New Earl Scruggs Bio Opens an Icon’s Life for Both Avid and Casual Fans
Earl Scruggs: Banjo Icon by Gordon Castelnero and David L. Russell (Rowman & Littlefield) uses an oral history approach to produce a volume both scholarly and readable. With the full cooperation of the Scruggs family, they conducted 72 interviews with family members, musicians, recording industry people, and Earl Scruggs’ many friends and admirers to create a well-rounded account filled with lots of previously unpublished information while never losing the human touch, always keeping the subject matter interesting and real.
In his foreword to the book, Béla Fleck describes the impact Scruggs’ music had on him the first time he heard it, as well as its enduring influence. In the mid-1980s, John Hartford introduced him to Scruggs, and they become friends. Fleck describes Scruggs’ openness to Fleck’s playing as well as his own willingness to explore new dimensions of the banjo, beyond what was heard in his recordings or seen in performances, demonstrating the continual musical growth Scruggs had within himself and was willing to explore. Before the book even begins, then, Scruggs emerges as even more complex and interesting than those who would hold him within the confines of bluegrass music, which he helped found and dominated for so many years, would give him credit for. By the end, Scruggs’ life takes on increased significance because of his huge influence on musicians and fans far removed from the narrow world of bluegrass.
The early chapters detail Scruggs’ love of music and his early adventures with the banjo, including his refinement of the three-finger style that now bears his name from other influences in the air in his part of North Carolina. Like so many of the first- and second-generation of bluegrass musicians, Scruggs chose the life of professional musician as an alternative the the drudgery of life on a farm or in a dusty thread factory. While working 72 hours a week in the Lily thread mill in Shelby, NC, he worked to perfect his approach to the banjo. Stories of how he achieved his metronome-like timing and discovered the unique syncopation of his style enliven the narrative. The book contains the most detailed account of Scruggs’ joining Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys on Dec. 8, 1945 I’ve ever read. Using quotations from a variety of sources, the authors turn the moment into a word picture that resonates with every banjo adherent and bluegrass fan. Furthermore, out of this moment, the term bluegrass, as applied to a genre featuring Monroe-style mandolin, Scruggs-style banjo, high speed, and internal rhythm instruments requiring no drums, was born. Below is the earliest recorded example of Scruggs’ playing, from March 1946, only a few months after he joined Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys:
While Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs spent only a little over two years with Bill Monroe before leaving the Blue Grass Boys and later deciding to form their own band, the experience was one of growth and increased recognition. The book details the emergence of Flatt & Scruggs and their 21-year partnership. Years of barnstorming, the opportunities provided by the movie Bonnie and Clyde and the television program The Beverly Hillbillies is covered intensively, as is their subsequent breakup due to Flatt’s discomfort with changes in the band’s direction in response to rock-and-roll music and the folk craze, as well as his own declining health. The importance of Scruggs’ wife, Louise Certain Scruggs, as Scruggs’ manager and a highly respected business person in bluegrass, is emphasized. She is the only female member of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame who’s not a performer. Here’s a sample of Flatt & Scruggs’ Martha White television show from about 1956:
And the opening sequence for The Beverly Hillbillies with “The Ballad of Jed Clampet:”
The book suggests that the years immediately following the breakup of Flatt & Scruggs became the “most rewarding” of Scruggs’ career, as he was able to broaden his musical horizons, become involved with new audiences, include a more complex instrumental palette, and expand his musical language to approach new horizons. The result became The Earl Scruggs Revue, a band in which he was able to include the emerging musical talents of his sons Gary and Randy, along with, later, for a brief time, Steve. Scruggs also emerged on the national political stage by participating in the huge Vietnam Moratorium demonstration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15, 1969, eliciting much criticism from the generally conservative Nashville music community. Below is a song by the Earl Scruggs Revue, probably recorded during the early 1970s.
With the breakup of the Earl Scruggs Revue, Scruggs entered a long period of semi-retirement, elongated by the tragic death of his youngest son, Steve. The book describes the laurels heaped on Scruggs late in his life, while the last chapter is a full appreciation of the legacy and contributions of this dominating musician of the second half of the 20th century. Also included are excellent chapter notes and a lengthy bibliography. This book is both a worthwhile read and necessary resource for anyone wishing to undertake further research into Earl Scruggs.
Some thoughts on how to experience this book: Some readers of Earl Scruggs: Banjo Icon will be intimately familiar with the bluegrass elements of the book, but few will know the full range of Earl Scruggs’ creative endeavors. I’ve tried to include a few representative cuts in the review, including a complete documentary film. Listening to cuts or the entire albums on one of the streaming channels or YouTube will enrich almost any readers’ understanding of Earl Scruggs’ music and his range of interests. Give it a try. I have found Spotify to be incredibly useful in expanding my musical horizons as I read and review books about music. The documentary Earl Scruggs: His Family and Friends, released in the early 1970s (I believe), demonstrates his far-ranging musical imagination, which never ceased to grow:
Earl Scruggs: Banjo Icon very carefully and successfully skirts the line between being a book for banjo nerds, bluegrass fans, and general readers. Sometimes slipping into discussions of specific tunings or places Scruggs develops and employs new licks on the banjo, it still maintains interest — those not interested in these details can easily skim over them. Meanwhile, the specifics of Scruggs’ background, life, and career are sufficiently filled in to satisfy bluegrass fans wishing to broaden their general and specific knowledge about him. Finally, for the more general reader of bluegrass and music history, it details the life and career of one of American music’s most important and innovative geniuses throughout the course of a long and varied career. Sadly, the book is priced beyond the means of many who would wish to read it, and may be available, in practice, only in libraries. I was sent a complimentary copy of the book by the publisher at the request of the authors. Nevertheless, it’s comprehensive and fully satisfying biography.
Perhaps a good way to end this review is with an iconic clip from the film Bonnie and Clyde.