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.
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
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.
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
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
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.