Earl Scruggs has been inside a thousand venues for music across the United States in his 60 years of shaping and reshaping the bluegrass sound in America. More than 1,000, but who counted? So his opinion of such venues is well derived. He's coming to the Tennessee Theatre this weekend, and he's excited about it.
"It's the most beautiful theater I was ever in in the United States," says Scruggs of the house he last appeared in three years ago, before its $25 million-plus restoration, "and I can't imagine what it's like now." It's the recently designated State Theatre of Tennessee, and it's been around longer than Scruggs has been playing banjo professionally, but it's got a long way to go to match his fame.
He's hardly been a stranger on Gay Street since his Knoxville debut there in 1945, a year earlier than his wife and manager, Louise remembered hearing about. "I'm always learning something new from you," she says to her legendary husband as the couple shares a phone interview with Metro Pulse from their Nashville home. She helped spread his legend worldwide in the 55 years of their marriage through shrewd management and dedication to his career.
It hadn't really started when, Earl says, "I came up there with some boys from North Carolina, and we played the WNOX Saturday night Tennessee Barn Dance." A farm boy working in a textile mill, he was playing for the sheer delight of it. Radio appearances didn't pay.
He impressed everybody then with his three-finger banjo picking style, new to the country music scene. He did things with the banjo no one else had ever done, a legacy that he began to develop in his bedroom in rural Cleveland County, N. C., as a 10-year-old in a family devoted to music. It was his late father, George Elam Scruggs' banjo, and Earl had been fooling with it almost since his father's death when he was four. He picked it on the floor with two fingers first, then came the revelation that he could use three fingers, like a few neighbors in that part of North Carolina had pioneered.
Scruggs was the one who carried it out of that region, and his artistry has made the 5-string banjo the central instrument in bluegrass music.
You could argue the point, but Earl Scruggs has probably had the greatest influence on any music genre, in form, style, and substance, of any musician in the 20th century. And he's still at it, developing and moving the bluegrass style in the 21st century. He's lodged in halls of fame all across the country-music spectrum. He's got a satchel full of Grammys and other awards and honors, and just this week he was presented with an honorary doctorate by Boston's Berklee College of Music, not his first doctorate, but, he and Louise say, a "great honor."
From that first radio exposure in Knoxville, Scruggs says, he was invited to play with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, a seminal bluegrass band led by the mandolin-wielding Monroe, on Grand Ole Opry, a gig that put him into the swirl of touring for three years, during which his banjo magic usually upstaged the leader's mandolin. It was with Monroe that he first played with guitarist/vocalist Lester Flatt. Their songs of the period elevated bluegrass to a national recognition, but the pace of travel between one-nighters was too much for Earl at the time.
"I was going to just quit. I was tired of the road, and I was going back to North Carolina and work in a factory. I turned in my notice. Lester didn't believe me," Earl says. When he packed up to leave Monroe, Flatt came to him and suggested they form their own band instead of letting Earl drop the whole idea of performing professionally. They could control their own schedule that way, and Earl agreed to try it.
Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys came into being that year, 1948, and the path to their many triumphs was virtually set from that beginning. It wasn't an easy path, but it was a memorable one. They moved the band from town to town and city to city, making it possible to play dates on day trips within driving range. They lived in Knoxville in 1949 for about nine months, playing nearby spots, between stints living in Bristol and Lexington, then moved to Birmingham and other places, Scruggs remembers, and were back living in Knoxville in 1953 when they were hired away by Martha White, the flour company sponsoring the Grand Ole Opry. They were in Nashville again when bluegrass began to take off in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and they were at the heart of the trend.
As folk music in general captured the nation's attention and adoration in the late ’60s, the Foggy Mountain Boys became a household name, and Flatt & Scruggs were in demand for concert appearances and festivals. Their recordings sold in the millions. Folk Songs of Our Land, an earlier album featuring such songs as "Short Life of Trouble," "Sun's Going to Shine in My Back Door Someday," "The Johnson Boys," "McKinley's Gone," and George Alley's "F.F.V.," is a classic that has yet to be remastered on CD, but Louise says she's working on it.
It was the Scruggs' instrumental "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" that was picked for the theme played throughout the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, and their appearances and playing the theme for the television series The Beverly Hillbillies that rocketed Flatt & Scruggs to international fame. By 1968, though, their partnership was wearing down, with Flatt wanting to stay with the traditional bluegrass sound, and Scruggs pushing the envelope, wishing for new horizons. Earl's sons, Gary and Randy, were accomplished musicians who influenced their dad in new directions. Flatt & Scruggs parted in ‘69, with Flatt forming the successful Nashville Grass band and Scruggs putting together the Earl Scruggs Revue with his boys. Flatt died in 1979. The Scruggs outfit, with youngest son Steve joining in, had a series of country-rock triumphs in the 1970s. The momentum fell away with the death of Steve in 1992, and Earl was virtually retired for a time.
He suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1996, but his recovery from that and a hip-replacement surgery, correcting the lasting effect of injuries he suffered in a 1948 car wreck on Asheville Highway 10 miles east of Knoxville, re-invigorated him.
His return to the national music scene was met with great enthusiasm in the industry, and he performed with some of music's biggest names, forming in the process what has become Earl Scruggs with Family and Friends. His latest Grammy, in 2002, was for a star-studded remake of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." Sons Gary and Randy remain active musically, and Gary will be here with the band for this Saturday night's performance at the Tennessee. "I'm sure looking forward to coming back there," Earl says.
At 81, Earl is playing (it looks more like work than play) the banjo in any music that suits him. And a lot of music does. It was his wish to take the Scruggs style onto other stages, and with his sons' help, he has done that very well.
Last week, the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville opened the doors to "Banjo Man: The Musical Journey of Earl Scruggs," an exhibit described as among the most elaborate that the institution has ever devoted to a single artist. Not quite single; it also features a tribute to Louise.
But, if you believe that the indomitable Earl Scruggs has been reduced somehow to a museum piece, take in the Tennessee Theatre show, one of about a dozen he's scheduled for 2005, including early June's Bonnaroo Festival at Manchester, Tenn., the Telluride bluegrass Festival in Colorado later in June, and the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2005 fest in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in October.
"I'm blessed with a gift and I love it that I could do it all my life," says Earl. "To tell you the truth, I'm enjoying it more now than back when I was doing it every night. "The trouble with show business," Earl reflects, " is that you don't know how long it's going to last," he says of his 60-year run. Be assured, it's going to last as long as he does and be remembered far, far longer.
Convince yourself, if you don't know that. Come to the Tennessee Saturday night if you can beat somebody out of a ticket. It was almost a sell-out as of Wednesday. And just listen at him.