What I Learned from Earl Scruggs

Most people, those who know his name, probably think of Earl Scruggs as just a banjo player. Truth is he was one of the most innovative and influential musicians in American music history. Earl Scruggs pioneered a three-finger style of banjo picking that revolutionized bluegrass music and helped pave the way for modern country music. His influence was enormous.

Earl died yesterday in a Nashville hospital from natural causes. He was 88.

In 1971 or 72, when I was in college and working for the campus radio station, I interviewed Earl Scruggs. It was the dead of winter and he and his band were scheduled to give a concert at the Omaha Music Hall. However, the van carrying all the equipment broke down in the snow outside of Des Moines, Iowa, some 125 miles away. Earl and his dobro player, the late Josh Graves, drove ahead, arrived at the concert hall a bit late and went onstage. Earl explained the situation and promised a full 90-minute show once the band showed up. Then the stagehands brought out two wooden chairs and Earl and Josh sat down and played for little over an hour, treating the crowd, of mostly college kids, to some amazing musicianship as they spontaneously picked their way through a treasure trove of bluegrass and country standards. When the band (featuring Earl’s sons) arrived, they did indeed do a full show that showcased “country-rock” songs composed by the likes of Bob Dylan and other contemporary artists, as well as traditional music. By the time they finished, it was nearly midnight, and as he promised, Earl sat down with me for an interview. He couldn’t have been nicer. I found him shy, humble, quiet – qualities that do not usually bode well for an interview – but Earl explained how his developed his style for me in a simple and rather poetic way and it ended up being a pretty good conversation. I may still have that tape somewhere, but I imagine the audio has dissolved by now.

So what did I learn from Earl Scruggs? A lesson in integrity, and showmanship. He could have easily canceled the concert. Or, he could have sent his road manager ahead, alone, to explain to the crowd why the concert would be delayed. But Earl was an old school showman (“the show must go on”) and a concert date was like a sacred oath. He had promised a night of music to begin at a certain time, and come hell or high water (or snow and freezing temperatures), he intended to deliver. And while he could have begged off the interview claiming fatigue or anything else, he graciously went ahead and talked to me anyway. In my book, that’s integrity. Not to mention class. I’ve never forgotten it.

Earl was one of the few people in the Country Music establishment to support the anti-war movement during the Sixties. Believe me, in his circle, it was an unpopular thing to do. He also championed new music, the kind made at the time by those long-hair freaks. After he left Lester Flatt, he formed a new band with his sons, and together they played a lot of that new music. He was a trailblazer.

You can learn more about Earl Scruggs at his Wikipedia page, or at his official website. You can read his obituary and some appreciations at NY Times, Billboard, and NECN.

So long, Earl. Thanks for the melodies.

Here’s Earl and some friends performing his most famous composition, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”:

And here he is with Roger McGuinn and the Byrds doing Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, circa 1969:

Photo: © 2001-2002 David Schenk

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