Bluegrass, banjos and his legend
Banjo legend Earl Scruggs may be stooped with age, but his fingers still pick the same quicksilver notes that jump-started American music more than 60 years ago.
His playing turned the banjo into a virtuoso instrument and helped define the “high lonesome” sound of bluegrass music. He’s traded licks with Indian sitar players, New York city jazzmen and Los Angeles pop stars, and he has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
At 82, Scruggs has nothing left to prove. But he continues to play festivals and concerts even after the recent death of his wife, Louise, who guided his career over the course of their 58-year marriage.
“I know she would want me to still do what I’m doing, because she kept me going a lot of times when I’d almost lose interest in getting out on the road,” Scruggs said.
At Washington’s Kennedy Center, Scruggs led a band of young Nashville hotshots though a set that spanned his career -- including “Old Reuben,” the fiddle tune on which he forged his distinctive style as a boy in the North Carolina mountains.
That style -- a hard-driving cascade of triplets, picked at breakneck speed -- would become the signature sound of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, the group that developed bluegrass music in 1945.
The Blue Grass Boys updated the ancient ballads and fiddle tunes of the Appalachian Mountains with a postwar sensibility, adding a jazz band’s swagger and improvisation.
Scruggs and guitar player Lester Flatt left the Blue Grass Boys in 1947 and set out on their own, recording songs like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Salty Dog” that would become standards for parking-lot pickers everywhere.
Flatt and Scruggs found a wider audience beyond the tent shows of the South thanks to Louise, who managed the group’s career at a time when few women operated on the business side of show business.
“If it weren’t for Louise, his career wouldn’t have developed the way it developed,” said Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame. “She was a hard-nosed businesswoman.”
Louise introduced urban audiences to Flatt and Scruggs during the folk-music boom of the early 1960s and booked them onto bills with rock acts like Marvin Gaye and the Grateful Dead. She also pushed the group to record songs by Bob Dylan and other modern songwriters.
Her greatest coup was getting Flatt and Scruggs featured on the hit TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies,” despite initial skepticism that it would make fun of mountain people.
At the end of the 1960s, Flatt and Scruggs parted ways, and Scruggs formed a country-rock band with his three sons.
Scruggs said his sons pushed him to stretch beyond the often-restrictive world of bluegrass.
“That was one of the best, exciting things for me to play with them,” Scruggs said. “They were very young and eager to go. I’d been playing with a band that was mostly old folks that had been together so long we couldn’t do anything to excite each other.”
Scruggs and his wife are featured in an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame that lasts through this summer -- an exhibit that has taken on added poignancy with Louise’s death in February.
“She was a great lady,” Scruggs said. “We raised three boys, were together as long as she lived, and now she’s passed on.”