(...)When a 21-year-old Mr. Scruggs auditioned for [Bill] Monroe, the bandleader heard the final piece in a sound he’d been working to construct. And Mr. Scruggs’ first performance with the Blue Grass Boys, on Dec. 8, 1945, was the “Big Band of Bluegrass,” offering a template — guitar, mandolin, upright bass, fiddle and Scruggs-style banjo — still employed today. During Monroe’s performances, Opry boss George D. Hay often introduced Scruggs as “the boy who made the banjo talk.” If others had made it speak, Mr. Scruggs taught it a master class in what must have seemed a foreign language, offering a vocabulary and clarity of expression never before attained and rescuing the instrument from creeping oblivion.
Earl Eugene Scruggs was born in Shelby, N.C., and raised on a farm in the Flint Hill area, nearer to the Piedmont region hamlet of Boiling Springs than to the town of Shelby. Father George and four siblings played banjo. Mr. Scruggs’ father died in 1928 after an eight-month illness, and Earl began playing banjo that year, at age 4.
“Dealing with the trauma of the death of his father at a young age, his emotional outlet turned to music,” wife Louise Scruggs wrote in the liner notes to 2001’s Earl Scruggs and Friends album.
At age 10, inspired in part by guitarist Mother Maybelle Carter, he began experimenting with playing the banjo by using his thumb and two fingers of his right hand to strike the strings in a syncopated manner. Later, as a teen, he would travel the hour or so from Flint Hill to Spartanburg to WSPA radio, where he’d watch banjo player Don Reno play live on the air. Between listening and practicing, Mr. Scruggs was developing a noteworthy style, though going pro was far from his mind. With the family farm failing, he took a job at Lily Mills in Shelby.
“Me and Grady Wilkie would sit in the backseat of my ’36 Chevy and play music,” Mr. Scruggs told The Tennessean. “He’d play guitar and I’d play banjo until they’d motion us to come back into the mill. That’s when I finally realized that what I was doing was of interest to other people. They’d stand around and watch us pick. One of them hadn’t heard nothing like that before, and he took his hat off, threw it on the ground and said, ‘Hot damn!’ That’s the only time I’ve run into a guy that when he got excited would throw his hat down and dance on it. ... That’s hard on a hat.”
In 1945, Mr. Scruggs began playing banjo with “Lost John” Miller and His Allied Kentuckians, a Knoxville-based band that played with some frequency in Nashville. Fiddler Jimmy Shumate had heard Mr. Scruggs play, and Shumate recommended him to Bill Monroe, who with his Blue Grass Boys band was an Opry staple. Neither Monroe nor Blue Grass Boy Lester Flatt was feeling particularly enthused about banjo players, as the instrument was most often played in an inelegant manner. Mr. Scruggs, though, was different.
“The miracle of ‘Scruggs-style’ banjo picking is that amidst a shower of sound — usually two or three accompanying notes for every melody note — the main theme clearly registers on the listener’s ear, like the raised image on a beautifully cast silver box still stands out to the eye even if rain pours upon it,” wrote Richard D. Smith in his definitive biography of Bill Monroe.
After a Nashville audition at the Tulane Hotel, Mr. Scruggs was asked by Monroe to join the band. After checking with Lost John Miller, Mr. Scruggs agreed to become a Blue Grass Boy.
“He never did say, ‘You’ve got the job,’” Mr. Scruggs told The Tennessean. “He just said, ‘We leave at 8 a.m. Monday morning.’”
With Monroe, Mr. Scruggs earned $60 a week, $10 more than he’d made with Lost John. But the chance to be a featured performer on the Opry and to be heard on powerful WSM-AM 650 was worth much more than the pay raise. Upon his Opry debut at the Ryman with Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, Mr. Scruggs and his “fancy banjo” (Monroe’s words) became instant sensations. Banjo players listening to the Opry heard the instrument in a way they’d never heard it before, and a generation of players began unflagging and usually unsuccessful attempts to replicate Mr. Scruggs’ style of playing.
“The right hand changed the world, in a big time way,” said Country Radio Hall of Fame disc jockey Eddie Stubbs on Wednesday night on WSM, the station that carried Mr. Scruggs’ banjo to a national audience. Steve Martin, the actor, comedian and banjo player, recently wrote of Mr. Scruggs’ Opry debut in The New Yorker: “There aren’t many earthquakes in Tennessee, but that night there was.”
Mr. Scruggs’ style of playing cemented — some would say created — the bluegrass sound. And while Monroe is correctly credited as the genre’s father, the music would not exist in its current form without Mr. Scruggs. To this day, many bluegrass players spend their lifetimes trying to achieve a reasonable approximation of what Monroe, Mr. Scruggs, Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and bass player Howart Watts achieved onstage in 1945, and in the studio in 1946 and 1947. Those players consider themselves to be purveyors of “traditional bluegrass,” yet the bluegrass sound was born not of tradition but of innovation. And Mr. Scruggs would remain an innovator for the entirety of his life.
In December of 1946, a year and eight days after first appearing with Monroe, Mr. Scruggs met the appropriately monikered Louise Certain after an Opry show at the Ryman Auditorium. The two would marry in the spring of 1948, and Louise Scruggs would become a trailblazer as Nashville’s first female manager. She was the business mind behind Flatt & Scruggs, the group Mr. Scruggs formed in early 1948 after leaving the Blue Grass Boys.
“She advanced me and advanced our music,” Mr. Scruggs told The Tennessean. “What talent I had would never have peaked without her. She helped shape music up as a business, instead of just people out picking and grinning.”
With Louise Scruggs’ help, Flatt & Scruggs’ popularity eclipsed Monroe’s. The band would become bluegrass music’s biggest commercial force in the days before Alison Krauss and Union Station’s late-century ascent.
For many years, Flatt & Scruggs shied from the term “bluegrass,” feeling that it was constricting and that it was a term that immediately called Monroe to mind. Monroe felt for many years that he had pioneered bluegrass and that he shouldn’t share stages with others in the genre, and he worked to keep Flatt & Scruggs from becoming Opry members.
But in 1955, seven years after formation and with aid from sponsor Martha White All-Purpose Flour, Flatt & Scruggs joined the Opry. That same year marked the debut of a Flatt & Scruggs television show that allowed aspiring banjo players to watch their hero’s hands fly across the fretboard, and that featured Mr. Scruggs’ shyly grinning countenance alongside Flatt’s down-home song introductions and effortless lead vocals.
Together, and with integral bandmates including Mac Wiseman, Curly Seckler, Shumate and Buck “Uncle Josh” Graves, Flatt and Mr. Scruggs recorded now-classics including “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” “Foggy Mountain Top,” “Flint Hill Special,” “Earl’s Breakdown,” “Foggy Mountain Special” and “Randy Lynn Rag.”...