Remembering Earl Scruggs
Remembering Earl ScruggsMarch 30, 2012
—By guest blogger, Holly Gleason
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. Everybody sits tucked away in formica veneer booths or at the counter on swivel stools, waiting on their Scattered, Smothered & Covered. Even him.
You’d see him there. A lot. Especially after his lovely wife/manager, 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.
I remember the first time. Sucked in by the denim pants. “Ahhh, what a nice looking older gentleman,” I thought.
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 was uttered by my internal voice. 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 three-finger picking style that almost eradicated clawhammer 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 John 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 Bluegrass Boys on the Grand Ole Opry. But it wasn’t long until he and Lester Flatt teamed up and spent the ‘50s and ‘60s barnstorming 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 mostly 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 hippiegeneration 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, his musicianship and a yearning for the authentic made Scruggs the hottest ticket with the hippest kids. He was breaking ground and healing generational damage just by being who he was.
Always a player of high execution and credibility, Scruggs believed in music’s transcendence. He played with hippie sitar player Ravi Shankar, the folk-pop band the Byrds, and Bob Dylan. 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 with Vince Gill or Marty Stuart—and folks like John Fogerty and Leon Russell clamored to play with the man.
He’s in the Country Music Hall of Fame, received the National Medal of the Arts, recorded Red, Hot & Country for the Red Hot Organization, which supports AIDS charities, received a Grammy for his 1968 “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” as well as 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. Like the Waffle House. It’s 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.