April 25th, 2009 | Interviews

claire cronin

Earl Scruggs started out picking banjo for Bill Monroe but made his name and fame with Lester Flatt as Flatt and Scruggs until 1969. After that, he took his family and friends out as the Earl Scruggs Revue and covered Dylan and shared songs with the Byrds. He speaks now (with son and musician Gary) before his performance at Stagecoach. This interview by Dan Collins.

How old were you when you started playing banjo?

Earl Scruggs: Very small. My dad had an old banjo, and I loved music long as I can remember. I played before I even knew what radio was.
I guess you got your first big break when you joined Bill Monroe’s group. Why did you and Lester Flatt decide to quit and start your own group?
ES: We felt like if we worked for ourselves, we’d make more money. We did much better.
When the sixties hit, and the first big folk music wave came along, you and Lester embraced it in a way not all bluegrass musicians did. Do you think having sons who were young helped you find that passion?
ES: Oh, for sure. Aw, yeah!
Gary Scruggs: With the folk boom—some people call it the ‘folk scare’—my mother was instrumental in getting a lot of things done. Dad knew Joan Baez, and through that friendship, mother knew her manager, Manny Greenhill. And that helped Flatt and Scruggs get involved with the folk boom.
In ‘69, you and Flatt covered Bob Dylan’s ‘Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.’ Did you worry that this might be seen as promoting drug use?
ES: No, I just hoped it would be seen as promoting a good song.
GS: I’ve always thought of that song as more about being persecuted or criticized. The line, ‘They’ll stone you when you’re trying to keep your seat,’ always reminds me of Rosa Parks.
ES: That’s what makes Bob such a great songwriter—different songs can mean different things to different people.
And you also did a television special called Earl Scruggs: Family and Friends, and you played with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the Byrds. Were they able to keep up with you musically?
ES: Well, they had their show, and we’d do theirs. We didn’t play together as a band.
But I have seen footage of you playing with the Byrds.
ES: Well, yeah. They were friends of ours. We had some songs we could do together.
Did you get criticism from the mainstream bluegrass camp for playing with rock and folk acts?
ES: That’s one thing I don’t pay any attention to. I do what I think’s best, and to heck with other people’s opinion! I respect their opinion, but I still gotta make a living.
Bob Dylan caused a lot of controversy when he ‘went electric’ at the Newport Folk
Festival in 1965. At what year did you start using electric bass and guitar in your band, and did it cause the same kind of controversy?

ES: In 1969, the year we formed the Earl Scruggs Revue—Gary played electric bass and Randy switched back-and-forth between acoustic and electric guitars, depending on the song we were playing. We also used a full drum set, and then added piano, so it was a big sound.
GS: You asked if it caused any controversy—there were some pretty harsh criticisms of dad from some of the hardcore bluegrass fans that didn’t like electric instruments and drums period. But the Revue wasn’t a bluegrass band, and we never claimed to be a bluegrass band. Overall, the positive response far outweighed the negative.
ES: Right. I never wanted to be categorized as just ‘bluegrass.’ The Revue played for a heck of a lot more young people than Lester and I ever did, and it was an exciting time. The Revue played on a lot of college campuses, and rock festivals, too. I gained a lot more fans with the Revue than I ever lost.
On the album that was released after that show, there’s a sound clip of your speaking out against the Vietnam War.
ES: Well, that’s way in the past now. I didn’t believe in what was going on at the time.
GS: I just want to be clear: Dad has never not supported soldiers and troops. He’s been a firm supporter of people who have sacrificed for our country. We were just against the Vietnam policies.
In fact, Earl, you supported the war effort in World War II by working in a factory, isn’t that right?
ES: Well… my dad died when I was four years old. I was left with a mother and a half-sister. I was making a pretty good living in the mill, so I worked in the mill because I had to make my salary every week. Then I learned I could make more money in the music business, so I left the mill and moved to the radio and the show business.
You invented a mechanism for the banjo, didn’t you? I was reading that there was a time when you would play with a big box over the neck of your banjo, so no one could steal your idea before you patented it.
ES: No, that’s what got out—that I was trying to conceal it. What it was was tillers. They worked like a cam[shaft]. I just took a brace and bit… you know what a ‘brace and bit’ is?
I don’t know what a brace and bit is.
ES: It’s a manual drill that you bore holes through wood with. I turned the banjo over and bored down through the inlay and everything, put two extra pegs on it—which were nothing but cams to push the strings—run it down to a D and then push it back up in the G position.
So it would sound like a slide almost. You could detune a note while it was resonating.
ES: Right. Very good!
I think that speaks to one of the qualities that’s unique to you, regardless of what genre we’re talking about. You’ve got precision, and you’re fast. But there’s a certain amount of soul as well. Do you think you cut a good line there between playing fast, but also having that spirit?
ES: Well, I don’t know what you’re talkin’ bout, ha ha.
I mean, I was reading about Todd Taylor, who has the Guinness World’s Record for playing the fastest banjo…
ES: I don’t participate in ‘speed.’ I think speed is alright, as long as you control it. But you can get it so fast you can’t pick it yourself.
Who do you think, out of all the musicians you’ve gotten to play with, is the person you’ve looked at and said, ‘Wow, that’s one of the best people I’ve seen play that instrument?’
ES: Well, let’s put it this way. All musicians—most of ‘em—are good. Even those musicians themselves are better on some tunes than others. So that’s what makes the world go round. They’re all good, but they play different tunes well.
What was the tune of yours that you thought you played the best?
ES: ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown,’ I guess would be the most successful one.
That was the one that was in the movie Bonnie and Clyde.
ES: That’s right. I recorded it way on back, and then I had a request to do a music score for the movie.
GS: It was Warren Beatty Dad’s referring to.
ES: …and he found that record I’d recorded earlier, and told me, never mind, he’d found what he wanted. So he used the old recording of ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown.’
Did that open a lot of doors for you, and increase your popularity?
ES: It sure did. It was like The Beverly Hillbillies. It went nationwide.
You’ll be playing in Indio, California at the end of this month, at the Stagecoach Festival. Will Steve Martin be in your touring band this time, playing second banjo?
ES: I don’t know if Steve will be around or not.
GS: Dad did a re-recording of ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ in 2001, and Steve was one of the featured performers on that, including Paul Schaeffer, Vince Gill, Leon Russell, and a bunch of people.
Did you see Steve Martin perform back in the late sixties and early seventies? I know he opened for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band quite a few times.
GS: We did quite a few concerts with the Dirt Band, some of which we opened, some of which they opened. It was co-billing most of the time. And Steve was involved a couple of times then.
ES: Steve Martin at the time was a stand-up comic. I don’t know if you remember that—he had a thing with like an arrow stuck through his head. He did real well.
I’ve got a recording of you playing with the Dirt Band, and you’re covering Mike Nesmith, who’d been in the Monkees. Did you like his music a lot?
ES: Well, I liked what we was doing at the time. I didn’t care whose music it was. If it sounded good, I’d say ‘Let’s do it.’
GS: That was ‘Some of Shelley’s Blues.’
That’s right, and Gary, you sang on that one! How long have you guys been playing as father and sons?
ES: Oh, since they were in school. We had Earl Scruggs, Family and Friends, on the road about eleven, twelve years.
What was your relationship with the Carter Family?
ES: Mother Maybelle Carter was my musical hero early on. I loved the way she played guitar and I was a big fan of the Carter Family. She moved to the Nashville area and lived near where we lived. We became friends and visited one another quite often. I never met A.P., but I got to know Sara a little from when she was in town to visit with Maybelle.
GS: Flatt & Scruggs recorded an album with Maybelle in 1961.
ES: We sure did—Songs Of The Famous Carter Family was what it was called. My wife, Louise, was also a big Carter Family fan and she suggested we do an album of Carter Family songs and I asked Mother Maybelle if she would like to record with us for it. Maybelle had pretty much retired from music and was working in a nursing home, sitting with people who needed some help or needed some company to help pass the time. Anyway, we recorded the album and did some shows together. I was glad to see Maybelle back at it, singing and playing her guitar and autoharp.
GS: And you got Maybelle involved with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s original Will The Circle Be Unbroken album.
ES: Yes. The Dirt Band had asked me to take part in it and also to help get some of the other artists involved—Mother Maybelle, Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, and Doc Watson. It was a lot of fun for me to be back in the studio with her.
I was interviewing Chris Darrow from the Dirt Band a few weeks back, and he was saying that he and Steve Martin and a bunch of people who went on to be in popular bands later all got their start playing bluegrass at Disneyland when they were really young, like it was a boot camp for musicians. Now Disney pushes out people like Britney Spears. Do you worry that there’s no place for young musicians to learn to play bluegrass or banjo?
ES: No, no no, there’ll always be good banjo pickers. We may not be as many at times as others, but as long as they play well, they’re gonna get out there!