Earl Scruggs : Some nights he had the stars of North Carolina shooting from his fingertips. 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. In 1945, when he first stood on the stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and played banjo the way no one had ever heard before, the audience responded with shouts, whoops, and ovations. He performed tunes he wrote as well as songs they knew, with clarity and speed like no one could imagine, except him. When the singer came to the end of a phrase, he filled the theatre with sparkling runs of notes that became a signature for all bluegrass music since. He wore a suit and Stetson hat, and when he played he smiled at the audience like what he was doing was effortless. There aren’t many earthquakes in Tennessee, but that night there was.
As boys in the little community of Flint Hill, near Shelby, North Carolina, Earl and his brother Horace would take their banjo and guitar and start playing on the porch, then split up and meet behind the house. Their goal was to still be on the beat when they rejoined at the back. Momentously, when he was ten years old, after a fight with his brother, he was playing his banjo to calm his mind. He was practicing the standard “Reuben” when found he could incorporate his third finger into the picking of his right hand, instead of his usual two, in an unbroken, rolling, staccato. He ran back to his brother, shouting, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it!” He was on the way to creating an entirely new way of playing the banjo: Scruggs Style.
He was only twenty-one when he was in on the founding of bluegrass music, adding the Scruggs’ banjo sound to Bill Monroe’s great blend of guitar, bass, fiddle, mandolin, and Monroe’s iconic high, lonesome voice, singing, “It’s mighty dark for me to travel.” He had already been playing Scruggs style for eleven years. On the Grand Ole Opry’s Ryman Auditorium stage, the banjo had been played well, but mostly in the old style, and mostly by comedians, prompting Uncle Dave Macon, a beloved regular, to say about Earl from the wings, “That boy can play the banjo, but he ain’t one damned bit funny.”
It was at the Ryman, in 1946, that he met his future wife, Louise. They made eye contact while he was performing as she sat in the third row, stage left. Ten years later, when it became obvious that Earl was not only famous but verging on a legend, Louise, exhibiting country firmness and gumption, became his gate-keeper, defending the soft-spoken Earl from celebrity abuse, ill-advised contracts, and too many free dates or dubious honors. But Earl always obliged the youngsters and amateurs (including this writer, whom Earl showed how to play “Sally Goodin’,” his way, when I was twenty-two).
Sometime after Monroe denied him songwriting credit on “Bluegrass Breakdown,” Scruggs left Monroe, changed the F chord in “Bluegrass Breakdown” to E minor, and wrote “Foggy Mountain Breakdown. ” It became, arguably, the most famous banjo instrumental, a song that speeds along at a clip of eleven notes per second. It is known by most people as the theme from the movie “Bonnie and Clyde,” and also supplied Earl with an income for life.
The banjo lends itself to showing off: it’s often played fast and thrillingly, fingers flying up and down the neck, the right hand connecting to the left with seemingly impossible accuracy. But Earl always remembered his mother’s advice when he was a boy: “Play something that has a tune to it.” His first and last priority was to make music, which keeps his sound melodic and accessible. Yet, even professional players today say, “How did he do that?” It is not easy to make the melody note land in the right place when rolling three fingers over five strings, but Earl could syncopate, “bend” a string—which caused one note to move unbroken into another—and he could audibly retune the banjo in the middle of a song, leading to the invention of a mechanical device called “Scruggs’ pegs.” Earl knew when and how to surprise the heck out of the listener.
After he left Monroe, in 1948, Scruggs teamed up with Lester Flatt, who had also left Monroe, and Earl maintained his position, unassailed, as the greatest and most influential banjo player who ever lived. They toured the rough backroads of the bluegrass circuit, where jarring potholes knocked their instruments haywire, and they tuned each night to Flatt’s G string on his guitar—which, over the months, crept up in pitch. By the end of the tour, they were often a half-step too high, which they soon learned suited Flatt’s baritone voice.
The long zigzag march through the clubs and radio stations of America counted, though, and Monroe was annoyed as Flatt and Scruggs became as famous as he was. In 1962, they headlined the Newport Folk Festival, sold out Carnegie Hall, and, one year later, Earl’s banjo helped send “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” to No. 1 on the country charts. Then the Bob Dylan revolution and Beatles revolution hit almost simultaneously. At one point, a producer convinced the band to incorporate this new music into Flatt and Scruggs, persuading poor Flatt to sing “Everybody must get stoned.”
In the late nineteen-sixties, Earl continued to be introduced to new sounds through his musical sons Randy and Gary, and also by drop-ins to his Nashville house: Bob Dylan, the Byrds, and others who wanted to pick with the famous Earl Scruggs. Ravi Shankar came by with his sitar, and, after their unlikely jam session, they satisfied Ravi’s mystical craving for Kentucky Fried Chicken by sharing a bucket. Eventually, Earl grew his hair a bit long, joined Randy and Gary to create the Earl Scruggs Revue, and added drums to the band—a bluegrass no-no. A few years later, he released a solo album featuring songs by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. When he showed up at a Washington, D.C., anti-Vietnam War protest, the country-music world from which he sprang wondered if he had blown a gasket.
A grand part of American music owes a debt to Earl Scruggs. Few players have changed the way we hear an instrument the way Earl has, putting him in a category with Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Chet Atkins, and Jimi Hendrix. His reach extends not only throughout America, but to other countries, including Japan, where bluegrass bands, strangely, abound, as well as Australia, Russia, the U.K., Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic, which boasts not only bands but banjo makers. Most, if not all, of the banjo players play Scruggs style.
Earl has now passed, and it’s been eighty some odd years since he first shouted, “I’ve got it!” and reinvigorated the banjo. Picking with Earl at his home in Nashville was a holy anointment, and playing Earl’s banjo, the one he recorded “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on in 1949, well, that was like holding the Grail. Sometimes on these special evenings, everyone would sit around playing their instruments, and the tunes will glide easily from one to another, like it has on the porches and living rooms of America for hundreds of years. But then Earl will settle in, playing backup or taking the lead, and you hear the sound, the one you heard when you first fell in love with the banjo, and you can’t help but have a slight intake of breath. Unmistakable. That’s Earl Scruggs. The five-string banjo could not have had a better genius.
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