The link below will take you to a sample of Earl's banjo magic.
I never met Earl Scruggs, but he touched my life in several ways. I am a, mostly self trained, musician. The instruments I played were, in order, piano (lessons which I hated), ukulele, guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass. I bought the ukulele as a grade school student, the first guitar from a pawn shop in college, and then went for years playing only guitar.
In the late ‘60s I began to play with a fellow who played claw hammer banjo. For those of you who are unfamiliar with banjo styles this involves the thumb on the 5th (drone) string, and the melody using the back of the nail on either the index or middle finger. It is part of what is also called “old style” banjo. Think Uncle Dave Macon.
In the mid 1940s Earl Scruggs was playing “not thinking about anything” when he suddenly realized that he was playing the banjo in a style that no one played; the style of 3 finger picking that became known simply as “Scruggs style”. The advantage of the style was that it could be used with either slow or up-beat pieces and could be used as backup to other instruments.
Earl got picked up by Bill Monroe, the man who became known as the father of blue-grass music. Lester Flatt sang and played guitar and eventually Flatt and Scruggs left Bill Monroe and became a phenomenon.
The song that Earl was doodling around on when he had the “gift” was Rueben, still one of my favorite tunes. Other songs that Flatt and Scruggs made famous were the Beverly Hillbillies theme song, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Home Sweet home, and Flint Hill Special.
Returning to the banjo; in 1975 I began work as a pathologist in Memphis, Tennessee. There was a bluegrass jam session on Friday nights at a concrete block building in Lucy, Tennessee that was referred to as the Lusy Opree. Bluegrass bands played inside, pickup groups played outside. There were some really good musicians who never left the parking lot.
I became obsessed with the banjo. After a great deal of hand wringing I bought a D model Ode banjo. This was a fine banjo, but had a different sound than the one that Earl Scruggs played. Earl played one banjo all of his life, a Gibson.
There was now nothing to keep me from becoming as good as Earl, except talent, my day job, and the time that practicing took from my family. The banjo nearly caused a divorce. Seriously.
We actually had the conversation about whether I wanted to be a doctor who played the banjo or a banjo player who played doctor. The latter was incompatible with marriage.
So, knowing that I didn’t have the talent for the latter I put the banjo on the shelf.
Years passed, there were a couple of moves, and I arrived in Shelby, North Carolina. Shortly after I arrived I noticed a community on the county map called Flint Hill. “Funny”, I remarked, “there is an Earl Scruggs tune titled “Flint Hill Special”. Everyone looked at me as though I was daft. “That’s because Earl Scruggs is from Flint Hill” they said.
I met Earl’s brother Horace Scruggs. Horace was a real gentleman, a solid guitar player who seldom strayed from 3 chords and had a sense of rhythm like a metronome. I was talking to Horace about that fact one day and he told me that he and Earl used to sit on the front porch and start playing a song. They would then walk off the porch, walk around the house in different directions and see if they were still playing together when they met in the back of the house. They practiced this until they always were.
Because of Earl’s popularity and his poor health in his later years the family protected him from his fans. When he did return to Flint Hill only family and a few close friends were allowed a visit.
Earl Scruggs died this week at age eighty-eight. He was instrumental in creating a banjo playing style imitated by thousands and helped shape what is now known as bluegrass music.
I’m still playing the guitar. Enjoy it immensely. Sold my banjo and never look back.
Y.T. playing "clawhammer" style with Jeff Fierra 1969