The label personally signed by Earl that lives inside my Scruggs Standard Mastertone
I was saddened to hear Earl Scruggs passed away, from natural causes, in a Nashville hospital yesterday. Earl was 88 and had been very frail for sometime. Earl’s had such a profound influence on country music and bluegrass in particular, it’s hard to know where to start trying to explain the impact the man had and the great respect he received from banjo players the world over.
As many people will probably know, Earl burst on to the scene as a 21 year old member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass boys. Previously Bill’s band had employed banjo players who played in the frailing style. Players like Stringbean Akeman , a fine player in the frailing tradition who also did a lot of comedy spots and ‘send ups’ . This was considered to be the banjo players job , if you like. A sort of rhythm section with jokes. Now , Bill had been calling his music ‘blue grass music ‘ ( notice separate ‘blue’ and ‘grass’ ) for some time by now , a good ten years in fact. But the banjo was still very much rooted in the old time style.
Bill’s guitar player at that time was Lester Flatt ( later to leave with Earl and form the now legendary Foggy Mountain Boys ) . When Lester was asked to recall Earl’s audition later years, he talked about how they’d pretty much decided to drop the banjo from the line up all together. Lester even told Earl
” Don’t bother gettin’ that thing out the case, friend …”
The five string banjo had pretty much had its day and the Blue grass boys where beginning to feel it ” just didn’t fit their music ” anymore, from a rhythmic point of view .
Bill Monroe is considered the father of Bluegrass right ? Now, I don’t want to upset anyone with this but you can’t underestimate Earl’s contribution to that sound.
When a 21 year old Scruggs started playing a very driving three finger style banjo, a whole new vocabulary for the instrument appeared in the line up. His appearance with the blue grass boys on the Grand Oprey that year has been likened to the birth of rock n roll. People where knocked over by the power and drive the music now had, helped in no small part by a very young Earl. The band started being introduced on the radio as Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys featuring Earl Scruggs and his fancy banjo pickin’ . That must have felt awkward ! :-). Its worth noting after Earl left the band , Bill always included a banjo player in the Scruggs/three finger style from that day forward.
I personally , think bluegrass music is the most wonderful sound ever but whatever other people like or dislike about it, there s always one constant. It has to contain tasteful, solid , driving banjo, to be anything like the real deal and that comes back to Earl’s legacy. Just about everyone who pcks up a banjo , plays or owes something to Earls. Oh, and to any claw hammer players reading this:
I’d just like to say capo spikes…..ok ?
You can thank Earl for that idea too. 🙂 He decided model railway track spikes would be useful on the fifth string.
Lazy Journalism And A Disappointing Obituary
I could go on and on about innovations and great recordings but I just want to share a mini rant with you if you don’t mind.
I got up this morning and heard the news about Earl. So I thought I’d look up some news papers on line . I looked at the Telegraph first and I’ve got to say, I was pretty disappointed by the lack of research. Now, I know not everyone is a bluegrass fan and I know this stuff isn’t exactly mainstream. But a quick google search would have pulled up a ton of information on the man. It really underlined for me just how marginalised bluegrass music is in the UK. For example headline :
– COUNTRY SINGER DIES AGE 88
It went on to say how Earl ” dabbled in all sorts of music…” and stuff like ” rather than flailng ( their spelling ) at the banjo as most of his contemporaries did. He delicately hit the strings with the right hand fingers, coaxing the instrument to produce precise melodies “.
I’m sorry but that’s just lazy journalism and its ….well….. Is it ok to say bollocks ? Thanks. It’s just a pile of bollocks and hardly a fitting tribute to such an open minded adaptable player.
One last thing !
If you look at a lot of the older banjo players they quite often have their banjo strap over their right shoulder, like Earl.(Instead of putting it over their head , the normal way, so it goes diagonally across your body). I’m told this was just the done thing for banjo players, nobody really questioned it. In fact , I’m told a couple of reputable acoustic magazines even discussed the pros and cons of this , as far as posture and technique etc where concerned. Some years passed before someone got around to asking Earl why he hung his strap over one shoulder:
“Oh” , he said ” its so I don’t have to keep taking my hat off ” .
Earl Eugene Scruggs: January 6th 1924 – March 28th 2012