with sax player King Curtis, sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, piano man Elton John and anyone else whose music he fancied.

“He was the man who melted walls, and he did it without saying three words,” said his friend and acolyte, Marty Stuart in 2000.

In truth, Mr. Scruggs could sometimes be quite loquacious, but he rarely made an utterance that wasn’t considered. He said what he thought, but never before he thought. 

Asked about recording with Baez during a time period when Baez was viewed by many in Nashville as hyper-liberal and undesirable, Mr. Scruggs said, “Well, I didn’t look at it from a political view. And I thought Joan Baez had one of the best voices of anybody I’d ever heard sing.”

I was fortunate to hear Earl often at virtually every stage of his musical career.  In the 1960s, my father rose early to get to his job, and WSM radio was always on when I – also an early riser – came into the kitchen.  Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs had a long-running show, sponsored by Martha White Flour, on WSM.  This clip from 1965 of Earl’s signature Foggy Mountain Breakdown is indicative of those shows from my childhood.

As I began learning more about the roots of American music in the early 1970s, I remember watching a wonderful documentary on Earl Scruggs on the Nashville public television station.  The film featured Earl and his sons playing with a variety of musicians, from old-time mountain men to Bob Dylan and The Byrds.  This wonderful clip shows Earl and Doc Watson playing John Hardy at Doc’s home in North Carolina.

Later in the 1970s I went to see The Earl Scruggs Revue countless times.  Earl and his sons had morphed into a country-rock band, but Earl’s musicianship still shown through the sometimes bad covers.  In recent years, Earl seemed to become more comfortable going back to his bluegrass roots in his elder statesman role.

Many people don’t realize that Earl was also a stellar finger-style guitarist.  Especially on gospel numbers, where the banjo wasn’t always used, Earl would pick the lead on a beautiful Martin guitar.

So on the day he passed away, it seems appropriate to have Earl take us out with Uncle Josh Graves’ dobro and Lester’s voice on the classic, Turn Your Radio Own.  Without Earl around, it will be a little harder to turn your radio on and “heaven’s glory share.”

Rest in Peace, Earl Scruggs.

More to come…


Changing Seasons

I love March Madness.  After a boring set of games on Thursday (although I’m glad Vanderbilt’s game was somewhat pedestrian), Friday finally got us in to the “madness” part of the event.  Two 15s beating number 2 seeds on the same day – that’s as good as it gets!

But as much as I enjoy these weeks of one-and-done basketball, I had an experience this afternoon that really gets me excited – sitting down with a friend over a glass of wine and choosing games out of the Washington Nationals season ticket package we’d purchased together.  Now I’m pumped!

Basketball is fun, but baseball is on another plane.  So in honor of the distribution of the season tickets, I give you a smattering of baseball quotations to bring a smile to your face and anticipation to your heart:

There are two theories on hitting the knuckleball.  Unfortunately, neither of them works.  (Legendary hitting coach Charlie Lau)

It doesn’t take much to get me up for baseball.  Once the National Anthem plays, I get chills.  I even know the words to it now.  (Pete Rose)

Just when my fellows learn to hit in this ball park, they’re gonna tear it down.  (Casey Stengel, as the Mets manager, on the Polo Grounds in 1965)

What do you want, a bonus or a limp?  (Fresco Thompson, on trying to persuade a prospect to choose baseball over football)

It is just about time to “Play Ball!”

More to come…


DJB is listening to…

Many of my younger (read “hipper”) Facebook friends have regular status updates that read, “Joe Cool is listening to Still Sound by Toro Y Moi  on Spotify.”  Or something similar.

I’m behind the times (what else is new), so somehow I haven’t gotten around to letting everyone know what I’m listening to at any time.  Plus, my children would be mortified.  They run from the room when my iPod is in the dock.

But every now and then I listen to something and want to tell someone.  I have to do it the old-fashioned way:  through my blog.

I don’t usually drive in to work, but today was different.  And so instead of the iPod, I picked up a couple of CDs (you remember them) – Norman Blake’s Live at McCabe’s (which I’ve written about before) and the Tony Rice/Norman Blake duet album.  These are two beautifully simple albums that are anything but simple musically.

Blake and Rice are in the upper pantheon of acoustic country/bluegrass/newgrass guitarists.  They’ve both played on seminal albums that set the direction for acoustic music for a generation:  Blake on Will the Circle Be Unbroken and Rice on the inaugural offering of The David Grisman Quintet.  But on the two CDs in my car’s player today you get to hear them at their most basic.  Most tracks just feature a vocal and one or two guitars (or the occasional mandolin and guitar).  With the sun roof open and the windows down on a glorious early spring day, I could have been on a country road instead of 16th Street.

Enough of the rhapsodizing…take a listen to Norman Blake and the Rising Fawn String Ensemble play the old Delmore Brothers tune Nashville Blues.

More to come…


A Note of Thanksgiving As I Enter My 58th Year

I had difficulty getting out of bed today…the last morning wake up of my 57th year.

For some inexplicable reason my life is full – on the verge of overflowing – on the eve of my 57th birthday.  (I had to ask Candice, and she confirmed – when you turn 57 you are beginning your 58th year.  I never was great at math.)  First and foremost, Candice is wrapping up her stay in the hospital after successful hip replacement surgery on Wednesday.  We head home today to continue the recovery.  Both children are getting ready to go overseas (Claire by herself to Sweden; Andrew to Costa Rica) over spring break. Yikes!  How did that happen? My sister texted me last night to say my father went to the emergency room with a lung infection, high enzymes, and low sodium…and the news got worse when she called to say he had a mild heart attack this morning. I just spoke with my brother and Dad just came out of surgery where they found 95% blockage in one of his arteries. We think all will turn out well, but this is not what you want to hear for your 86-year-old father.  In addition, one of my brother-in-law’s closest friends was in a devastating car accident earlier this week, where her mother was killed and she’s facing a long recovery period after a seven-hour surgery.  On top of it all, work remains full of challenges and opportunities.

Lying in bed, I was letting all of this get me down.  Showering and breakfast helped, but it wasn’t until I was on my way to the hospital this morning that I fully realized how sorry I was feeling – for Candice, for Dad, for Janice…and, yes, for me.

Then I thought of the wonderful bumper sticker we saw in Northampton, Massachusetts, during our college visits a couple of years ago:  the one that says “Just Say NO to Negativity.”

That woke me up!

So I did a mind game to turn things around:  with all that is weighing on me, what was I thankful for entering my 58th year?

Family and Friends:  I have a wonderful family – both our core family and the extended one.  I’ve been blessed with a wife and children who love me unconditionally – which is a hard thing to do at times. Their talent and capacity for goodness amaze me. My father was one-half of an amazing set of parents who believed in grounding us in values but allowing us to find our own way and our own values as we grew into adulthood. Our extended family is always there for each other.  Today I’m especially thankful for my two sisters and brother who live near my father and are watching over him. We have friends all over the country who stay in touch, look out for us, and enrich my life every day.

Health:  First of I’ll, I’m thankful that I’m relatively healthy.  Yeah, I need to lose 20 pounds or so, and I really do need to get that toe on my left foot checked out, but day-in and day-out I have no complaints. Our children are in great health – and Claire is especially rock solid after a strong year of college-level swimming and the workouts that go with it.  Mostly this year, I’m very thankful for the health care that we’ve received.  Candice had wonderful doctors and nurses at the neurological unit at Rhode Island Hospital following her fall last August.  Back home, Dr. O’Connor, Dr. Herzfeld, and now Dr. Durbhakula have been a terrific team in leading Candice back to full recovery.  Down in Tennessee, I’m thankful for the cardiologist at Vanderbilt who is checking out Dad’s heart at the moment.

Work:  I have a job that I enjoy and that brings meaning to my life.  My colleagues at the senior management level are all terrific professionals who know their work.  I’m learning from them every day.  The staff throughout the National Trust combine passion and skill in ways that are inspiring.  We get to help save some of the most important places in America – what could be cooler than that!  I have former colleagues and friends from the Trust and from all my previous jobs who continue to enrich my life and work.

Art:  We’ve indulged Candice’s love for theatre and film this year – and to my amazement I’ve loved it!  Among other things we’ve seen War Horse in New York City, Oklahoma! at the Arena Stage, and eight of the nine Best Picture nominees. I think back on some of the great music I’ve heard over my 57th year: Andrew’s senior voice recital, his debut in opera at college, and his role in Hairspray – as his yearbook says, Andrew will be Corny Collins when he grows up!  Wonderful IMT performances  throughout the year have fed my love for acoustic music. And in looking ahead, I have tickets to Merlefest for next month, and that’s always a treat!

Enough Stuff…but Not Too Much: I just noticed that none of the things listed above has anything to do with stuff.  I’ve learned from family that stuff doesn’t matter.  We have a home that could fit in the Not So Big House series.  It is just right for us.  The 11-year-old car just passed 170,000 miles, but still seems to get us around.  Someone recently told me I HAD to get a high-definition television because of my love of sports, but the television we have works and now when I go to a hotel I get a treat with the HDTV.  I have two guitars and a mandolin and they seem to keep me busy.  We’ve been paring down, not adding stuff…and I’m thankful that we’ve kept the clutter at bay.

Hope Springs Eternal:  And on the day before I turn 57, my Washington Nationals have their first spring training game of the season – where everybody’s a champion. But the Nats have the look of a good – if not great – team this year. For the first time in my life I went in with friends as part of a season ticket packet – so I’m guaranteed to see 8-10 games.  I’m with Annie Savoy: I believe in the Church of Baseball.

With March 4th on the horizon, I’m not feeling old.  But as a wise person points out, not too many people live to be 114 – so 57 is a little high in the “middle age” bracket. Birthdays put you in the frame of mind to think a bit about age, I suppose.  As Daddy likes to say, “Getting old isn’t for wimps,” and all the things swirling around in my life today seem designed to reinforce that fact. But whatever comes, I’m thankful for what I have and – most importantly – for the people who have made, and continue to make, my 57 years so rich in love.

More to come…