Many folks have requested that I make available this tribute to Earl Scruggs that I put together for an earlier newsletter, so here it is. Thanks for these requests!
Remembering Earl Scruggs
If you’re not a banjo player, it might be hard to understand just how important Earl Scruggs is to those of us who love and play this instrument. Earl created a musical vocabulary that is accessible to all but requires a lifetime of effort to truly master. And despite our best efforts, none of sound as good as Earl.
I had already been playing banjo for a couple of years when the Will The Circle Be Unbroken 3-album set was released in 1972 and I had heard the Earl Scruggs Revue, with Earl’s sons Gary and Randy, along with Vassar Clements and Josh Graves, at the Old Dominion Folk Festival at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, on a bill with Richie Havens & Don McLean. Seeing Earl play Bob Dylan songs on stage with his sons was one of the first revelations that the banjo – and bluegrass and bluegrass-related music – was something for kids from suburbia too. I also understood through Earl that a lot of different kinds of music could be played on the banjo – if you just tried.
I’ve only stolen one thing in my entire life – a Flatt and Scruggs Mercury LP. But let me explain. I worked at the downtown Norfolk Public Library on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights and all day Saturday throughout high school, cataloging and shelving books, magazines and LPs in the days before computers. While looking through the LPs in the library’s collection, I found a Flatt and Scruggs LP that had not been checked out for ten years. I knew the title “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and I had even learned to play that tune from Earl’s book, but there were other songs that I was unfamiliar with: “Pike County Breakdown,” “No Mother and Dad,” “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “Little Girl in Tennessee.” I thought that everything that Earl ever played was in his book and I was stunned to find out that there were more tunes to hear and learn! I intended to return the LP, after taking it home for a few weeks to learn these new songs.
The LP was still in great shape and the sound of Earl’s banjo on those cuts…well, if you’ve heard the Mercury recordings, you know that sound. It’s unearthly. It’s incredible. And it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. I still have that LP today – it’s Norfolk Public Library catalog number 965-78. I don’t think the library has missed it much since.
Years later, I got the chance to meet Earl and visit with him and his wife Louise in their Madison, Tennessee home. Just a few months after that, I picked with him at informal jam sessions hosted by Sonny Osborne just before Earl started actively performing again. I witnessed his humility and his subtle humor and I got to watch him play very closely. At one of those sessions, I sat right next to him for the entire night.
The news spread fast in the banjo community when Earl had passed. Phone calls were unending for the next week as banjo players all over the world checked in with one another, just to see if we were all doing okay. The decision to attend the Sunday afternoon memorial service was an easy one. I made the journey from Berkeley to Nashville to honor Earl’s legacy, to represent those from California who couldn’t be there and to also be with others who loved Earl and his music as much as I did.
As the casket passed up the center aisle of the Ryman Auditorium at the conclusion of a very moving memorial service, I stood with my friends Tony Trischka, Ned Luberecki, Kristin Scott Benson, Alan O’Bryant, Jim Mills, John McEuen, Tim O’Brien, Sam Bush, Alison Brown, Noam Pilkelny, Bela Fleck, Richard Bailey and others, honoring Earl by lowering the neck of my 1930 Gibson Granada as he passed through the Ryman one final time.
Later that evening, I wrote this for Bluegrass Unlimited magazine:
I can’t express the sense of loss that I feel that Earl is gone, however being in the company of so many other players who love him and have been so influenced by him was an incredibly healing experience. Earl’s spirit and music will live on in all of us and it is renewed again each time someone hears that sound and finds their lives forever changed.
Thank you Earl.