BLUEGRASS RAMBLES: A Fresh Look at Earl Scruggs and ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’
Thomas Goldsmith opens his biographical portrait of Earl Scruggs and his greatest artistic achievement, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” by setting the scene in both Scruggs’ early childhood home of Flint Hill, North Carolina, and the Herzog recording studio in Cincinnati, Ohio, where this epic song was first recorded in 1949, creating a matrix for how a groundbreaking banjo tune could permeate an entire culture. What follows in Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown: The Making of an American Classic (University of Illinois Press) is not exactly a biography, but rather a highly readable portrait of the man, the song, the times, and the music.
This heavily annotated and carefully researched volume exhibits the same narrative drive that Earl Scruggs’ banjo displays in the title piece. Scruggs’ reputation grew with Lester Flatt as one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys at the Grand Ole Opry, through his lengthy partnership as a member of Flatt & Scruggs, and then in his later career with The Earl Scruggs Revue and Earl Scruggs & Friends. As the story unfolds in Goldsmith’s book, Scruggs emerges as a creative genius whose work defined new spaces for the banjo in American music, spreading bluegrass music to wider audiences than had ever been imagined, even by Monroe himself.
Goldsmith takes us to rural Cleveland County, North Carolina, where Scruggs was born in 1924 on a hardscrabble farm, surrounded by hard work, music, and the emerging mill culture of the region. His early musical influences are carefully traced, as is his childhood as a somewhat dreamy boy who early became obsessed with the sound of the banjo, which he played from the time he was too small to hold the heavy instrument. Life in Cleveland County was fertile ground for both the Ku Klux Klan and more progressive thinking, from which Scruggs learned some of his seldom expressed more liberal ideas and developed a quiet, nonconfrontational persona. While he later opposed the Vietnam War, working with contemporary artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, he generally stuck to his music.
Goldsmith compares the step into Bill Monroe’s band as equivalent to the change from black-and-white to Technicolor when Dorothy enters the Land of Oz, so much did Scruggs’ first appearance stand out and change the country’s musical landscape. Dec. 8, 1945, became the most hallowed date in bluegrass history — the date that Scruggs joined the recently hired Lester Flatt in Monroe’s band The Blue Grass Boys and the Ryman Auditorium crowd exploded on hearing his banjo. Scruggs comments that his addition helped “punch up” the music, driving the highly competitive Monroe to even greater heights than he had so far achieved, helping define bluegrass. After only a little over two years with Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs left, soon to partner up for their 26-year run as Flatt & Scruggs.
Always maintaining the focus on his title, Goldsmith resists getting sidetracked into wider discussions. The first recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on Mercury Records on Dec. 11, 1949, receives detailed and loving attention. Recording on a chilly, rainy day required Scruggs to place a lightbulb behind his banjo head to tighten it in order to get the “snappy tone” he demanded from the skin heads commonly used during that period, Goldsmith recounts. The song immediately captured the attention of audiences and, perhaps more important, fellow banjo players. A chapter on “How the Song Works” may appeal more to banjo players than others, but in its sheer presentation of detail it captures the immediacy of the recording, suggesting how and why it has lasted so long in the imaginations of those hearing it.
Scruggs’ role in the wider popular culture of music, film, and television during the period from the 1960s to his death in 2012 is covered carefully, but not burdened by overemphasis on too many details of time, venues, and fellow performers.
During the 1960s, as television and country music found each other, Flatt & Scruggs crossed over from regional acclaim to national recognition through their playing of the theme song and regular appearances on The Beverly Hillbillies, which Goldsmith describes as “an unabashed cornball comedy” that lasted for 274 episodes, all of which featuring the band’s instrumental work. Flatt and Scruggs appeared in speaking roles as themselves in seven episodes. The program can still be seen in syndication.
The story of how “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” became the theme music for the ground-breaking film Bonnie & Clyde begins with the fact that the film’s star and director, Warren Beatty, went to high school with Pete Kuykendall, founder of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine and a banjo picker himself. Beatty became a lifelong bluegrass lover, largely through his association with Kuykendall.
The film came at a time when Hollywood, and American life in the 1960s, was struggling to cope with new directions. “As was the case for many Americans,” Goldsmith writes, “Earl Scruggs lived somewhere in between, steeped in the love of family and traditional ways, while embracing new directions.” In 1969, the song won a Grammy Award, just days after Flatt & Scruggs disbanded.
Goldsmith recounts Scruggs’ enthusiasm for fitting the banjo into new kinds of music, his loyalty to friends new and old, his desire to make music with his family, and his spirit of experimentation. The Earl Scruggs Revue found a home on college campuses, introducing a new generation of music fans to Scruggs’ music, but he still kept in touch with his roots, even to the point of reuniting with his earliest employers, The Morris Brothers. Meanwhile, bluegrass purists rejected his later experimentalism, as they did that of J.D. Crowe and the Osborne Brothers for their use of drums. The book emphasizes how generations of banjo players have learned from Scruggs, first through direct contact and later through his classic recordings; found they could never play just like him; and have gone on to develop their own unique styles based on Scruggs’ basic teachings and personal example.
This is not a beginner’s book, despite its high level of readability. Packed with details not only about Scruggs and the banjo, but the recording industry and a strong sense of the times, it challenges readers to listen more closely, to become more thoroughly involved in their own musical experience and education. For lovers of Earl Scruggs and bluegrass music, Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown will become essential reading.