Remembering Earl Scruggs

The following post is from Ensemble Department professor David Hollender.

I was at Berklee at about 8:00 last night with banjo phenom Noam Pikelny and some students. Noam had finished two days of teaching just minutes before and everyone was upbeat when the phone rang. It was Matt Glaser calling to ask if I had heard the news that Earl Scruggs had died. The room got silent and Noam plopped down into a chair and put his head in his hands. When he looked up he said, “The world became a different place today.”

To this day Earl Scruggs’ playing remains the gold standard. His tone, touch, and timing were impeccable. His playing defined playing with drive and he breathed fire into the instrument. At times he played with a wildness that has never been outdone. (Listen to his last solo on “Farewell Blues”!) If young or casual listeners today hear him and think to themselves that what they are hearing is just typical sounding banjo they are failing to realize that Earl Scruggs pretty much singlehandedly created the vernacular of what we now recognize as bluegrass banjo. If something sounds typical is because everyone has been so heavily influenced by him. It simply did not exist before he played it! And every innovation in banjo playing for the past 65 years, including each and every one of the most contemporary players, rests squarely on the foundation of techniques and concepts that Earl perfected.

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Berklee President Roger H. Brown and Earl Scruggs in Nashville

He was a man of few words. When someone once asked him how he picked he replied, “The timing, I try to get the timing.” He was basically an intuitive player. Other people have since studied his playing, identified tendencies, and coined terms like “rolls” to describe what he did that are familiar to all banjo players today. In truth Earl didn’t know what a roll was. He just thought about playing the melody and filling the spaces around it with notes of the chords.

Above all else, Earl was an innovator, so it’s ironic that banjo players’ respect for the perfection of his playing frequently has turned into slavish imitation, trying to play solos on tunes exactly as Earl did, right down to his fingerings. Some people go so far as to take offense if a player does not do it that way. They try to play the tunes identically to the way Earl played them on the original record. They ignore the fact that on live recordings he clearly played them differently and is said to have commented that he was amazed that anyone could play a tune the same way twice.

He never stood still and he spoke his mind both with his music and words. Surely he knew that his performances and recordings with younger musicians associated with rock would not win him favor with the traditional audience that wanted him to keep playing the same music he did in 1945. But he did not let that stop him from starting the Earl Scruggs Review with his sons and recording with anybody whose music he enjoyed. Similarly, in November 1969 when the Vietnam war was driving a wedge between people he made an appearance on the mall in Washington at an antiwar demonstration and spoke his mind, knowing full well that most of his fan base leaned to the right in their political views and feelings about the protesters.

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Earl Scruggs and MP&E professor Stephen Webber.

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Ricky Skaggs, Berklee alumnus Charlie Worsham, and Earl Scruggs.

The first time young Earl Scruggs heard his three fingers making sounds he had previously only been hearing in his head he supposedly exclaimed “I got it!” But he could not have imagined that he’d just made a ripple that would eventually grow into a tidal wave. Today I keep thinking about how many people I never would have met if not for Earl Scruggs. Multiply that number exponentially and you begin to realize how many lives he touched and how much good came as a result of a shared connection to what he gave us.

I only had the honor of meeting Earl Scruggs once, and I’m proud to have had an opportunity to play onstage with him on a night in March 1995 when Berklee presented him with an honorary doctorate. Late that evening everyone was on stage playing Foggy Mt. Breakdown as a finale—Béla Fleck, Jim Mills, Marty Stuart, Ricky Skaggs and KY Thunder, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings. As everyone took their turn at solos I saw Earl look my way and cue me to take the next break. I stepped up to the mic, took a deep breath and started to play. But suddenly I realized that on the other end of the stage Ricky Skaggs had cued Cody Kilby at the same time Earl had cued me. I still had half of my solo to go but under the circumstances I decided it best that I be the one to back off the mic. But I’ll never forget the feeling of Earl giving me the nod and playing my a (1/2) break on Foggy Mt. Breakdown with the master. And now he is gone.

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