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He helped define the bluegrass sound and redefine the banjo. Earl Scruggs died Wednesday at age 88. During a career that spanned six decades, Scruggs’ signature three-finger playing style influenced musicians around the world. Kojo explores Scruggs’ life and musical legacy.
- Dick Spottswood Musicologist; host of The Dick Spottswood Show (formerly, The Obsolete Music Hour); and author of "Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years" (University Press of Mississippi)
- Katy Daley Host, The Katy Daley Show, WAMU's Bluegrass Country
WAMU Bluegrass Country’s Jerry Gray, who passed away this past February, interviews Earl Scruggs:
Foggy Mountain Breakdown
(with Steve Martin on the “Late Show With David Letterman”):
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Very few musicians actually change music as we know it. Earl Scruggs was one of those musicians. He helped define the sound of bluegrass music, and redefine the way we think about the banjo. Earl Scruggs died Wednesday at the age of 88. His career first took off when he joined Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in 1946, a group of musicians widely credited with pioneering the bluegrass sound, but his best-known work was probably the theme from "Beverly Hillbillies" and his instrumental "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" from the 1967 film, "Bonnie and Clyde."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss the life and music and Earl Scruggs is Katy Daley, host of "The Katy Daley" show on WAMU's Bluegrass Country, which can be heard on 7:00 to 10:00 a.m. weekdays on WAMU HD2 1055 DC, 93.5 in Hagerstown, or streaming at bluegrasscountry.org. Katy Daley, good to see you in the studio.
MS. KATY DALEYThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso joining us by phone is Dick Spottswood. He's a musicologist, host of "The Dick Spottswood Show" which airs at 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. Sundays on all of the aforementioned outlets. He is author of "Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years." Dick Spottswood, always a pleasure to talk to you.
MR. DICK SPOTTSWOODDitto, Kojo. Very good to join you again.
NNAMDII'd like to start with one of the most iconic songs, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" from 1950.
NNAMDIWithout the song, the car chases in "Bonnie and Clyde" are nothing, nothing. But I read somewhere that this song averages 11 notes per second.
NNAMDIWhat makes Earl Scruggs, or what made him such a unique musician, Katy?
DALEYWell, he changed the way banjos were played from a frailing style which is strumming with, you know, four fingers, and he did a syncopated version with three fingers, a roll, similar to the way ragtime piano players would play. And while there may have been other people working on a three-finger style, he's the one that's credited as being the pioneer and popularizing that.
NNAMDIAnd he pioneered it when he was still a kid, basically.
DALEYWell, about ten years old. I think he had gotten in a fight with his brother and went in his room to pout and started messing around on the banjo and he came up with that.
NNAMDIYou know, Dick Spottswood, Earl Scruggs was a legend within bluegrass and American music, but you say his influence was much bigger than that, someone akin to oh, a Charlie Parker. What do you mean by that?
SPOTTSWOODWell, I think that around 1945, or at least in the era directly following World War II, that there were several earthquakes in American music. I mean, you can go from Bella Bartok and Igor Stravinsky that were really changing things around in the concert music world, to Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe who were doing much the same for bluegrass really, introducing a brand new and very challenging sound, technically and vocally to country music in Nashville and gradually throughout the country.
SPOTTSWOODAt the same time that Charlie Parker was joining Dizzy Gillespie in New York and they were creating "Now's the Time," and "Lover Man," and "Night in Tunisia," and in all of these cases people were taking some existing ingredients and shaking them up to make something very new, very challenging, and as it's turned out over the past three generations or so, a very influential and lasting sound.
NNAMDIIf you have fond or favorite memories of Earl Scruggs, you can call us 800-433-8850 to share them, or go to our website kojoshow.org. Katy?
DALEYAnd to show the significant of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," it was selected for the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry of Works of Unusual Merit in 2005. I think that shows you how important it was.
NNAMDISteve Martin wrote an appreciation piece on Earl Scruggs in the January issue of the New Yorker, and he led with this observation, Dick. "Before him, no one had ever played the banjo like he did. After him, everyone played the banjo like he did, or at least tried." Is that just about correct, Dick?
SPOTTSWOODThat's largely true. The banjo as we known grew out of, you know, various folk instruments out of West Africa that came to America and on the southern plantations in the days of the American colonies, and there's some surviving paintings that show that, you know the banjo in those days, and then later on as minstrelsy grew in the 19th century, the banjo and the fiddle were an essential component of minstrelsy.
SPOTTSWOODMinstrelsy died, but the banjo and fiddle survived and evolved into bluegrass. So even though it was a very revolutionary instrument, it was music -- the bluegrass and the banjo were things that had great, great historical roots.
NNAMDIAnd I don't know if you know this, Dick Spotswood, but Katy Daley has been heard to say, I owe my career to Earl Scruggs. Now she'll explain.
DALEYWell, I think a lot of people owe their careers to the likes of Earl Scruggs because that music not only caught our ear, but captured our hearts and I'm not a musician, and so I did what I could do to be close to the music, and that was to do it on the radio, and yes, I think a lot of people will say they owe their career to people like Earl Scruggs.
NNAMDIDo you remember where you were when you first heard Earl Scruggs?
DALEYI do. I was a young person growing up in Okinawa, Japan. I listened to Armed Forces Radio, a show called Rice Paddy Roundup, and I heard a song, "Pike County Breakdown," and I said, what is that? You know, what is that? It was -- his playing made you want to jump out of a car and run over to the guy at the stop light next to you and say, what's that on your radio? I've never heard that. He was electrifying.
NNAMDIIn all the years that I've known Katy Daley, I know that she's from Washington D.C., I always wanted to know what the basis of her love for bluegrass music. Who knew it started in Okinawa, Japan?
DALEYWell, it's everywhere.
NNAMDIDick Spottswood, Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys in 1946 when Earl was in his early 20s and he was joining a band that was already well established, but it was this iteration of the band that's widely credited with the first bluegrass sound. What was different, Dick Spottswood?
SPOTTSWOODI would say that the difference was that Bill Monroe, who was a musician of rank himself had somebody working for him that was a musician of equal stature, and an awful lot of times genius in music, has appeared in pairs with people like Rodgers and Hart, and we mentioned Charlie Parker. We have to bracket him with Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, and I think when Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs played together that they created sparks that neither one of them was -- although they went on to have great and long-lasting careers, neither one of them ever quite reached that peak again. They were astonishing together and each one made the other one sound better.
NNAMDIAnd if Scruggs was the virtuoso of the banjo, Monroe was the virtuoso of the mandolin. So when we hear them playing together, we're hearing something really special. Let's take a listen.
NNAMDIThat's an example of Monroe and Scruggs playing together on "Why Did You Wander?" I guess we should...
SPOTTSWOODThe sparks were flying weren't there?
NNAMDIThey sure were flying. And I guess we should note that Lester Flatt is singing, and so this is a kind of preview of what Flatt & Scruggs would sound like after they quit and formed their own band. Katy?
DALEYWell, up until then with the fiddle and the banjo, as Dick had mentioned earlier, the banjo was a backup instrument, and Earl Scruggs made it the lead singer. I mean, he really did take it out of the backup situation, and boy the spotlight, the focus, you ears went right to that.
NNAMDIPerfect, because Dick...
SPOTTSWOODAnd he upstaged Bill Monroe, and I don't think Bill ever forgave him.
DALEYNo, I don't think so.
NNAMDIAs you mentioned, Dick, the banjo is a very old instrument whose roots can be traced back to West Africa, but Scruggs really came to change the way we think about it as Katy just mentioned. How was the banjo perceived before Earl Scruggs, Dick?
SPOTTSWOODWell, we do tend to emphasize, and that's that Terrance McArdle said in the Post obituary today which is a beautiful piece of journalism, that the banjo was considered a prop for a clown, and that people who played banjos blacked out their teeth and dressed in funny costumes and everything and that Earl sort of brought that quiet dignity to the banjo. Uncle Dave Macon is supposed to have said when he first was watching Earl from the backstage of the Opry, he said, he ain't one damn bit funny.
SPOTTSWOODAnd Uncle Dave had traded on being a comedian and a great musician, and he clearly missed one of those components when he was watching Earl.
NNAMDIAllow me to go to the telephones to Francis in Salisbury, Md. Francis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FRANCISWell, Kojo, great to hear you again. I love your show. I was clearing out a relative's home, they've passed, and I got three albums, Earl Scruggs Review, and it seems that three of his songs were part of the show, at least in the mido-'70s. So I was interested in Gary and Randy and Steve if they've kept up the musical tradition or what's going on with the family of the Scruggs.
NNAMDIDo you know -- Katy Daley, do you know?
DALEYYes. They're still playing.
NNAMDIThey are still performing, Francis.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Scruggs might have been a legend for his banjo skills, but he was also a great guitar player. Let's take a listen.
NNAMDIEarl Scruggs playing guitar, "You Can Feel it in Your Soul." Katy, everyone who knew Earl knew how much he loved his wife, Louise, the young woman that he saw in the third row at one of his performances. She is not as well known as he is, but also not as well known is what a crucial part of country music history Louise Was.
SPOTTSWOODWell, you cannot mention Earl Scruggs without mentioning Louise. She was a premier booker and manager and she actually went into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2010 for her contribution to the music. It was she was responsible for booking Flatt and Scruggs at colleges and universities, getting them to do their performance at Carnegie Hall, and at first, when they were approached to do the "Beverly Hillbillies," she didn't like that word. She wanted -- until she found out that they were going to be presented as the smart ones, but she really did a lot to craft their career as to what -- to the extent that it went.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of performing on college campuses, Dick Spottswood, Earl Scruggs was performing and recording music at a very tumultuous time in American history in terms of race relations and in terms of the war in Vietnam, and he stands out as a kind of iconoclast, doesn't he? He actually performed at an anti-Vietnam War rally which would have been a very bold thing to do at the time, wasn't it?
SPOTTSWOODPeople tend to think of southern white musicians as being of a single political stripe, and that's -- well, that's I guess largely true. It's still far from being entirely fair. Earl Scruggs and Chet Atkins among other people, had very dissenting views on things like the Vietnam War and, of course, race relations and other things of the 1960s, and they stood out that way. And I think -- and Willie Nelson was another one. People that grew up began to mature a little bit because they were around people who were significant musicians who nonetheless held what I call a little more maturity in politics.
NNAMDI...dead at 88 years old, and we're running out of time, Katy Daly, but I want to go out with an Earl Scruggs piece that you recommended from Carnegie Hall. What's that?
DALEYThis is called "Reuben," and I believe Lester invites him up to the microphone and this Carnegie Hall album is a lot of my guest musicians point to that as what made -- turned them on to want to become a bluegrass musician.
NNAMDIKaty Daly is host "The Katy Daley" show on WAMU's Bluegrass Country, which airs from 7:00 to 10:00 a.m. weekdays on WAMU HD2, 1055 DC, 93.5 in Hagerstown, or streaming at bluegrasscountry.org. Dick Spottswood is a musicologist and host of "The Dick Spottswood Show," author of "Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years." His show airs at 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. Sundays on all of the aforementioned media. Thank you all for listening. Here's Earl Scruggs.
SPOTTSWOODThank you, Kojo.
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