Happy 87th Birthday Earl Scruggs, the OG of Bluegrass

Earl Scruggs turns 87 today and I thought it might be a good time to present a slightly different perspective on his legacy.

I used to teach a big class on American Popular Music at the University of Washington, back when I was in the ethnomusicology program. Which is funny, because I know absolutely nothing about popular music. This was proven to me early on when I was found unable to recognize or whistle the song "I've Got You Babe' by Sonny and Cher. Periodically, this issue comes up again in my life, like when I get all excited about this amazing new song I've found by a little-known group called the Jackson Five. But I know folk music. I know bluegrass and old-time and Irish and Inuit throat singing; you name it, I'm into it. So while every one of my 200 students was looking forward to learning about the Beatles or Jay-Z, I was looking forward to teaching about minstrelsy and Appalachian ballads. I wasn't the most popular teacher the class has ever seen.


But my favorite part of teaching that class was introducing Earl Scruggs. See, his music is so omnipresent that we take for granted just how amazing he is and was. There are a number of seminal artists in our history whose music was so explosive, so controversial, so intense that it instantly changed everything.


The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) are an early example of this. A bunch of nerdy white kids that discovered that they could tear the roof off a dancehall by just racing hell-for-leather through black jass tunes. Bob Dylan's another example. A young punk who figured out that adopting Woody Guthrie's "Fuck the Man" attitude could earn him a helluva lot more followers than Pete Seeger's "Love Everyone" philosophy. In Cajun music, Iry Lejeune sparked a bonfire renaissance of the old roots music by playing his accordion so hard that he nearly destroyed his own recordings. On his early cuts, he plays with a full band, but all you hear is his accordion, racing back and forth like a prison shank. Johnny Cash blew the lid off country music when he sang about killing a man in Reno. Hell, the list goes on, but Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe hold  special places in my heart as cold-blooded purveyors of country punk.


Iry Lejeune tears up a Cajun waltz



While hillbillys all over the South were dressing up as hayseeds and spitting out corny one-liners and wacky skits, Bill Monroe and his bluegrass boys dressed in their Sunday best and brought a cool, bordering on cold, level of respect to the music. Like Wu-Tang, they were nothing to fuck with. They took old-timey roots music (Monroe played many square dances in his youth) and sped it way up, taking the blazing rhythms of Southern dance music and adding fresh ideas like solos (jazz), complex harmonies (Black and White gospel), and all kinds of blue notes and early funk (country blues). Just like punk, they stripped away all the bullshit that was drowning the music, keeping only the hardest elements to put together a new style based on what made the music great in the first place. They built an entire industry from scratch, just because they wanted to do it their own way. And though Monroe gets most of the credit for these changes, Scruggs was the flash point that changed everything.


It's hard to imagine the impact Scruggs' first recordings must have had on Southern musicians. His banjo picking is like a sucker-punch, coming completely by surprise. By adapting a regional style of playing known as three-finger picking (now known as Scruggs-style) and adapting it to his utterly raw sensibilities, he tore apart everyone's conception of his instrument. Imagine Jimi Hendrix if he stood stock still on stage with an eerie smile and just proceeded to tear the hell out of his guitar without any theatrics. If you listen to his Mercury recordings with Lester Flatt, he plays so hard that he distorts the instrument's sound, literally pounding the notes into the grooves of the shellac. And while many players can cop to a rawness and intensity in their music, it's rare that this is coupled with pure virtuosity. In Scruggs early recordings, he completely redefined what the banjo was capable of and took it from its hillbilly hokum roots to a new era of punk attitude and folk virtuosity.


Flatt & Scruggs: Pike County Breakdown (imagine hearing this for the first time)



Scruggs brought balls to bluegrass. Witness this tune 60 years later:


You can read plenty of info elsewhere about Scruggs' later career, and at 60+ years, it is staggering. But I'll share one more anecdote before signing off. I got to see Scruggs play live (first-time) a few years ago at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. It was a special show, as he played with Bela Fleck for their first time together on stage (Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet opened the show). Scruggs was probably 85 at the time and had put together an ace group of bluegrass superstars, including family members and another banjo player. He sat on a chair for most of the concert just cooly staring into space. Then he'd suddenly stand up, walk to the mic, and rip out a blazing solo before sitting back down. Didn't say much, didn't interact with the band much, just kicked ass and sat back down. The father of country punk or outlaw bluegrass, bringing much-needed attitude to one of America's most maligned instruments, the banjo.


Happy Birthday, Earl Scruggs!


Earl's Website

Interview with David Johnston (Yonder Mountain String Band) about Scruggs' influence


YOU MUST BUY Flatt & Scruggs: The Complete Mercury Sessions



--Devon @ Hearth Music




Views: 381

Tags: Bill Monroe, Country Punk, Earl Scruggs, Earl Scruggs Birthday, Flatt & Scruggs, Iry Lejeune, Original Dixieland Jazz Band

Comment by Annie Keville on January 6, 2011 at 2:53pm
Proto-Billy-Zoom of the banjo. Nice tribute to an icon!
Comment by Kyla Fairchild on January 6, 2011 at 4:14pm
Great post!  Thanks.
Comment by Dustin Ogdin on January 6, 2011 at 4:47pm
Best post of 2011.  Beautiful tribute.
Comment by Rosemary Ivey on January 6, 2011 at 5:05pm
Happy happy, Earl!  Back in the day, 70s, I saw he and Emmy Lou at the Warner Theatre in DC.  The best!
Comment by Rod Ames on January 7, 2011 at 7:35am
I saw The Earl Scruggs Review in Dallas at a small venue called Sneaky Pete's sometime in the early to mid 70's. Great show! We even played Randy in foosball. I think he probably won the game, but honestly don't remember for sure. Great post. Thanks!
Comment by Will Hancock on January 7, 2011 at 9:35am

Earl is the man.  Not to be a bluegrass nutjob, but you failed to point out that Earl joining Bill Monroe's band is really when bluegrass began - before Earl's banjo there was no bluegrass.  We're playing a show tonight, we'll have to rip off some Earl's Breakdown.

Will Hancock (Allegheny Ridgerunners)

Comment by Rick Riman on January 7, 2011 at 12:02pm

Regarding your reference to that show at Benaroya Hall in Seattle:  can you (or anyone else) identify his sidemen for that date?  I'm particularly curious as to the identity of the other banjo player in his band for that. 


Comment by Hearth Music on January 7, 2011 at 12:03pm
Awww, Will, way to hate on poor Stringbean Akeman! I think pre-Scruggs Monroe was the real bluegrass: hillbilly banjo, creepy brother duets and ACCORDION!!! Bluegrass was never  the same after Monroe dropped the accordion.
Comment by Hearth Music on January 7, 2011 at 12:08pm
Rick, I'll check. I think Jim Lauderdale might have been there with his band. I just don't really remember.
Comment by Dustin Ogdin on January 11, 2011 at 9:18am
As much as I love this post & Earl, I have to say that Bill Monroe was "the" OG. Earl was his most important collaborator and the final piece to define the aggressive tone, but, let's face it, Bill was the heavy. Monroe wouldn't have been part of no Beverly Hillbillies.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.