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The Banjo Man

April 11, 2012

Last Sunday, 2,300 mourners crowded into the famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. An iconic banjo surrounded by dozens of floral arrangements decorated the platform. A closed casket was placed in front of the famous stage.  The audience gathered to pay tribute to bluegrass musician and Grand Ole Opry star Earl Scruggs who died on Wednesday, March 28, 2012. He was eighty-eight years old.

Scruggs’ public funeral service was held at the same auditorium where he had played his songs for years on the Grand Ole Opry. The four-time Grammy Award winner recorded his final album at this Nashville landmark. Nearby is a cluster of downtown honky-tonks where Scruggs’ music is still played. A plaque in his honor hangs three blocks away in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Charlie Daniels, best known for his fiddle playing, commented, “No one will ever play the banjo like Earl.”

Ricky Skaggs stated that Scruggs “was the most humble musician I ever met.”

Sunday evening, the Academy of Country Music held its annual awards show in Las Vegas. Rascal Flatts was joined by a special guest on banjo, Steve Martin, to pay tribute to Scruggs.

Earl Scruggs put his trademark on bluegrass music.

The North Carolina native started playing the five-string banjo at the age of four, using the traditional claw-hammer style of picking.  By the time he was ten years old, he had developed a three-finger method that became known as Scruggs style. Combined with a string-bending technique, Earl elevated the banjo from backup to a lead instrument.

Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in late 1945 and quickly popularized his syncopated, three-finger picking style.

The unique banjo picker played for twenty years with guitarist Lester Flatt. The two were best known for their song “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” from “The Beverly Hillbillies” television series.  Their song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was featured in the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”

On November 15, 1969, Scruggs played on an open-air stage in Washington, D.C., at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, becoming one of the very few bluegrass or country-western artists to support the anti-war movement.

In an interview after his performance, Scruggs professed, “I’m sincere about bringing our boys back home. I’m disgusted and in sorrow about the boys we’ve lost over there. And if I could see a good reason to continue, I wouldn’t be here today.”

In January 1973, a tribute concert was held for Scruggs in Manhattan, Kansas. The concert was filmed and became the 1975 documentary film “Banjo Man.”

Earl learned to play on the banjo belonging to his father, who died when Earl was only four years old. Earl later purchased a five-string from Montgomery-Ward catalogue for $10.95 and then a Gibson RB-11 when he began playing professionally. For years he played a 1934 Gibson Granada previously owned by Don Reno and Snuffy Jenkins, who had purchased it for $37.50 in a pawn shop in South Carolina. Earl’s last banjo, a 1935 Gibson RB-3 flathead nicknamed Nellie, was surrounded by flowers on the Ryman Auditorium stage last week.

When I was a senior in high school I got my first banjo, a Gibson extended neck five-string.  I learned to strum a few chords, but I never have learned to pick the way the best banjo players do.

Jerome Fowler of Clifton taught me to play the guitar. When I showed him my banjo, he warned, “Playing the banjo will drive you crazy!”

Most who have tried the five-string agree that a person has to be a little bit addled in order to play the instrument. The drone fifth string, always tuned to a high G note, gives the instrument its distinctive sound. That fifth string is the steel demon that will drive a picker crazy.

Born and reared in the Flint Hill community in Cleveland County, North Carolina, Earl Scruggs is, hands down, the best of all time. At an 80th birthday party for Earl in 2004, country singer Porter Wagoner said, “Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.”

Even with his world-wide fame and numerous awards, the talented musician from just south of Boiling Springs remained a humble man who remembered his roots. Stan Anthony, Mayor of Shelby, North Carolina, recalled a concert in the 1970s held in the crowded old Bost Gym at Gardner-Webb College. Scruggs was touring with his sons at that time. The group was known as the Earl Scruggs Review. Earl had come home to be with friends and kin. He never forgot his own people, and they will never forget him.

In the 1960s, my brother Lawton, while a student at Gardner-Webb College, joined a folk group called The Joyful Noise. One Monday, the Campus Minister asked the group to sing in chapel. They gladly accepted, but Lawton had left his banjo at home.

A maintenance man at the college loaned his banjo to Lawton. When Lawton returned the impressive old five string, the generous fellow said, “Thank you for taking care of my banjo. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to it. It belongs to my brother.”

The maintenance man’s name was Horace Scruggs.

His brother’s name was Earl!


Kirk H. Neely
© April 2012


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