Bluegrass legend and banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs, who helped profoundly change country music with Bill Monroe and later with guitarist Lester Flatt, has died. He was 88.
Scruggs’ son Gary said his father passed away Wednesday morning at a Nashville, Tenn., hospital. Gary Scruggs said his father died of natural causes.
The elder Scruggs was an innovator who pioneered modern banjo sound. His use of three fingers rather than the clawhammer style elevated the banjo from a part of the rhythm section — or a comedian’s prop — to a lead instrument.
His string-bending and lead runs became known worldwide as “the Scruggs picking style.” It was perhaps most prominently displayed on the iconic theme from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Gary Scruggs says funeral plans are incomplete.
Read below from a biography by Barry R. Willis Author/Publisher of “America’s Music: Bluegrass.”
(His book is available from Amazon.com)
In all the history of bluegrass music there are only two people, in the opinion of this writer, without whom bluegrass would not exist as it does today: one is Bill Monroe, the other is Earl Scruggs. In all the discussions of who was the most important, John Hartford said it best, “Here’s the way I feel about it. Everybody’s all worried about who invented the style and it’s obvious that three-finger banjo pickers have been around a long time—maybe since 1840. But my feeling about it is that if it wasn’t for Earl Scruggs, you wouldn’t be worried about who invented it.” The same can also be said about Monroe and perhaps others, as well. But few will doubt the importance of Earl Scruggs and his “fancy banjo”.
Earl Eugene Scruggs was born in Shelby, North Carolina, in the Flint Hill community January 6, 1924. His family had five children. His father, George, frailed on the banjo. Earl’s memories about the first instrument he started playing is unclear, “Actually, I don’t remember which instrument I started trying to play first. My father died when I was four so I don’t remember his playin’, but we had in the house a banjo, a guitar, Autoharp, fiddle, and instruments like that. But my older brother (Junie) picked banjo and my [other] brother who’s almost two years older than me (Horace), he played guitar. I believe I started the banjo some.
But when I would play with my older brother, he wanted me to play guitar with him because he wanted to play the banjo. So anyway, I started playing guitar back as far as I can remember. My idol at the time—the main person I loved the most—was Momma Maybelle Carter, so that’s who I copied.” About 1930, Junie Scruggs and Smith Hammett (who played a form of three-finger banjo picking style) sparked Earl’s interest in the banjo. By age ten, Scruggs was picking the banjo in the local three-finger style and by his early teens was playing for local dances.
According to Larry Perkins in a 1990 interview at IBMA, the Scruggs brothers, Earl and Horace,
developed their timing by starting a song then walking around the house and meeting at the point of origin. They did this on their songs until they consistently were in time with each other after their walk.
Scruggs “credits as one of his most important musical influences was Dennis Butler, an elderly farmer and a ‘great old-time fiddle player,’ wrote Tony Trischka. “As a teenager, Earl ‘played many hours with him and got a lot of basic knowledge.’ Rather than giving pointers, Butler would fiddle one tune after another and let Earl experiment and find the best ways to complement his music. Despite references by Bill Monroe and Don Reno suggesting that Scruggs derived much of his style from Snuffy Jenkins, Earl consistently refers to his style as his own. However, he does credit Jenkins among the banjo players who influenced him most. Earl recalls seeing him as early as the fiddlers’ convention at which Earl first performed in public, and listening to him on the radio in the late thirties and forties.” Other important musical influences were Roy Acuff and His Smoky Mountain Boys, the Carter Family, and Uncle Dave Macon (with whom Scruggs often traveled after joining the Blue Grass Boys). Of Macon, Scruggs said, “He never ceased to drop a bit of enjoyment whenever possible. It was my first experience of seeing a man so well loved by so many.”
Don Reno described Scruggs’ early banjo playing as similar to that of Snuffy Jenkins. “In 1934 and ‘35, Snuffy could play ‘Cumberland Gap’ or ‘Sally Goodin.’ You couldn’t tell… If I had a recording of him then and then you put a recording of Scruggs on it you couldn’t tell the difference. Me and Scruggs were little boys, you know, then.”
Up until Scruggs was a young man, he was on his family’s farm. Then, in 1939, he began playing with the Morris Brothers (Zeke on mandolin and Wiley and George on guitars) featuring what was known then as “country” music or “hillbilly” music. Don Reno had just left the band as banjoist to soon join Arthur Smith and his Crackerjacks. Earl played with these men for a few months, then quit so that he could take care of his widowed mother at his home in Shelby. He worked for the Lily Mills textile mill near his home until the draft restriction of World War II was lifted. And his mother encouraged him to pursue music as a career.
Flatt spoke about the exit of Stringbean and the arrival of Earl Scruggs, “Well, I wouldn’t want to say exactly how long [Stringbean was gone] but it was several months, and I know as good as we all loved String—and I love that kind of banjo picking because I was raised on it. My daddy played that style and I tried to learn it and I couldn’t; that’s how come I quit fooling with a banjo—Bill told me one night after String had gone that he was trying out a new boy on the banjo. I hated to hear that because I was really enjoying the work that we was doing with a banjo. Poor old String—it just didn’t fit. He would really drag you [down] on that thumb string on those tunes like we’re doing today.”
When Scruggs auditioned for Flatt and Monroe, Flatt was “thrilled. It was so different! I had never heard that kind of banjo picking. We had been limited, but Earl made all the difference in the world.”
Flatt told about Uncle Dave Macon’s comments of Scruggs at the audition, “Well, when he got his banjo out to do a little auditioning for Bill, everybody was ganged around listening just like myself because it was entertaining. And Uncle Dave was standing over there with that gold tooth a-shining, and he listened for awhile and he said, ‘Aaahh. Sound’s pretty good in a band.’—there was two or three playing with him you know. He said, ‘I’ll bet he can’t sing worth a damn.’”
Scruggs told about the audition for Monroe, “I worked in Knoxville for Lost John Miller. I was in a group that tried out for the show there. We didn’t make it, but Lost John asked about the banjo player in the group, and I started working with him. Then he came to Nashville to start a Saturday morning program. We still lived in Knoxville and worked there and we would come over to Nashville to do the Saturday show. I was friends with Jimmy Shumate who worked with Bill then. The band included Lester Flatt, Birch Monroe, Jim Andrews on tenor banjo and comedy, Shumate and Bill. Each Saturday, Jimmy would want me to quit Lost John and go with Bill. Then, towards the end of 1945, Lost John disbanded and I told Shumate that I was out of a job and would probably go back home so he set it up for Bill to listen to me. Bill came over to the Tulane Hotel and listened to a couple of tunes. He didn’t show much reaction, but he asked me to come down to the Opry and jam some. He showed interest, but I think he wasn’t sure exactly of the limits of it or how well it would fit his music, but he asked me if I could go to work on Monday and I said yes.” In December of 1945, Scruggs became a Blue Grass Boy. Also in the group were Cedric Rainwater (Howard Watts) on bass, Chubby Wise on fiddle, Bill Monroe on mandolin, and Lester Flatt on guitar.
“Back then,” Scruggs continued, “the term ‘sideman’ wasn’t used as it is today. It was a leader and his group, and you all worked together. It was hard work but we had a lot of fun. I loved Bill like a brother and he was always good to me. He took great interest in the work he was doing, and I felt appreciated. He was high on my list as a musician, and he had a solid beat that could support anything you wanted to pick. He would spend a lot of time just tightening up the group. Some rehearsals we wouldn’t sing a song. We would just concentrate on the sound of the band.
“We were working all the time. Sometimes we wouldn’t see a bed from one end of the week ‘til the other. In theaters, we would do four or five or six shows a day from eleven in the morning until eleven at night. Sometimes we would do what was called ‘bicycling’. We would play a show in a theater, then while the movie was on, go play in another and come back to the first one while the movie was on in the second.
“It was a must then to make it back to the Opry on Saturday night. Sometimes, if we were over on the East Coast somewhere, it was all we could do to make it back. But the Opry meant so much to the people then in the towns…
“It was hard traveling then on bad roads in a stretched-out car with no place to lie down. Sometimes you’d feel so bad and fall asleep and then wake up and someone would maybe tell a story and we’d laugh and feel good again. But Bill would never let the music go down no matter how tired we were. If a man would slack off, he would move over and get that mandolin close up on him and get him back up there. He would shove you and you would shove him and you would really get on it.
“We played in rain, we played in snow, we played where the power would go off and we would have to play by lantern light with no sound. We had two bad wrecks, but nobody got hurt. The way we had to drive to make dates, it’s a wonder we weren’t killed. But we made it, and it toughened you up to encounter and overcome these difficulties. It seemed to make Bill stronger and it brought out the deep feeling and love he had for what he was doing.”
Scruggs made his first recording with Bill Monroe, “Heavy Traffic Ahead,” on September 16, 1946. Also on the recording were Monroe, Wise, Flatt and Watts. Birch Monroe recorded in Bill Monroe’s quartet that month on “Shining Path.”
In early 1948, Earl Scruggs quit the Blue Grass Boys to move back to North Carolina. Two weeks later, Flatt also resigned. It is said by some that the two men had intentions of getting together again to form a band. Some say that they planned the move with Howard Watts. But Flatt remembered, “Well, I feel like actually maybe Bill might have always had the feeling that we had planned it, but actually we hadn’t. Earl, he had to take care of his mother. She was living over in Shelby and he didn’t like the idea of staying away from home all the time with nobody there with her. To make a long story short, it was a rough life. I had made it up in my mind to quit but I hadn’t said anything about it. Earl was going to go home just to get off the road. We had it rough back then. It wasn’t anything to ride two or three days in a car. We didn’t have buses like we do now, and we never had our shoes off.”
Flatt continued, “Earl had a textile job before he came to Nashville so I think he was just planning to get back and take care of his mother and work at the mill. After Earl turned his notice in to Bill—you know, he was giving his two weeks notice—we got to talking and I told him I was going to quit, too. We decided we might go to Knoxville and work as a team or go to work with Carl Story or some group that might need us. I turned my notice in then, and before my notice was up, fellows like Cedric Rainwater [Howard Watts] said, ‘Let me join in with you and we’ll form a band.’ So that was how it all happened.”
The men knew that there was a lot of money to be made in this business with their own band—they had handled the bundles of cash at every concert they played with Monroe—so they decided to go ahead with it. They formed their own band. Flatt, Scruggs, and Cedric Rainwater became Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. They came up with the band name from a popular Carter Family song, “Foggy Mountain Top,” and began using the song as a theme song for awhile.
This new band first played on WDVA, Danville, Virginia, as a trio in January 1948. Their time as a trio lasted only a few days when they hired Jim Eanes, who was already at the station, to play guitar and sing lead with them at the station. Eanes was with them there at WDVA for two or three weeks.
Eanes related that “Lester and Earl called me and wanted me to join forces with them. Lester and Earl and Cedric had all left Bill [Monroe] at that time and formed the Foggy Mountain Boys. And he called me and wanted me to be a part of the group and we started working together. Then Bill sent me a telegram. And like every young musician, I had always wanted to sing on the Grand Ole Opry and I had never been there. So I left that group and went with Bill.” Eanes then found that his voice was too low to fit the keys in which Monroe like to sing (B and B flat) so he quit after nine months to manage a record shop in Martinsville, Virginia.
In March, after the Foggy Mountain Boys left WDVA, Danville, Virginia, the threesome picked up fiddler Jim Shumate and began playing at WHKY, Hickory, North Carolina, near Shumate’s home. They then hired Mac Wiseman and were able to get a job at the very powerful WCYB in Bristol in the last of April, the first of May. There at WCYB, the station allowed them to advertise their songbooks for four weeks; they sold 10,000 books through the mail. They stayed eighteen months; Wiseman stayed until Christmas 1948.
Flatt spoke about this new band he and Scruggs had formed, “We had a good outfit. It wasn’t too long until we got a chance at some network stuff. At the time, our type of music was more or less limited to the South. And the people up in the New England states and some of the northern states started talking about the ‘new’ sound of Flatt and Scruggs—and we’d been playing it for years.”
On April 18, 1948, Earl Scruggs married Louise Certain. They had met in Nashville in 1946. Her experience as a bookkeeper enabled her to fit right into the position of Business Manager and Booking Manager for the group in 1956. While many people give her credit for some of the band’s success, others recognize that Earl was excellent in his management skills and passed on to Louise much of his knowledge about the successful management of his band. Both of them actively, and successfully, managed the band and kept them working through the years.
Earl, in an interview with Doug Hutchens, described the early days of his new band, “We had been married—maybe two or three months and we wasn’t makin’ anything. We worked a little while in Hickory, North Carolina, and my wife was stayin’ with my mother in Shelby. So we moved up to Bristol and I think about the second week we played Hindman, Kentucky. And it doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but we did close to $400 up there. We were on a five-way split. Of course, I had been used to workin’ for Bill Monroe for $60 a week so my split really looked good. I think I took my part in one-dollar bills. Anyway, I called Louise down in Shelby and said, ‘Come up! I’ve struck it rich!’ She came up and I showed her that bundle of money—and most of it was ones but it looked as big as a limousine Cadillac as far as I was concerned. That was how we got started off and from then on it seem like everything else fell into place. Bristol really had a lot of listeners.”
During the fall of 1948, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys began a three-year recording stint with Mercury Records. Scruggs elaborated that “Mercury was a very small company. I think we were about their third artist. Murray Nash, who produced all the records for Mercury, would make the arrangements for a studio someplace and we’d record at some radio station.” It began with “My Cabin in Caroline,” “I’m Going to Make Heaven My Home,” “We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart” and “God Loves His Children.” Musicians in the band and on the recording were Flatt, Scruggs, Wiseman, Shumate and Watts. Flatt’s terrific rhythm, using a thumbpick, was solid. Scruggs developed a lead guitar style, using the three-finger style, which was innovative and an entirely new sound. It was very effective on “Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy.”
“Flatt and Scruggs seem to have tried to innovate than merely to copy,” wrote author Jack Hurst. “They gradually made changes in Monroe’s formula, and Flatt acknowledges now that they consciously tried to present ‘a little different sound from Bill.’ In the mid-fifties, they dropped the mandolin altogether and replaced it with a Dobro® guitar played by Buck (Uncle Josh) Graves, whom they hired from Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper’s Clinch Mountain Clan. Flatt also pitched his voice much lower than Monroe’s high sound, even though Flatt himself had always sung tenor until he joined Monroe’s band.”
Toward the end of 1948, Jim Shumate quit and was replaced temporarily by Art Wooten. Wooten recorded on the April-May 1949 recording session with Curly Seckler on mandolin. That fall, Wooten was replaced by Benny Sims on the fiddle. Sims recorded more than two dozen tunes in seven recording sessions with this group beginning with the December 11, 1949, session to the November 21, 1950, session, and helped define the Flatt and Scruggs sound. Tunes recorded during that time with Sims on fiddle included “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Old Salty Dog Blues,” “Farewell Blues,” “Head Over Heels in Love,” “Will the Roses Bloom (Where She Lies Sleeping),” “Take Me in a Lifeboat,” “Doin’ My Time” and “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” “When Benny was with the Foggy Mountain Boys,” said Earl, “everyone always got along great.” Sims recalled that “With all five of us and the instruments packed in the car, there was no room left for suitcases. So we just put our clothes into paper grocery sacks and stuffed them wherever we could find room.”
“While we were at WCYB,” said Earl, “Bill Monroe was in the area and we invited him to make an appearance on our radio program to promote his nearby show dates. Don Reno was with him at the time and approached me on the idea of trading his 1933/34 Gibson Granada banjo for my Gibson RB-3, so the swap was made.”
In southwest Virginia, in the area of Bristol’s WCYB, a coal miner’s strike severely depressed the area. In March 1949, Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, which was there at WCYB, decided to leave to seek greener pastures at WROL in Knoxville. They played on WROL’s Noon-Day Dinner Bell Show which was hosted by Archie Campbell. Mac Wiseman left shortly after the move to WROL to work at the WSB Barn Dance in Atlanta.
When Lester Flatt called Curly Seckler and asked him to join him and Earl Scruggs in a band, he couldn’t get there fast enough. He was working with Jim and Jesse McReynolds (and Hoke Jenkins as the Smoky Mountaineers) in Augusta, Georgia, at the time. He joined Flatt and Scruggs on March 17th, 1949. Curly’s nickname (by Lester) was “The Old Trapper from China Grove, North Carolina.” This new group packed them in! Their success was unqualified and their popularity was tremendous.
That spring of 1949, Flatt and Scruggs recorded their second Mercury session with Flatt, Scruggs, Seckler, Wooten and Watts. The songs included “Down the Road” and “Why Don’t You Tell Me So?” On December 11th, they recorded with Flatt, Scruggs, Seckler, Sims and Watts. The songs were “I’ll Never Shed Another Tear,” “No Mother or Dad,” “Is It Too Late Now?” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
Howard Watts (Cedric Rainwater) left the band in late 1949 to join the band of Hank Williams. Charles Johnson joined on bass and soon became known as “Little Jody Rainwater.” By the summer of 1950, the group was based at WCYB again after a short time at WVLK in Versailles, Kentucky.
In late summer, the Foggy Mountain Boys moved to WDAE, Tampa. But this, too, proved unprofitable. They stayed eleven weeks, during which time they recorded their last Mercury session during a threat of a hurricane (October 20, 1950) there in Tampa. Songs included “Doin’ My Time,” “Pike Country Breakdown,” “Cora is Gone,” “Preachin’, Prayin’, Singing.” On the next day, they recorded their own version of the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers’ “Pain in My Heart.” They also recorded “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” “Back to the Cross” and “Farewell Blues.” At the following session at that time, they recorded “Old Salty Dog Blues,” “Will the Roses Bloom (Where She Lies Sleeping),” “Take Me in a Lifeboat” and “I’ll Just Pretend.”
On November 21st, 1950, they made their first Columbia recording session with members Flatt, Scruggs, Sims, Seckler and Jody Rainwater. Songs included “The Old Home Town,” “Come Back Darling,” “I’ll Stay Around,” “We Can’t Be Sweethearts Any More” and “I’m Waiting to Hear You Call Me Darling.” About that time, Benny Sims left and was replaced by Chubby Wise on fiddle.
Seckler left Flatt and Scruggs in November to join the Sauceman Brothers. Everett Lilly became the mandolin player for the band from November 1950 until fall 1952. He was not, as many people have said, restricted to mainly rhythm in order to sound dissimilar to the Blue Grass Boys. (Seckler did very little lead playing, but then Seckler never claimed to be a great mandolin player. Seckler likes the story that Flatt used to tell of Seckler’s prowess on the mandolin as, “Well, you hold it real good.”) But Scruggs did insist on a style which ended up a little different that Monroe’s. While his mandolin players were not restricted to strictly rhythm, it may have seemed that way. Scruggs explained, “That’s a matter of interpretation. We never asked Everett to stick to rhythm at all ‘cause Everett was a good mandolin picker. Now, that’s exactly how it was. But if Everett interpreted that was what he was supposed to do, he never indicated that. I’ll tell you where that probably came in. What I always insisted on the band doin’ is, if you was backin’ up somethin’ for us to play rhythm and just one person was backin’ up. In other words, not everybody would be playin’ at the same time while the guy is up there singin’ his heart out, tryin’ to sing a song, and everybody tryin’ to play every lick they can play is like a lot of people tryin’ to talk at the same time. You can’t get a point across. So I did require, if I was backin’ up, for the fiddle and mandolin to lay off. Then when I drop off, give it to the fiddle player and then the mandolin, and the banjo player’d drop off. And then when the mandolin was doin’ it, the fiddle and banjo’d drop off. See, that cleaned it up a whole lot. That was just one requirement that was probably different than a lot of bands that was goin’ around then and still goin’ around today. I’m not speakin’ of anybody in particular, but sometimes you can hear them all playin’ at the same time in the background of a lot of records. Anyway, that’s the only reason Everett was put on rhythm.”
In March 1951, the group moved from Florida back to Lexington where, that fall, they had programs on WVLK in nearby Versailles, and WKLX with members Flatt, Scruggs, Everett Lilly (mandolin) and Chubby Wise (fiddle). In June 1951, Scruggs played lead guitar on “Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy” when they recorded the single on Columbia. It was here in Lexington that J.D. Crowe first saw the group. “Their music was so different, so powerful…I never saw or heard anything like that—like it was going to explode. The speed, and even the slow things, had such a timing factor.”
Flatt and Scruggs worked the month of July on WOAY, Oak Hill, West Virginia. In September, the band moved to Roanoke, Virginia, playing on WDBJ.
Howdy Forrester, a regular member of Roy Acuff’s band, recorded with the band on October 24th; Chubby Wise had recently left. Art Wooten had joined but was not at the recording session that date. The best known tune from that session was “Earl’s Breakdown” where Scruggs manually re-tuned his second banjo string to get an effect which he and his brother Horace and experimented with as kids. The success of this tune led to the development of his D-tuners and later the Scruggs-Keith tuners. Scruggs also came up with the idea of using hooks, initially made from hairpins, to capo the fifth string.
In January 1952, Flatt and Scruggs traded their spot on WDBJ in Roanoke with the Bailey Brothers at 50,000 watt WPTF in Raleigh, North Carolina, where they spent eight months. Everett Lilly quit in September to joined Don Stover, his brother “B” Lilly, and Tex Logan in their Confederate Mountaineers. Seckler re-joined on mandolin. Benny Martin joined on fiddle.
Flatt and Scruggs left Raleigh that October for WNOX in Knoxville where they spent several months. That November, the group recorded their ninth session for Columbia in Nashville which featured Flatt, Scruggs, Seckler, Martin and Jody Rainwater. Three songs of the session were played by Flatt and Scruggs while they were with Monroe: “Dear Old Dixie,” “Why Did You Wander” (written by Monroe and Flatt and recorded by them in 1946 but never released) and “If I Should Wander Back Tonight.” Other songs were “Flint Hill Special,” “Thinking About You,” “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke,” “Reunion in Heaven” and “Pray for the Boys” (timely because of the Korean conflict). “Flint Hill Special” featured Scruggs’ D-tuners on both middle strings. It was in Knoxville that the Martha White Mills salespeople told Cohen Williams that he needed the band to sell their flour.
The band recorded on August 29th and 30th of 1953, but this time it was with a different sound. They added a second rhythm guitar played on the same offbeat as Seckler’s mandolin. They hired a studio musician for this and also hired a studio bass player for the session.
In September of 1954, they joined the cast of the Old Dominion Barn Dance, of Richmond, Virginia, in order to appear on the New York Broadway show, “Hayride,” at the 48th Street Theater for two weeks. Here, in one of their first tours outside of the South, they found how popular the banjo had become by seeing the number of young folk musicians trying to imitate Scruggs’ style. The popularity of Scruggs-style banjo playing had increased to unprecedented proportions and the term “five-string banjo” became a drawing card to concerts and record buyers. Bluegrass (the term was gaining recognition as a musical form) banjo instrumentals were becoming more and more prominent in the music. When Pete Seeger included a section in his folk banjo book about Scruggs’ playing method, the group became well accepted in the folk circles. This was very important, for the advent of the Elvis phenomenon would soon make it hard for bluegrass bands to thrive.
The New York show director wanted the group to wear make-up—the traditional reddened cheeks and penciled eyebrows. Flatt refused. “We didn’t come here to perform a miracle—just to put on a little hillbilly show,” he told the director. “We’ll go on tonight like we are and if the folks don’t like it we’ll go home tomorrow.” Their tremendous reception kept them for the contracted time.
The group moved from Nashville to Crewe, Virginia, in May of 1954 to do live shows at WSVS while still recording their WSM shows on tape and making regular Saturday night appearances at Richmond, Virginia’s Old Dominion Barn Dance. Paul Warren joined Flatt and Scruggs as fiddler in 1954, replacing Benny Martin, until 1977. Warren’s fiddle style fell right in with the needs of the band, featuring the fiddle and banjo during instrumentals. The introduction of Buck Graves’ Dobro® in 1955 took away some of the fiddle’s limelight and the band had its own, distinctive sound. And Curly Seckler’s mandolin breaks almost ceased to exist.
They moved to Nashville January 1955. Jody Rainwater left the band and went into radio broadcasting when Flatt and Scruggs left Crewe for Nashville.
By early this year, Flatt and Scruggs’ series of thirty-minute television shows on WSM-TV was aired in six different cities, sponsored by Martha White Flour Mills. Band members included Flatt, Scruggs, Paul Warren (fiddle), Charles “Little Darlin’” Elza (bass, comedy) and Seckler (mandolin).
Until this time, WSM didn’t allow Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs to become members of the Grand Ole Opry. It is often said that the station felt they owed a certain loyalty to Bill Monroe, and that this new band was an imitation of the original. Finally, there was so much mail that public demand (and Martha White Mills) insisted they appear on the Opry. They took over the Mill’s sponsored spot on the Opry which, until then, was occupied by a western swing band. They joined the Opry in January 1955.
The band’s entry onto the Opry was actually as a direct result of Martha White’s Cohen Williams. He dumped a large sack of fan mail on the floor of General Manager Jack DeWitt and threatened that either he put Flatt and Scruggs on the Opry or he was going to pull his company’s advertising from the station. But there is more to this story, much more. It is included in the Controversies chapter of this book. “The reason we wasn’t on the Opry was because of Bill Monroe,” said Scruggs. “That simply was how it was. The reason we got on the Grand Ole Opry was because of Cohen Williams. Because we was the only ones that he thought could have sold his flour for him. We did well (financially), and so did they.”
It turned out that the groups were different enough. Mr. Scruggs told this writer, “We came here to Nashville with our own style. We didn’t have to change our style to be ourselves. I started pickin’ when I was about four or five years old and came up with the style I came up with for the rest of my life when I was about ten or eleven. I never really could remember when I came up with the three-finger style. But I never felt that I should quit what I had done all my life after I left Monroe, and let him go ahead and do it, and me try to learn a new style.”
Initially, Flatt and Scruggs was treated with cold shoulders by the other entertainers, but only a few weeks went by and they were treated well and welcomed. Grant Turner, announcer of the Opry since 1944, told this story in a 1991 phone interview: “There’s quite a story there. Jack Stapp was the Program Director and they had quite a problem there, and Jack realized it because he found out that Bill Monroe was going to be very unfriendly to them bringing in this group to be on Martha White’s show. So he (Stapp) told Flatt and Scruggs, he said, ‘When you come here to do this Martha White Show, come in just a few minutes before it’s time to go on. And as soon as you get through with your show, leave. Well, you could imagine. Lester, especially, was a very sensitive person and this made him—you’re talking about a man who is building up a good career in country music and you’re talking to him like he is a second class citizen—it absolutely made Lester very uptight. In fact, he may have told them that he would rather go back to where he was because he didn’t come here to be treated that way. It’s a wonder that they worked it out.”
Several months after Lester and Earl joined the Opry, Josh Graves was hired as bass player and comedian. He had already worked with Esco Hankins, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, Toby Stroud, and Mac Wiseman’s Country Boys. Tom Gray, in a 1989 interview with this writer, felt that the prime years of Flatt and Scruggs were already over. “I think the Dobro® rescued them when they were losing some of their spark. The Dobro® gave them a new spark to continue creativity.” With Graves playing the “hound dog” guitar (so named by Graves), it became so popular that they put him on Dobro® full-time. “A few people criticized us for doing it,” said Seckler, “but now they would criticize us if we left it off.” Scruggs emphasized that “Josh was an asset to the group. We had a lot of air time and played the same style over and over so much until we thought that an addition wouldn’t hurt.”
Graves remembered that “When Earl called me, he wanted to know if I would come down for a two-week try-out as a bass player. Well, that was like asking if I wanted a million dollars. I arrived in Nashville and began my try-out on May 14, 1955. The first personal appearance we did after I arrived was Silver Point School in Wilson County, Tennessee. I had my Dobro®, so I asked Flatt if he wanted me to take my old guitar along and he said we could carry it; ‘We might even let you do a tune.’ So on the show that night I played ‘Steel Guitar Chimes’ and the audience really seemed to like it. However, neither Flatt nor Scruggs said anything one way or the other. I was in my third week and one day they called and asked me to meet them in the lobby of the hotel. Well, I thought, ‘Here I go back to Momma and the kids.’ They were still in Richmond. We had purchased a house trailer and I didn’t want to go through the moving process until I knew I had the job with Flatt and Scruggs. I was living at the Tulane Hotel and I went down and paced the lobby until they got there. When they arrived, Earl wanted to know which instrument I had rather play: the bass or the Dobro®. Well, after I breathed a sigh of relief, I told them I had rather play the Dobro®, but the main thing I wanted was a job. I never will forget what Flatt said to Earl: ‘Well, it looks like we are gonna have to hire us a bass player.’ Man, I was tickled to death. I asked them if it was all right for me to move my family to Nashville and Earl said, ‘Well, that depends on whether you want ‘em down here or not.’ I moved them the next week and we parked our trailer at the Dickerson Road Trailer Park.”
Graves continued, “Flatt and Scruggs hired Joe Stuart to play bass and put me on Dobro® and comedy. They had seen Jake (Tullock) and me do a comedy routine when we were with Esco Hankins and we had a pretty fair act together. So, with all due respect to Joe Stuart, they wanted me to call Jake and see if he would work for them, doing comedy with me and also playing bass. I called him in Knoxville and he caught the next bus for Nashville. We dug out our old comedy outfits and started our routine all over again. I believe Flatt and Scruggs started us out at about eighty dollars a week.”
Flatt and Scruggs now was one of the few bands around that used the Dobro®/resonator guitar. According to Lester Flatt, Brother Oswald was playing “an electric type Dobro® or steel, and he (Roy Acuff) had Shot Jackson playing steel. And I’ll tell you something else: a fiddle was so dead you couldn’t give a fiddle away. Nobody seemed interested in a fiddle. I was more or less raised on a fiddle and a banjo, and I would keep throwing a fiddle tune in on every show. Now, today it’s a different story. A fiddle is one of the hottest instruments going around a festival or in the colleges.”
Scruggs recently said, “People will tell you that Elvis killed country music. But we did more business during that time than we ever had. Some acts can go on TV and go over; and some just die. It just so happened that people were hungrier for [our] music than they ever were before… Just about every band here [in Nashville] disbanded during that time. They had one band that played behind the stars, and they survived awhile doing package shows.”
On October 2nd, 1955, Earl, Louise, and children Gary and Randy Lynn were in a serious auto accident. The children were fine but Earl suffered dislocated hips and a fractured pelvis, among other injuries. Louise was seriously hurt and received 200 stitches on her face. Both Earl and Louise were in Nashville’s Saint Thomas Hospital for about two months. They received 10,000 get-well items. Injuries sustained would continue to bother him through the years.
Earl described the event, “One Sunday afternoon, pretty late in the day, my brother called me and didn’t want to excite me too much, afraid I might drive too fast. Anyway, he said something was wrong with our mother. What had happened is she had had a stroke. Back in those days, the only way you could get from here (Nashville) to Charlotte—and Charlotte’s about forty miles east of Shelby—you would have to catch a plane out of Atlanta. I believe you’d have to go Atlanta and change and go to Columbia, South Carolina, and change and go to Charlotte. That would take all day. And, of course, this being late Sunday afternoon we decided we’d just drive over ‘cause we could be over there by early breakfast the next morning by taking our time. So we started drivin’ and we had gotten about fifteen miles east of Knoxville—I guess at the time that was during the two-lane highway days along 70 Highway—and we was on the straightest road between here and Shelby about three o’clock (my watch was broken at five minutes before three in the morning) there was a car came out of a side road [with a] boozed-up man and woman in it. That’s where it happened. Luckily for us—we had two boys at the time Gary and Randy, they were two and six—one was on the pallet on the floor and one was layin’ in the back seat. This was before seat belts. And Buddy, when I hit that car—and everybody said I was drivin’ about 55—when I hit that car the seat stripped on the carriage. Louise knocked a hole in the windshield; she messed up her face real bad for several years and had a lot of plastic surgery done. But it dislocated my hips and broke us up real bad. But we was young enough until after three months I had to have a metal hip put in and later have another metal hip put in. But everything came out real well, mainly because our two boys were not injured that much. And after enough years went by, we got to where we could get along all right even though we still have pain with it.” Scruggs started flying his own plane to some of his concerts in 1957. This enabled him to be home with his family more often and is easier, physically, than traveling endless hours on the band’s bus. Flatt hired Curtis McPeake and Donnie Bryant in Scruggs’ place. After this, McPeake replaced Scruggs many times until 1969 when Flatt and Scruggs disbanded.
In 1955 and 1956, Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys won the readers’ poll of Country and Western Jamboree magazine as Best Country Music Instrumental Group (with less than six band members). The band was the only Opry unit continuously sponsored on radio, television, and personal appearances by one firm: Cohen T. Williams’ Martha White Flour. Flatt and Scruggs was among the entertainers who recorded transcriptions for the U.S. Armed Forces syndicated show, “Country Style USA.” The series aired on over 2,500 stations. In the band were Flatt, Scruggs, Seckler, Paul Warren, Josh Graves, Jake Tullock and Charles “The Little Darling” Elza (comedy, bass, also known as “Kentucky Slim”). Occasional comedy—no longer black-faced—included skits with Kentucky Slim and Jake Tullock. Slim weighed 275 pounds. Their television shows gave Slim an opportunity to show off his “pork chop” step which was difficult for such a large man.
In October 1957, Columbia released their first LP, “Foggy Mountain Jamboree.” Soon Curly Seckler was playing on a part-time basis and the band hired Curly Lambert (guitar, tenor vocals). He recorded on the January 23, 1959, session which included “Crying My Heart Over You” as well as the April 5, 1959, session (on tenor vocals only) which included “Cabin on the Hill.” Everett Lilly played mandolin with the band again for eight months beginning in 1958. That same month, a second Martha White unit was formed featuring Hylo Brown and his newly-formed Timberliners.
After Scruggs’ July 1959 appearance at the first Newport Folk Festival, he was described by the New York Times as the “Paganini of the five-string banjo”. He appeared there as a guest of Hylo Brown’s band, not his regular Foggy Mountain Boys. This appearance was probably the impetus which catapulted Flatt and Scruggs to stardom during the great folk boom in the early ‘60s and perhaps helped all bluegrass bands to be accepted into the folk “fold” where the venues were. The Elvis phenomenon had taken the wind out of bluegrass’ sails and bluegrass bands had few places to play until the festivals got into gear.
The next year, they played at the Newport Folk Festival and appeared on their first live network television show, “The Revlon Revue: Folk Sound, USA,” on the CBS network. Experiencing other kinds of folk music on this program whetted Scruggs’ appetite to delve into a style of music which was more commercially appealing to young and urban audiences. Columbia Records pushed this, too. Flatt resisted. In April 1960, Flatt and Scruggs recorded with drums for the first time. They continued this practice occasionally. They did their first college and university folk music concerts in 1961. Columbia soon released “Folk Songs of Our Land” which catered to this folk market.
On December 8, 1962, Flatt and Scruggs appeared at Carnegie Hall; an album of the concert soon followed. Late that year, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” theme song for the “Beverly Hillbillies” television show (recorded September 24, 1962, and released October 12th) reached #1 on the country music charts. It was the only bluegrass recording to ever do this; it was nominated for a Grammy Award. The show ran on CBS-TV until 1971 and appeared in more than 70 countries. Flatt and Scruggs played the theme and made personal appearances on the show until 1968. In these appearances they acted as old friends of the Clampett family from their mountain home. The theme song on the television show was sung by veteran studio musician Jerry Scoggins; the Columbia recording used Lester Flatt as lead singer. Don Parmley, later replaced by Steve Stephenson, was the main studio banjoist for the show until it went off the air in 1973. They wrote “Pearl, Pearl, Pearl” and played it on the show. The record reached #8 on the charts in 1963 and was on the charts for eleven weeks. The show vastly increased the purse of Lester and Earl but didn’t help eliminate the “hillbilly” image that they, and many other bluegrass artists, tried so hard through the years to eliminate. In 1965, “Green Acres” began its reign on CBS-TV. Flatt and Scruggs recorded the song on an LP of that period. The band also recorded the theme for the “Petticoat Junction” television series.
The band’s exposure on television literally changed the lives of kids who would become third-generation bluegrassers. People like Sammy Shelor, Bela Fleck, Craig Smith and hundreds of others loved it so well that they tried to follow in the footsteps of bluegrass’ pioneers. Pete Wernick recalled that “Earl was the first person I heard [play the banjo]; later I heard a lot of others, but I keep coming back to Earl because he’s the best, not just the first. He dramatically changed my life.” J.D. Crowe admitted, “Had I not seen Earl Scruggs, I doubt very much if I’d be playing the banjo.” Shelor, upon acceptance of the 1995 International Bluegrass Music Association Bluegrass Banjo Player of the Year Award, said, “If it wasn’t for Earl, none of us would be here.”
Curly Seckler left for the final time in 1962. Also gone now was the sound of the mandolin as a rhythm instrument, though they would hire an occasional mandolinist; Everett Lilly returned in 1966 for another year with them.
Songs recorded during this period were of a different ilk than earlier recordings of the late 1940s, ‘50s and early ‘60s. Their style leaned toward that of the “Nashville sound” and they copied already-popular songs as exemplified in the “Nashville Airplane” and “Changin’ Times” albums. They added the harmonica of Charlie McCoy (in late 1963) and other studio musicians. This was a solid link to old-time country fans but failed to please bluegrass fans. They added drums. Gary Scruggs was included in these recordings in 1967. Later, Randy Scruggs recorded with the group.
At a time when Flatt and Scruggs was producing inconsistent music/albums, possibly to the extent they were losing their traditional following in 1966, they recorded with Doc Watson on “Strictly Instrumental” on Columbia. The record, however, came out as more Watson than Flatt and Scruggs.
Actor Warren Beatty called Earl Scruggs and asked him to write a tune for his new movie, “Bonnie and Clyde.” Scruggs provided “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” originally recorded about 1950 for Mercury. Also heard in the film are Doug Dillard, Glen Campbell and Tommy Tedesco. The tune won a Grammy and earned a “Million-Air” award from B.M.I. for having been broadcast over a million times in the United States.
In 1968, Peer International Corporation published Scruggs’ Earl Scruggs and the Five String Banjo. By late 1973, the instruction book had sold over one million copies. At that time, Scruggs received a gold book award from Peer-Southern. It was 1968 that the band became the first American bluegrass band to tour Asia.
The period between 1967 and 1969 brought the success of the band’s recordings such as “Bonnie and Clyde,” but Columbia, after offering Flatt and Scruggs a substantial sum to record, pushed them to alter their sound by using more studio musicians and update their lyrics by introducing material by Bob Dylan. Flatt couldn’t relate to this and it made him extremely uncomfortable. Scruggs brought two of his sons in to record with them and was a source of some tension. And the road continued to take energy from the two men, putting them in occasional ill health. After their last 1968 album, “The Story Of Bonnie and Clyde,” Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs finally reached an impasse in styles so they split up. The last time Lester and Earl played on stage together was in February of 1969.
Lester and Earl recorded their final session six months after they broke up (August 21 and 22, 1969). Columbia offered them a tidy sum to come back for one more album. Musicians were Flatt, Scruggs, Randy Scruggs (lead guitar, 12-string guitar), Josh Graves, Paul Warren, Johnny Johnson (guitar) and others.
Soon Flatt and Scruggs were pursuing their own music; Lester Flatt formed the Nashville Grass and Earl Scruggs formed the Earl Scruggs Revue with his sons, Gary (bass, harmonica) and Randy (electric and acoustic guitars) and Jody Maphis (drums). The Revue played a music which some (but not the members of the Revue) have categorized as “folk-rock”. They performed at urban clubs, colleges, and some festivals until the early 1980s. They pursued the tunes of artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Lester Flatt continued in the traditional bluegrass sound by hiring ex-Blue Grass Boys Vic Jordan (banjo) and Roland White (mandolin) as well as Josh Graves, Jake Tullock (bass) and Paul Warren (fiddle). Martha White Mills continued to sponsor them. Flatt left Columbia Records to record on RCA Victor. Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass became the first country band to sign with RCA since the Country Pardners in the ‘50s. Flatt was very opposed to non-bluegrass music and associated those long-haired musicians with rock music and marijuana-smoking. In 1971, Flatt and his Nashville Grass recorded “I Can’t Tell the Boys from the Girls,” probably as an affirmation of their beliefs.
Scruggs was known to be a good boss of the Earl Scruggs Revue. At a time when some band leaders would hire one bus driver to do all the driving (which may have been fifteen hours a day), Scruggs hired two drivers and would restrict their shift to six hours each. The performance contracts which he approved for the Revue included lounges for before and after the concert and catered food for the band members.
In 1973, Scruggs wrote the bluegrass score for “Where the Lillies Bloom,” a movie about four children and their life in the Blue Ridge Mountains after the death of their widowed father.
Scruggs had a plane accident in October of 1975 in which he was the pilot. Surgery was required on his wrist and ankle and required several months of recuperation.
Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were finally entered into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985—an award long overdue. Scruggs was on hand to accept the award in this, the most moving event of the Country Music Association Awards. Scruggs recalled, “I didn’t have a speech prepared that night. I didn’t have one prepared and I just went up and smiled and bowed and walked off. From the way I’m rattlin’ off now it doesn’t sound like it, but put me out on a stage to make a speech [and] I just go speechless.”
Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs became members of IBMA’s Hall of Honor in 1991. It is significant that Flatt and Scruggs were given the award the same year—and therefore the same stature—as the man who is often called “the Father of Bluegrass Music”. As of 1996, Mr. and Mrs. Scruggs live in Madison, Tennessee, and he performs occasionally.