Earl Scruggs: A Small Personal Memory
For a long time, even after I had the privilege of interviewing them in the mid-1960s, I assumed that “Lester Flatt” and “Earl Scruggs” were made-up names.
I mean, they were just too perfect. Lester. Earl. Flatt. Scruggs. What are the odds that all four of those words could have been authentic — instead of an all-too-pat combination dreamed up by some promoter in Hollywood or Nashville to create just the right hillbilly flavor?
After all, hadn’t something similar happened with my own favorite group of that era, Peter, Paul and Mary? They played a different kind of music altogether, but hadn’t they been brought together by some producer bent on creating a faux-folk trio out of whole cloth, rather like the Monkees? Paul’s name, as I had been disappointed to learn, was really Noel Paul Stookey. But “Peter, Noel and Mary” wouldn’t have had quite the same ring.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s, after I moved to Shelby, N.C., to become editor of The Shelby Star, that I learned just how real Earl Scruggs’ name was.
He had come from the community of Flint Hill, near Shelby, which was only a few stones’ throws away from the place where the girl who would later become my wife, Brenda Crosby, also grew up. There are plenty of Scruggses around that neck of the woods.
Indeed, Brenda told me only the other day that two of her father’s cousins, Leonard and Bryan Causby, used to sit around and pick and grin with a youthful Earl in the 1940s. There’s a photo of them doing it. When Earl finally took a notion to quit his textile job at the Lily Mill and seek a musical career in Nashville, family lore has it that he invited them to come with him, but they decided to stick it out at home there in Cleveland County — no doubt generating lifetimes of what-ifs.
These reflections are occasioned by last week’s news that Earl Scruggs, five-string banjo virtuoso and popularizer of the twangy bluegrass music style, had died at age 88 in Nashville. All commentators on this sad event agreed that there would never be another quite like him.
After shaking the cotton dust of Cleveland County from his shoes, Earl became a sensation at the Grand Ole Opry and worked for a time with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. But later he and guitarist-singer Flatt split off and formed the Foggy Mountain Boys, who became a hit in the 1950s and ’60s.
Which takes me back to that interview story, my own extremely minor claim to fame in this regard.
In 1965 or so, besides being a college student and novice newspaper reporter, I was also an amateur guitar-strummer. That may be why the city editor at The Springfield (Mo.) Daily News assigned me to take the hour’s drive down to Branson (then a much more modest venue than it is now), where Flatt and Scruggs were scheduled to perform one night, and see if I couldn’t get them to answer a few questions for publication.
I managed to do so, which became one of the proudest notches on my brand-new journalistic gun. All these years later, though, I have no memory of what they had to say after I talked my way onto the tour bus in which they were sitting at the edge of a grassy field, awaiting their turn on the stage.
One indelible image does remain. As Earl and I talked, I remember watching the other bored and road-weary members of the group sitting in a circle and going through a backlog of fan mail. After slitting an envelope open with a pocketknife, each member would glance at the letter inside before tossing it unread into a trash can. If there were any dollar bills included, they would be dropped into a communal hat, supposedly for later divvying-up.
That momentary disillusionment aside, who could forget the music they played that night?
I went into it with my youthful preference running more toward “The Times They Are A-Changin’” than “I Saw the Light.” I still foolishly considered the likes of Flatt and Scruggs rather too hicky and countrified for my taste.
But after clapping and stomping my way through their open-air concert, I left Branson with a newfound appreciation for that raw-edged and earthy genre — and especially for that modest, soft-spoken, cap-toothed banjo master with his dazzling style.
And to think, I shook the gentle hand whose three fingers revolutionized at least one corner of the music world.
Steve Bouser is opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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