Random Things that Fall Out of My Head

Frank Michels

Frank Michels
Nashville, Tennessee, USA
March 29
Frank Michels is a songwriter, musician, and producer in Nashville, Tennessee. He likes to dig in the dirt and plant flowers, cook tasty things, walk his dog, and play really fast riffs on a telecaster guitar.


Editor’s Pick
APRIL 2, 2012 7:49AM

How Earl Scruggs Changed My Life

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                                earl scruggs 

Banjo innovator Earl Scruggs’ funeral yesterday here in Nashville got me thinking about the influence he had on my life, and how things might have been very different if he had not inspired me to take up playing the banjo. I never met Mr. Scruggs, but all of us in the fraternity of banjo players owe him a debt of gratitude for the picking style he created that is the foundation of all banjo playing today. 


I grew up in Northern Virginia, in a very non-musical household. The only record albums my parents owned were Broadway musical cast albums and some Perry Como records. But as a young teenager, I began playing the guitar after hearing some older guys playing folk songs at summer camp. As I learned that instrument, I gained confidence in the fact that I was adept at hearing musical licks and quickly being able to play them.


 beverly hillbillies   


Then, Earl Scruggs and his partner Lester Flatt were hired to record the theme song to the TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies,” which was a very popular program that aired for ten years starting in 1962. The first time I heard Earl’s fast banjo picking, I immediately wanted to learn how to do that. I had never listened to country music or seen a bluegrass band, and I knew nothing about the banjo, but I just knew someday I wanted my fingers to experience the thrill of flying over five steel strings to create that sound. However, it wasn’t until I was about eighteen that I acquired a cheap used Japanese banjo, along with an Earl Scruggs method instruction manual.


 Frank in 1971   

Frank in 1971 


There are not too many people that can claim to have created a brand new style of playing, but that’s what Earl did. Before him, banjo was mainly used as a rhythm instrument, or strummed and picked with the backs of the fingers in the “clawhammer” style. Some players began picking out folk melodies in a two finger style, but Earl, on a banjo that had belong to his dad, figured out a way to use three fingers in a rolling, syncopated way. When he joined Bill Monroe’s band in 1945 at the age of 21 and began playing on the Opry, he electrified audiences with his exciting flurries of rapid-fire notes, and he influenced every person that has picked up the banjo since.


early earl scruggs   

I am not a great banjo player. Guitar is still my main instrument, and I have always played banjo, fiddle, and several other instruments as a sideline. I play banjo well enough to impress general audiences, but not other banjo players. But oddly enough, just the fact that I can play Earl Scruggs’ famous instrumental, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” has gotten me hired for gigs that I never would have gotten otherwise.

As a 22-year-old just starting out as a musician, I heard about a new country rock group that was forming. When I called them, I was told “We already have a good guitar player.” “Well,” I said, “I’m pretty good on the guitar too. But I also sing and play fiddle. And some banjo.” “You play banjo?” they said, “Hey, that would give us a different sound than all the other bands.” I got the gig. 

When my wife and I moved to Nashville in 1984, I found myself just one more guitar player in a sea of guitar players, many of them much better than me. I was able to find work in local dance bands, but I really wanted to get into the bigger leagues, playing in the band of an established country star.


A couple years later, I finally got my chance. A 3 by 5 card on the bulletin board at the musician’s union announced auditions for Brenda Lee, the former teen pop sensation turned hit country singer. I was one of dozens of guys vying for the job, and when it was my turn I played my guitar and sang reasonably well, (I thought), for Brenda’s unsmiling manager/husband Ronnie. When I was done, packing up my guitar, Ronnie pointed to my other case. “What’s in there?” he asked. “That’s my banjo,” I said. “You play banjo?” Ronnie said, starting to grin.


I got the gig.


 Frank and Brenda Lee    

Frank and Brenda Lee 


And that has been the story behind every music job I have gotten since I moved to Nashville. In a town with a guitar player behind every bush, I’m the guy who can add extra value to a band by pulling out my fiddle for “The Orange Blossom Special” or my banjo for “Theme from Deliverance.” It’s conceivable that if I had never learned to pick the banjo, I may have never gotten that first gig, and would have had to go into selling insurance or something to make a living.


Frank and Ronnie McDowell   

Frank and Ronnie McDowell

So, thank you Earl Scruggs. The joyful sound of your banjo playing has brought happiness to millions, and changed the life story of many a banjo picker. And I’m proud to be one of the many players carrying your influence into the future. 

Performing what will be forever known as the Scruggs Style.


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Wonderful to see how the inspiration of Earl Scruggs led you to pursue and fulfill your own magical musical dreams.
I didn't know that Brenda story. Very cool. Thank you, Earl!
Earl Schruggs? ... what an insult by Emily and staff
What a terrific story, Frank. That banjo has taken you far!
I don't know how that "H" got into Earl's last name on the cover...I notified them.
I hadn't realized Earl Scruggs had died, probably because I hadn't thought of him as still being alive. Bluegrass remains one of my favorite types of music, but like any other type of music, i just listen to what's being played and don't make any real effort to listen to one type or another- If nothings playing, i "play it" in my head. You tube being what it is, I'm going to go see if I can't find "Foggy Mountain Breakdown"-

Like so many legends, Mr Scruggs has always belonged to the ages-Thanks for reminding me.
Some nice background there Frank. Scruggs was really a giant in his field.
Your homage to Earl is better than mine. Thanks for posting a tribute to a true innovator, humble star and all around good person. R
Delightful story, Frank. I met Earl in 1974, at a bluegrass festival near Saratoga NY. Lester Flatt was there, with his band, and J D Crow and the New South, which band included two young guys whose genius on their instruments served to remind me (I played guitar in a bluegrass band) that I best choose another way to make a living. They were Tony Rice and Ricky Scaggs.
Yeah, New South was a pretty amazing band...
Frank! What CAN'T you do? Fine photo of you back in 1971. Way cool post, congrats on the EP!
I enjoyed thoroughly this post about the influence of Earl Scruggs on your successful career.
Frank, thanks for sharing this great story (& photos)! You made me look up Foggy Mountain Breakdown ; beautiful! :)