Thursday, March 29, 2012

Deceased--Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs
January 6th, 1924 to March 28h, 2012

"Earl Scruggs, Bluegrass Pioneer, Dies at 88"

by

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

March 29th, 2012

The New York Times

Earl Scruggs, the bluegrass banjo player whose hard-driving picking style influenced generations of players and helped shape the sound of 20th-century country music with his guitar-playing partner, Lester Flatt, died on Wednesday in a Nashville hospital. He was 88.

His son Gary confirmed the death.

Mr. Scruggs and Mr. Flatt probably reached their widest audiences with a pair of signature songs: “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which they recorded in 1949 with their group the Foggy Mountain Boys, and which was used as the getaway music in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde”; and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song of the 1960s television sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies.” (Mr. Scruggs and Mr. Flatt also appeared on the show at times.)

But he also helped shape the “high, lonesome sound” of Bill Monroe, often called the father of bluegrass, and pioneered the modern banjo sound. His innovative use of three fingers rather than the claw-hammer style elevated the five-string banjo from a part of the rhythm section — or a comedian’s prop — to a lead or solo instrument. What became known as the syncopated Scruggs picking style helped popularize the banjo in almost every genre of music.

Mr. Scruggs, who had played banjo since the age of 4, got his big break when he joined Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys, in 1945. The band included Monroe, who sang and played the mandolin; Mr. Flatt on guitar; Howard Watts (a k a Cedric Rainwater) on bass; and Chubby Wise on fiddle.

When Mr. Scruggs stepped up to play during an instrumental section, “listeners would physically come out of their seats in excitement,” Richard D. Smith wrote in “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe.”

Mr. Scruggs stayed with the Blue Grass Boys for two years as they starred on the “Grand Ole Opry” radio show and recorded classics like “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Blue Grass Breakdown” and “Molly and Tenbrooks (The Race Horse Song)” for Columbia Records. He also sang baritone in the group’s gospel quartet.

Early in 1948 he and Mr. Flatt, weary of the low pay and exhausting travel, decided to strike out on their own, despite Monroe’s pleas to stay. Angry and hurt, Monroe refused to speak to them for the next 20 years, a feud that became famous in country-music history.

Although the two said they had not planned to get together after they quit, they ended up forming a band called the Foggy Mountain Boys, after the Carter Family song “Foggy Mountain Top.” Aided by the former Louise Certain, the group’s manager and booking agent and soon Mr. Scrugg’s wife, they surpassed Monroe in popularity, helped partly by the corporate sponsorship of Martha White mills. (That sponsor persuaded them to join the “Grand Ole Opry.”) In 1954 they appeared in a Broadway show, “Hayride.”

In 1959 the group appeared at the first Newport Folk Festival, an offshoot of the Newport Jazz Festival, introducing the Scruggs style to the folk-music revival of those years. Soon young folk musicians were adopting his style, and the Foggy Mountain Boys began to play the college folk-festival circuit. Mr. Scruggs also began to work with his growing sons, Gary, Randy and Steve. And he recorded material by Bob Dylan and other folk-rockers.

Mr. Flatt, by contrast, disliked the new music and felt it was alienating the band’s grass-roots fans. In 1969 the two broke up — they had also performed as Flatt & Scruggs — and Mr. Scruggs, with his sons, formed the Earl Scruggs Revue, a mostly acoustic group with drums and electric bass. It broadened his repertory to include rock, and the group played on bills with acts like Steppenwolf and the singer-songwriter James Taylor, sometimes before audiences of 40,000.

The group stayed together for the remainder of Mr. Scruggs’s career, performing at Carnegie Hall and, in 1969, at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam in Washington. Mr. Flatt died in 1979.

Earl Eugene Scruggs was born on Jan. 6, 1924, in Flint Hill, N.C. His father, George Elam Scruggs, a farmer and bookkeeper, played the banjo and fiddle (and died when Earl was 4); his mother, Lula Ruppe Scruggs, played the pump organ in church. Earl took up the banjo and also the guitar.

Earl depended on a two-fingered picking style until he was about 10. Then one day he found himself picking a song called “Lonesome Ruben” (or “Ruben’s Train”) using three fingers instead of two — the thumb, index and middle finger. It was a style, indigenous to North Carolina, that he had been trying to master.

He learned to emphasize melody by plucking it with his strong thumb in syncopation with harmonic notes picked with his first two fingers. The sound was like thumbtacks plinking rhythmically on a tin roof.

As Earl’s mastery of the banjo grew, he began playing at dances and on radio shows with bands, among them Lost John Miller and His Allied Kentuckians. In December 1945, after the Miller group disbanded, Mr. Scruggs quit high school and joined the Blue Grass Boys for $50 a week. His career was on its way.

In 1992 Mr. Scruggs was among 13 recipients of a National Medal of Arts, and in 2005 “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was selected for the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.

He continued to play into the 21st century. In 2001 he released a CD, “Earl Scruggs and Friends,” his first album in a decade and an extension of the Earl Scruggs Revue. In 12 songs, he collaborated with Elton John, Dwight Yoakam, Travis Tritt, Sting, Melissa Etheridge, Vince Gill, John Fogerty, Don Henley, Johnny Cash and the actor Steve Martin, a banjo player.

Mr. Scruggs’s wife, Louise, died in 2006; his son Steve died in 1992. In addition to his sons Gary and Randy, survivors include five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

At an 80th birthday party for Mr. Scruggs in 2004, the country singer Porter Wagoner said, “Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball.”

“He is the best there ever was,” Mr. Wagoner said, “and the best there ever will be.”

Earl Scruggs [Wikipedia]

Foggy Mountain Breakdown

Flatt & Scruggs

1965

video

"The Master from Flint Hill: Earl Scruggs"

by

Steve Martin

January 17th, 2012

The New Yorker

Earl Scruggs died yesterday morning, March 28, 2012. The bluegrass and wider music worlds mourn and celebrate him. —Steve Martin

Some nights he had the stars of North Carolina shooting from his fingertips. Before him, no one had ever played the banjo like he did. After him, everyone played the banjo like he did, or at least tried. In 1945, when he first stood on the stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and played banjo the way no one had ever heard before, the audience responded with shouts, whoops, and ovations. He performed tunes he wrote as well as songs they knew, with clarity and speed like no one could imagine, except him. When the singer came to the end of a phrase, he filled the theatre with sparkling runs of notes that became a signature for all bluegrass music since. He wore a suit and Stetson hat, and when he played he smiled at the audience like what he was doing was effortless. There aren’t many earthquakes in Tennessee, but that night there was.

As boys in the little community of Flint Hill, near Shelby, North Carolina, Earl and his brother Horace would take their banjo and guitar and start playing on the porch, then split up and meet behind the house. Their goal was to still be on the beat when they rejoined at the back. Momentously, when he was ten years old, after a fight with his brother, he was playing his banjo to calm his mind. He was practicing the standard “Reuben” when found he could incorporate his third finger into the picking of his right hand, instead of his usual two, in an unbroken, rolling, staccato. He ran back to his brother, shouting, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it!” He was on the way to creating an entirely new way of playing the banjo: Scruggs Style.

He was only twenty-one when he was in on the founding of bluegrass music, adding the Scruggs’ banjo sound to Bill Monroe’s great blend of guitar, bass, fiddle, mandolin, and Monroe’s iconic high, lonesome voice, singing, “It’s mighty dark for me to travel.” He had already been playing Scruggs style for eleven years. On the Grand Ole Opry’s Ryman Auditorium stage, the banjo had been played well, but mostly in the old style, and mostly by comedians, prompting Uncle Dave Macon, a beloved regular, to say about Earl from the wings, “That boy can play the banjo, but he ain’t one damned bit funny.”

It was at the Ryman, in 1946, that he met his future wife, Louise. They made eye contact while he was performing as she sat in the third row, stage left. Ten years later, when it became obvious that Earl was not only famous but verging on a legend, Louise, exhibiting country firmness and gumption, became his gate-keeper, defending the soft-spoken Earl from celebrity abuse, ill-advised contracts, and too many free dates or dubious honors. But Earl always obliged the youngsters and amateurs (including this writer, whom Earl showed how to play “Sally Goodin’,” his way, when I was twenty-two).

Sometime after Monroe denied him songwriting credit on “Bluegrass Breakdown,” Scruggs left Monroe, changed the F chord in “Bluegrass Breakdown” to E minor, and wrote “Foggy Mountain Breakdown. ” It became, arguably, the most famous banjo instrumental, a song that speeds along at a clip of eleven notes per second. It is known by most people as the theme from the movie “Bonnie and Clyde,” and also supplied Earl with an income for life.

The banjo lends itself to showing off: it’s often played fast and thrillingly, fingers flying up and down the neck, the right hand connecting to the left with seemingly impossible accuracy. But Earl always remembered his mother’s advice when he was a boy: “Play something that has a tune to it.” His first and last priority was to make music, which keeps his sound melodic and accessible. Yet, even professional players today say, “How did he do that?” It is not easy to make the melody note land in the right place when rolling three fingers over five strings, but Earl could syncopate, “bend” a string—which caused one note to move unbroken into another—and he could audibly retune the banjo in the middle of a song, leading to the invention of a mechanical device called “Scruggs’ pegs.” Earl knew when and how to surprise the heck out of the listener.

After he left Monroe, in 1948, Scruggs teamed up with Lester Flatt, who had also left Monroe, and Earl maintained his position, unassailed, as the greatest and most influential banjo player who ever lived. They toured the rough backroads of the bluegrass circuit, where jarring potholes knocked their instruments haywire, and they tuned each night to Flatt’s G string on his guitar—which, over the months, crept up in pitch. By the end of the tour, they were often a half-step too high, which they soon learned suited Flatt’s baritone voice.

The long zigzag march through the clubs and radio stations of America counted, though, and Monroe was annoyed as Flatt and Scruggs became as famous as he was. In 1962, they headlined the Newport Folk Festival, sold out Carnegie Hall, and, one year later, Earl’s banjo helped send “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” to No. 1 on the country charts. Then the Bob Dylan revolution and Beatles revolution hit almost simultaneously. At one point, a producer convinced the band to incorporate this new music into Flatt and Scruggs, persuading poor Flatt to sing “Everybody must get stoned.”

In the late nineteen-sixties, Earl continued to be introduced to new sounds through his musical sons Randy and Gary, and also by drop-ins to his Nashville house: Bob Dylan, the Byrds, and others who wanted to pick with the famous Earl Scruggs. Ravi Shankar came by with his sitar, and, after their unlikely jam session, they satisfied Ravi’s mystical craving for Kentucky Fried Chicken by sharing a bucket. Eventually, Earl grew his hair a bit long, joined Randy and Gary to create the Earl Scruggs Revue, and added drums to the band—a bluegrass no-no. A few years later, he released a solo album featuring songs by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. When he showed up at a Washington, D.C., anti-Vietnam War protest, the country-music world from which he sprang wondered if he had blown a gasket.

A grand part of American music owes a debt to Earl Scruggs. Few players have changed the way we hear an instrument the way Earl has, putting him in a category with Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Chet Atkins, and Jimi Hendrix. His reach extends not only throughout America, but to other countries, including Japan, where bluegrass bands, strangely, abound, as well as Australia, Russia, the U.K., Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic, which boasts not only bands but banjo makers. Most, if not all, of the banjo players play Scruggs style.

Earl is now eighty-eight, and it’s been seventy-eight years since he first shouted, “I’ve got it!” and reinvigorated the banjo. Picking with Earl at his home in Nashville is a holy anointment, and playing Earl’s banjo, the one he recorded “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on in 1949, well, that’s like holding the Grail. Sometimes on these special evenings, everyone will sit around playing their instruments, and the tunes will glide easily from one to another, like it has on the porches and living rooms of America for hundreds of years. But then Earl will settle in, playing backup or taking the lead, and you hear the sound, the one you heard when you first fell in love with the banjo, and you can’t help but have a slight intake of breath. Unmistakable. That’s Earl Scruggs. The five-string banjo could not have had a better genius.

The author wishes to thank Gary Scruggs, Pete Wernick, and Tony Trischka for confirming facts and contributing memories to this article.

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