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…