Posted tagged ‘Earl Scruggs’

Earl Scruggs

March 28, 2012

        Earl Scruggs passed away around 10:00 AM Wednesday March 28, 2012.  Along the way he all but re-invented how to play the five string banjo, and inspired folks all over the world. As Wayne Benson once said, “When you go to a bluegrass festival, every banjo note you hear can be traced back to Earl. Indeed his way to play the five-string banjo will forever be known as “Scruggs style picking.”

        We were fortunate to get to play with Earl several times. I recall a fine lead singer with us at one session who was so awe-struck at first couldn’t remember the words to “Little Cabin Home on the Hill” when Earl called for it, even though I had heard Ray sing it hundreds of times. (He recovered and did a fine job.)

        We were mesmerized. Earl’s playing was downright magical. He had that effect on everyone. When John Hartford first heard him on the car radio he almost ran off the road. Hartford knew right then how he intended to spend the rest of his life.

        Horace told us of the day when Earl discovered how to add in the third finger on his roll (the song was Reuben). We played a lot of music with Horace over the years. He was a nice man, but did insist on two things: 1. You had to keep good time. 2. He strongly encouraged we play a Flatt and Scruggs number in every set. We had no problem going along with that at all. Horace taught us all a lot of bluegrass music. The Scruggs boys came by that timing honestly. Horace and Earl used to play back-to-back, then walk to the front of the house in opposite directions. We they met at the other end of the house if they weren’t in perfect time together, they would repeat the process until they got it right. Both ended up with perfect timing.

        Earl lived a long and very productive life, and changed the world of music forever. We will all miss him. He will never be forgotten, as his music legacy is so vast. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family.

Dr. B


Earl Scruggs and Family at the Don Gibson Theater

December 6, 2010

        Earl Scruggs and his sons Gary and Randy, along with Horace Scruggs’ son Elam and Grand Ole Opry staff fiddler Hoot Hester took the stage at the Don Gibson theater in Earl’s hometown of Shelby, N.C. on Saturday, December 3, 2010 to share music and family stories with the home folks. It was like we were kin come to visit with an invitation to a private family picking session in the front room where the family opens up Christmas presents.

        The historic event was recorded by professional media. I feel certain the footage will be available for the public in the new Earl Scruggs Museum slated to open next year in Shelby.  

        There were old stories of growing up on the farm, the discovery of the three finger style, picking sessions over on Lilly Mill Hill, Earl’s first one hundred-dollar payday (“we thought we’d struck it rich”) and tales of two hundred-dollar ’41 Chevrolets.

        There was “Sally Goodin,” (it was an audition tune when Bill Monroe hired Earl) “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” (Earl played with Dylan along the way) and stories of bluegrass festivals, Carnegie Hall, and rock ‘n roll shows with the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. They told of Louise Scruggs’ negotiation skills, and of T.V. shows (“The Beverly Hillbillies”) and calls from Warren Beatty and movie scores. (“Bonnie and Clyde”)

       It was tales of country breakfasts of cow’s milk and liver mush at Uncle Horace’s and an order of “gravy boys” at Nashville restaurants. Mother Maybelle Carter was a babysitter for Gary and Randy along the way. Lester and Earl named their band “The Foggy Mountain Boys” after the old Carter Family tune “Foggy Mountain Top.” They picked “The Wildwood Flower” in their honor.

      My wife noticed it first. “Look at Elam’s hands on that guitar. They look just like Horace’s.” She was right. 

        Mark this date in your bluegrass history book: December 8, 1945. Fifty-five years ago Earl debuted on the Opry with Bill Monroe. Most people consider it the official birthday of bluegrass music.

        As we drove back home, I couldn’t help but contemplate what it all meant. This theater and the new museum are in the home of both Earl Scruggs and Don Gibson. My goodness. Shelby, N.C. was wise to decide to document this for all time. As Lester Flatt used to say (paraphrased) “Some kinds of music come and go, but in this music folks are fans for life.”

        I am glad the town of Shelby, N.C. chose to validate that. It will be good for their tourism, but even more important, it will serve as a major documentation of the roots and history of traditional music for all time, and that is far more important.

Dr. B

The Origin of Three Finger Style Banjo

August 15, 2009

        Here’s the way I heard the story.

        Years ago two boys were cooped up in their Cleveland County farmhouse homeplace.  It was a rainy day and they had a reprieve from their chores.  One was named Horace.  He played a guitar.  His brother was Earl, and he picked a banjo.

        As boys can do, they got in an argument over some long forgotten point of contention, and Earl went back to the bedroom. 

        He had been messing with a song called ‘Ruben.’  He began to play.

        Suddenly he called out to Horace.  “I got it, I got it.”

        Horace forgot why he was mad.  It sounded important.  “Whatcha got, whatcha got?”

       “Listen.”  Earl proceeeded with a cascade of notes.  They lit up the room on a dark day in a way the boys had never heard.  “I figured out how to use three fingers.”

       “Let me get my guitar.”  Horace took off on a run.  He came back and laid down that metronome rhythm.  “You got it, You got it.” 

        Many years later Horace still recalled the day in great detail.  Looking back, even though the boys could not have any way to know how significant the event was, I believe deep in their hearts they knew that was the day ‘Scruggs Style’ banjo was born.

Dr. B

Earl Scruggs Concert/Darin and Brooke Aldridge

June 20, 2009

        This writer gig has it’s perks.  I went to the stage door where a burly security man posted guard.  I showed him my press pass and took off my glasses.  “Is this a ticketed event?”  I smiled as I asked.

        He peered into my green eye, then my blue one.  “Hey, Doc.  Don’t need no iris scan for you.  Come on in.  You gonna play?”

          “Believe I’ll leave it to the pros tonight.  Historic concert  huh?”

        “Yeah boy.”

        A few local pickers hung out with the sound crew as they put on the finishing touches.  “Y’all seen Darin and Brooke?” I asked.


         I turned a corner and followed the music where the Darin and Brooke Aldridge Quintet warmed up.  A country duet caught my ear.  It was new and fresh and old fashioned all at the same time.  “Y’all need to record that one,” I said.  Promoter Milton Harkey was there, and nodded in agreement. 

         A bus was parked outside.  Hoot Hester, staff fiddler for the Grand Old Opry, Rob Ickes, the multiple times IBMA dobro player of the year and super session pickers Jon Randall Stewart and Keith Sewell stepped out.  Man was this was some kind of all star band.  Then it was the Scruggs family; Gary, Randy, and then Earl.  My goodness.

         I hung around and swapped old stories for a while.  We picked a few tunes.  Earl had gone to rest up for the show, but Gary asked if I would like to visit for a minute.  Even though I am closing in on old, I was as tickled as a small boy.  I reminisced with Earl about how much I enjoyed his music, and shared a few old stories about his brother Horace.  We all loved Horace. 

         I went back to Darin’s warm up room and played a few more with them, then put my mandolin in the case and threw it over my shoulder.  “Guys, my Marfar is out in the audience.  I believe I ‘m gonna go out and soak this one in.  Y’all play hard.”

        “We will Doc.  Say a prayer for us, we want to do good,”  Darin said.

        “Y’all always do, young’un, but I’ll say one for good measure anyway.”  I knew what this one meant for them.  They are an overnight success after a decade of hard work, but there were folks from all over the country there, and many of them were quite influential in the music business.  The Darin and Brooke Aldridge Quintet had arrived.

        They did not disappoint.  Be it straight bluegrass, gospel numbers or country duets, it was perfect instrumentation and flawless harmony.  Brooke is a powerful singer, and Darin’s voice matches hers to perfection.  They used to say only siblings can get that kind of harmony, but we’re gonna have to revise the bluegrass rule book.  That married folk harmony is extra good, too.

        I noticed Hoot Hester in the wings checking them out.  I love all of their work, but this new country duet sound they have begun to dabble in as of late is made to order for Darin and Brooke.  It reminds me of the old Louvin brother duets, except one voice is male and one is female.  When they sang the first line I wanted to jump out of my seat and shout it out, “Lord have mercy.  I wish the Rev. Larry Shell could be here to hear that song, ’cause folks that is real country!  Kill Nashville Pop!” 

        Marfar sensed my excitement, grasped my elbow, and put a finger to her lips.  “Ssssh, Tommy.  Be quiet, now.”

        “Yes ma’am.”  I knew she was right.  No sense in getting hauled out by the cops and wrecking the show.  I went to speak to them at the break.  I hugged Darin and Brooke and shook hands with all the boys.  “Great show guys.  Don’t forget me, ’cause y’all are done famous.”

          Darin smiled.  “I ain’t ever gonna forget you, B.”

          I went back to my seat.  They took the lights back down.  The Nashville boys began to lay down a country groove.  The spotlight focused on center stage, and of a sudden, there was Earl Scruggs.  It was a standing ovation before the first note.  All of us old hands know what he means.  He redefined the banjo. 

        My pal Wayne Benson was out on the road, but he sent his best wishes.  He said, “When you hear a banjo at a festival you can trace every note back to Earl Scruggs.”  Wayne’s wife Kristin Scott Benson was the IBMA banjo player of the year for 2008.  She was out on tour with the Grascals.  Folks have taken to calling her ‘girl Scruggs.’  Like all professionals in this music she knows what Earl means to it. 

        Country Music Hall of Fame, Lifetime Grammy winner, more achievements than what I can list.  Earl Scruggs.

        It was a text book performance of one classic after another.  I was especially taken by the old public domain tunes like ‘Sally Goodin’ and ‘Solider’s Joy.’   They are timeless.  So is Earl.  When Gary commented ‘Solider’s Joy’ went back to the 1800’s Earl joked, “Yeah, I wrote it.”  We all got  a laugh, but the truth is he did re-write it in that wonderful three finger style.   Sometime I wonder who would have preserved some of those tunes if it hadn’t been for Earl.

        Randy burned up the ‘Black Mountain Blues.’  (We always called it the Black Mountain Rag.’)  Doc Watson would been proud.  When Hoot Hester kicked off  ‘Dim Lights’ I thought the man had to have played a few honky-tonks before he became a staff fiddler for the Opry.  It was one of those staccato country fiddle kick-offs that is often imitated but seldom duplicated to that level.  I would have to ask Larry Shell to be sure, as  he is more of an expert than I am, but I think ‘Dim Lights’ might be the original honky-tonk song.  The classic lyrics go:

        “Dim lights, thick smoke, and loud loud music
        Is the only kind of life you’ll ever understand
        Dim lights, thick smoke, and loud loud music
        You’ll never make a wife to a home loving man

        A drinkin’ and dancin’ to a honky-tonk band…..”

        When the song came out in the 50s it was controversial!   Now it is a classic.  Keith Sewell coaxed some fine Tele-like twang out of the electric guitar that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  Jon Randall Stewart’s singing was exceptional on that one.  I thought no one would ever sing the high part like Curly Seckler again, but this young man did it.  I was very impressed with him; a talented multi-instrumentalist, great singer, and a cool looking kid to boot; we need to see more of him.  He was a nice young man too.  It seems like the great ones always have a touch of humility.

         Gary called on Jon to sing ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ theme song and then they closed with ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown.’  The crowd was on their feet clapping and stomping.  Just like 1945 it was magic all over again; just pure magic.

          Folks, my life was meant to be a Doc.  That’s what God called me to do, and I always give it my best.  But I love the music too, and somehow I’ve gotten right in the thick of it.  Maybe it was God’s way of looking out after me.  You see a lot of heartaches as a Doc, and I can be a bit sensitive to it all at times.  The music sure has eased the pains for me. 

        I’ve been awful lucky.  One of my golf pals calls me ‘Moonlight’  after the character in ‘Field of Dreams.’  On the way home I told Marfar maybe I was a bit like Moonlight Graham, ’cause I have lived the dream the whole way.  Moonlight was meant to be a Doc, and so was I, but somehow we got to play in the big leagues for at least an inning or two.  Not many folks get to shake hands with Earl Scruggs before a concert like that one.  I was blessed to get to be any small part of it, and I am thankful for my good fortune.

        Thank you Earl Scruggs for what you have done for all of us over the years.

Dr. B

The Old Home Town/Earl Scruggs

June 18, 2009

        Friday is a big night in bluegrass music.  Earl Scruggs will be in his old hometown of Shelby, N.C. for a Homecoming concert.  In the interest of historical accuracy, I might add it is really a reunion concert for Cleveland County, as Earl grew up in nearby Boiling Springs.  To be exact, his old stomping ground was the Flint Hill community, which was part of Boiling Springs.  The old home place still stands down near the Broad River just above the Greenway.  There are some fine photos of it on the English Professor’s blog at

         Most bluegrass folks know the Flatt and Scruggs tune, ‘The Old Home Town.’   It starts out “Tonight my heart is lonely for the folks back home…”  Bluegrass tends to be a nostalgic music and I am a nostalgic man, so I can identify with the lyrics.  I guess I was a little like Jimmy Stewart in ‘A Wonderful Life.’  Home was just too powerful a draw.  When I left for college I thought where I landed was sure enough a mighty big town ’cause they had an Arby’s.  I came back home after school and never left again.

        This is not to say my world is all egocentric though.  I know I am a homebody, and believe I was supposed to be a Country Doc in a little town.  At the same time my wife and I want to see a bit of the world before we are too old to go, and ‘The Mandolin Case’ is our travel ticket.

        At the same time, I am not one to go unless I have people I want to see.  Without the book, I doubt I would have ever ventured out to any of the rest of the world.  It was my way to find others of like mind.  The beauty of the book journey is that I’ve already found new friends all over the world before it is even published, and they are all just like my Harvey County pals.  Bluegrass folks are the same everywhere, and I would never have ventured out without the security blanket of their network.  I’m a homebody but with my people I always feel at home.  

        Still, I am certain after a few weeks out there I’ll go right back to the house.  In my old song book compilation there is a category for ‘Songs About Wandering Away and Coming Home Again.’  ‘The Old Home Town’ is home and always will be.  Like a homing pigeon I’ll always return.

        There are many reasons I had to write my book, and it is a bit of a complicated story.  One objective was to pay tribute to my many friends who are out there on the road.  Every single human being who ever recorded a note of this music helped me through many long lonely Doctor nights.  I often wandered back home in the middle of the night half exhausted.  I am certain at times I would not have arrived safely if not for someone’s cassette tape blaring away in my Scout as I drove home.  Many times it was Flatt and Scruggs.   

         Friday, June 19th, 2009, Earl Scruggs is gonna wander back to his hometown too.  I’m sure gonna go.  After all, Earl saved my life out on the doctor road many a night, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for it.  The opening act is the Darin and Brooke Aldridge Quintet.  They live in the next County over, Gaston, so they are home too.   They also are a major inspiration for me.  It should be the best of the legends and the best of new for a Homecoming concert no one should not miss. 

        If you live anywhere near Western N.C. I would make the journey.  Check with Destination Cleveland County; I think there are still a few tickets left.  It promises to be a historical show.  Y’all wander over there, I am certain they’ll make you feel right at home.

Dr. B