Earl Scruggs Passes On: Three Fingers, Hippie Kids + A Grace That’s Felt ‘Round The World
I’ll never look at the Waffle House the same way. The one out by the Assault & Battery Lane exit, 65 South out of Nashville, called Harding Place before the name change.
It’s actually on Sidco Drive, a parallel runner that’s lower industrial strip malls. There’s a Cracker Barrel for the more traditional Christian-types. Then there’s our Waffle House, like an Island of Broken Toys for college kids trying, sobering up from benders, gay kids after whippets and dancing, old Nashville remembering and the occasional country star.
Everybody sits tucked away in formica veneer booths or at the counter on swivel stools, waiting on their Scattered, Smothered & Covered. Even him.
See, that’s the thing about Earl Scruggs – bluegrass royalty, generational bridge, iconic artist and musical trailblazer – he was always at home with the slightly off-kilter.
You’d see him there. A lot. Especially after his lovely wife/manager/deal-squeezing wife Louise passed on. Or at first, you wouldn’t see him. He’d just be. Maybe you’d go to pay your check, or else you’d notice how neat and pressed his denim pants seemed.
Wouldn’t think much about the calm man sitting over his plate of eggs. Until you looked a little closer. Then WHAM! One of those only-in-Nashville moments: “Crap! That’s Earl Scruggs!” the voice in your head would exclaim.
Mostly people didn’t bother him much. Might stop and say a few words. You didn’t bother stars at the Waffle House; you sure weren’t gonna pile up on a legend trying to drink his coffee in the not-so-early morning hours.
I remember the first time. Sucked in by the demin pants. “Ahhh, what a nice looking older gentleman,” I thought. I smiled, always a softie for serious grown-ups.
Raising my eyes to gaze into the countenance of this lovely man, I felt my jaw go slack. “Holy crap! It’s Earl Scruggs…” I hoped it was uttered by my internal voice. He didn’t really look, so the silence was my cover.
He looked up from his plate, met my eyes, smiled.
I smiled back. Dunce, yes, but not paralyzed with shock. Most likely, I was so surprised, I scanned as someone who had no clue, no notion that this was the man who invented the intricate 3-finger picking style that almost eradicated claw-hammer playing.
It was a genuine moment. Quiet, unseen, but engaged. He didn’t need to show me his Grammys, he offered his heart. Sincerity and warmth is about as good as it gets.
See, Earl Scruggs might’ve been a master musician and innovator of the same caliber as Miles Davis or Coltrane, but he was more a man who sought to bring people together. As a player, his first break came in 1945 with Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys on the Grand Ole Opry, but it wasn’t long until he and Lester Flatt teamed up and spent the ’50s and ’60s barn-storming the country – and creating a true frame for the Appalachian musical form that was all ache and flying fingers.
Flatt & Scruggs were icons. Standard-bearers. Gospel-carriers.
The audience was white, lower middle class, worked with their hands, backs hurting. But they found the Flatt & Scruggs sound vitalizing.
And then there were the hippies. When the ’60s folk movement hit and the hippie generation erupted, Earl Scruggs – in part at the behest of his wife Louise – packed up his sons and took the Earl Scruggs Review to colleges across the nation.
With the Vietnam War in full throttle, college kids, protesting, and drugs making their way into the mainstream youth culture, musicianship and a yearning for authenticity made Scruggs the hottest ticket with the hippest kids. This was breaking ground and healing generational damage just by being who he was.
And who he was transcended what he was. Always a player of high execution and credibility, Scruggs also believed in music’s transcendence. When country was as right as you could get and Jane Fonda the only woman more radical than Joan Baez, Scruggs couldn’t wait to make music with her — recognizing the crystal clarity in her voice.
He also played with hippie sitar player Ravi Shankar, the folk-pop band the Byrds and Bob Dylan. The Eastern music and inscrutable lyrics engaging him in new and thrilling ways.
Which was really all Scruggs wanted: to be engaged, pushed, challenged, to see how far music could go. He was there when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded Will The Circle Be Unbroken and returned for Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol 2, produced by his acoustic guitar virtuoso son Randy Scruggs.
He was there at the Opry. With and without Flatt.
He was all about making music. When Steve Martin got serious about bluegrass, Scruggs was there. When Elton John wanted to play with a banjo man, he was there. Indeed, he was as comfortable with Billy Bob Thornton as he was Vince Gill or Marty Stuart – and folks like John Fogerty and Leon Russell clamored to play with the man who’s in the Country Music Hall of Fame, has received the National Medal of the Arts, recorded Red, Hot & Country for the Red Hot Organization (which supports AIDS charities), and received a Grammy for his 1968 “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” He also wrote and recorded “The Ballad of Jed Clampitt” for “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
It is vast, this legacy. Marks left in places most would never think of, yet when you pull back and consider… of course.
Like the Waffle House, where I don’t get around to near as much now that my metabolism has slowed to a crawl. Its just one more all-night dive off I-65 just south of town, except that Earl Scruggs used to sit at its counter, quietly eating his breakfast.
Always one of my favorite things to tell out of town guests!
“THIS is Earl Scruggs Waffle House!” I would proudly declare. Their eyes would open wide. Sometimes they’d get lucky and he’d walk in, or I’d signal with my own eyes where to look.
Now, of course, you won’t have to. He’s not there. Although my money – once he gets sorted out in heaven – is that he’ll be back. You’ll find him sitting there at the second or third stool, not quite present, but there… Just a presence that will never quite leave.
Of course, when you make the musical mark Earl Scruggs did, you won’t ever be gone. People will listen to his records and marvel; pick up their instrument and practice the complicated three fingers rolls, the wildly accelerated picking.
His mark shall last forever. So will his soul. A man from the same Piedmont region in North Carolina – which gave us contemporary hipsters Carolina Chocolate Drops – he was dedicated to his craft, pushing boundaries and sorting out what the future held.
There’s no more sorting. Earl Scruggs is in heaven. With the angels. With the Angel Band – and all is, though somewhat sad and slightly empty, alright with the world, with the ones who pay attention, even as we’re sad through losing Scruggs.