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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 521

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This is the grave of Earl Scruggs.

Born in Flint Hill, North Carolina, a small community in Cleveland County, in 1924, Scruggs became one of the most interesting and innovative musicians in the history of American music. His family were poor farmers and like many Appalachian families, music is how they spent their free time. The whole family played something or the other, often the banjo. Scruggs’ father died when the boy was young. As the youngest child, this hit him pretty hard. He seems to have taken solace in music and he became playing in local talent shows.

Most of the banjoists at this time picked the instrument with two fingers, producing, at least among the white community, the old-timey sound that defined very early country music. But in Cleveland County, there were a bunch of people developing a sort of three-finger style. What Scruggs did was perfect it, creating a rolling picked sound that would come to define a new way of playing the instrument once he got famous. Don Reno, another great banjoist from the general area, said that Scruggs sounded a lot like the older guys they both knew. Scruggs disagreed with that. John Hartford, who knew plenty about banjo himself, stated, “Everybody’s all worried about who invented the style and it’s obvious that three finger banjo pickers have been around a long time — maybe since 1840. But it’s my feeling that if it wasn’t for Earl Scruggs, you wouldn’t be worried about who invented it.” This seems to be a useful final statement on the issue.

In any case, Scruggs took that three-fingered style to great fame after World War II. Before the war, he only played professionally a little bit. He had to make a living after all and that came mostly in the region’s textile mills. After the war ended, Bill Monroe was looking for a new banjoist for his band, The Bluegrass Boys. Stringbean Akeman had left the band. In this and other bands, the banjo was increasingly seen as an old-timey joke and often not given lead parts anymore. Monroe was a big-time country musician after all and was a very modern man. So he and Lester Flatt, the great guitarist, auditioned a whole bunch of banjo players. But they hadn’t heard anyone who sounded like Scruggs. They hired him and he made the epic era of The Bluegrass Boys as much his sound as did Monroe and Flatt. It was at this time that Monroe recorded “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and other of his greatest hits. But it was a short-lived deal. The problem is that Monroe was crazy. Later in life, he became to be seen as this grandfatherly figure, but he was a very difficult man. And he worked his band to the bone. They played up to six shows a day, driving between them, getting little sleep, and with a very angry bandleader if their playing slacked off. And then they always had to get back to Nashville to play on the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night, no matter how far away they were. It was a great band. But it was totally unsustainable. Scruggs was a young man and he wanted to get married and start a family and take care of his aging mother. So he quit. At almost the exact same time, so did Lester Flatt. Monroe felt they were conspiring against him and never forgave either. They did not speak for 20 years. And they sure as hell didn’t get to play the Opry, where Monroe held sway. In fact, Monroe never really had a stable band again. It became notorious for people going in and out of it all the time, dozens in the end.

Flatt and Scruggs loved playing together. So in 1948, they formed their own band–Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. More open to pop stylings and less irascible than Monroe, they became the most known band in bluegrass music. They dropped the mandolin entirely and replaced it with a dobro, partly to create distance from Monroe. They had a hit with the instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” that became a bluegrass standard. They finally got to the Opry over Monroe’s outrage in 1955 after one of the show’s sponsors threatened to pull all his advertising over it. They recorded a lot of albums. Flatt did the singing, but Scruggs’ banjo was so distinctive that it was the real star of the band. The folk revival picked up on them in the early 1960s.

They also got to write the theme for “The Beverly Hillbillies.” It’s a ridiculous song for a ridiculous show. It also made them an incredible amount of money, especially by bluegrass standards. Flatt’s vocals might have explained the stupid story to viewers but it was Scruggs’ banjo–a sound that many viewers had never heard before–that stuck in their heads. They were sometimes in the show too. The theme song went to #8 on the country charts in 1963 and they were able to capitalize it and stabilize their finances.

Then, in 1967, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” became the theme of the groundbreaking film Bonnie and Clyde. They recorded a new soundtrack for the album. Flatt hated it. He didn’t understand all this violence and Hollywood stuff. But Scruggs loved it. See, he was a really interesting musician. Most of the country scene was instinctively conservative–politically too, yes and Scruggs later became known as the only Nashville star who supported McGovern–but changing the style was not the Nashville way. Scruggs didn’t think that way. His sons were growing up by this time and becoming important musicians of their own, hanging out with the kids who were involved in what became the first country-rock bands. He was open to that. Moreover, his wife Louise (also buried here) was a great manager for him. She had a great financial mind and in fact became the first female country music manager in Nashville when she took over for Flatt and Scruggs doing it themselves. She is the one who got them onto the Newport Folk Festival and into gigs with Joan Baez. She is the one who got artists who drew New Yorker covers to draw for their albums. She was critical in their modern transformation. And she also felt good about Earl going in his own direction. Scruggs said about her, “What talent I had never would have peaked without her. She helped shape music up as a business, instead of just people out picking and grinning.” In 1969, Flatt decided to break up the band, disliking where this was all going. But Earl was going to be OK. In response, Scruggs formed the Earl Scruggs Revue, with his sons and other great musicians, including Vassar Clements. Amazingly, in 1969, the band played at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam in Washington. This was the kind of guy Scruggs was. He was also seeking all sorts of other ways to apply his banjo style. Was it just a country instrument? What else could it do? The Scruggs Revue had a slightly interesting country-rock tinge to it, but those albums aren’t much remembered for a reason. And Scruggs never actually did transcend country music. But you have to appreciate his efforts and vision. In 1972, a documentary about Scruggs came out that really gets into this. It includes him talking about the Moratorium to End the War and why it was important, others talking about how much they respect him for this and everything else he did and played and stood for, and of course lots of good footage. Check it out.

Scruggs went into semi-retirement by 1980 due to health problems stemming from the road. He had a bad car accident and a plane accident. He survived both, but it took its toll. He very occasionally recorded, including a song with his son Randy and Doc Watson on the Red Hot + Country AIDS benefit album in 1994. He died in 2012 at the age of 88.

Let’s listen to some Earl Scruggs.

Earl Scruggs is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM readers. Many thanks! If you would like this series to cover other legends of bluegrass music, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lester Flatt is in Sparta, Tennessee and Hazel Dickens is in Princeton, West Virginia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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