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Saturday morning quote #45: Earl Scruggs

March 31, 2012

“I like drums, really, if they’re under control.”

– Earl Scruggs (1/6/1924 – 3/28/2012)

Earl Scruggs, the banjo player, was known far and wide for his percussive, hard-driving sound – really the most audibly prominent characteristic of the music we know as bluegrass.  But Earl Scruggs, the human being, was a true inspiration for his humble, gentle manner that counterbalanced and tempered the edginess of the musical style.

As a high school student, I had a rare if accidental opportunity to actually rub shoulders with the man.  While taking a break from one of my two after-school jobs, scrubbing pots and pans at the local bakery, I sat bleary-eyed in one of the three booths of the small coffee shop and attempted to swill enough coffee to keep me going through my next job.  Four men dressed with a little more flair than the typical hometown hillbilly walked into the coffee shop and, seemingly as exhausted as I was, plopped into the booth next to the one I occupied.  Quarters being a bit cramped, one of the gentlemen bumped up against my elbow and then apologized profusely for his clumsiness.  It turned out to be Earl Scruggs.

I knew vaguely who Earl Scruggs was, and easily figured out that that the snappy dressers were members of the band in town for a concert that evening, a concert I had to miss because of work.  But it wasn’t until a few years later that I realized what a legendary figure he was in the music that eventually inspired me to the point that I had to get a banjo and learn how to play it.

I picked up a copy of Earl Scruggs and the 5 String Banjo, a book that contained many pages of Earl’s tunes transcribed into notation, which made little sense to me at the time.  But along with the descriptions of right-hand patterns and the abundant if subtle references to bluegrass etiquette, I absorbed Earl’s reverence for the music as a family pastime and a social medium.  Of course he took it further than the local dance hall and became a professional and an innovator.  But he always conveyed that country spirit, even as he was edging into experimental bluegrass-rock fusion with his sons.

Even though I veered away from bluegrass banjo and towards a more archaic style, I played mandolin in a few bluegrass bands and have come to know many good Scruggs-style banjo players, all of whom without reservation pay homage to the man and his sound.  Perhaps he will be remembered just as much for his quiet, gentle spirit.

It has been a great pleasure to me to hear the many fine banjo players who have started playing from my style, and encouraging too, to hear their own ideas and talents added into their playing.  It could probably be correctly stated that I was the first person to expose this style nationally.  I would honestly like to say “Thank you” personally to all of you who have learned from my playing.

Earl Scruggs and the 5 String Banjo

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