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Pete’s Memories of Earl

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Author David Russell recently approached Pete concerning a book he’s writing on the influence of Earl Scruggs. Thirty years after writing the Masters of the Five String Banjo large chapter about Scruggs, Pete’s answers to Russell’s questions lets the reader in on some memorable aspects of his interactions with the man who changed his life.

David: Background: Where did you grow up, musical influences, intro to the banjo.

Pete: I grew up in the Bronx, NY, listening to the radio, everything from early Elvis to Fats Domino to Webb Pierce. My friends were folkies, so that opened up the world of Pete Seeger, Mississippi John Hurt, and Flatt & Scruggs. My friend Jake showed me a bit of frailing on the banjo, and we had an old 5-string in our house, so I started practicing and got hooked. I started with Seeger-style banjo, and his book and playing folky stuff with my friends.

David: When did you first hear Earl Scruggs play the banjo? What was your first impression?

Pete: Sometime around 13 or 14 years old, my friend Jake played me Shuckin’ the Corn, and my first comment was… “that’s one guy?”. It sounded so dazzling, it was unbelievable and magical. I still remember exactly where I was standing when I heard that. Once I’d gotten a handle on Seeger-style banjo, I decided to try to learn what Scruggs was doing. It seemed impossibly hard! There was no written or recorded help available at the time, nobody teaching it. It was just trial and error, find the melody and chords by ear, listen and experiment, listen and learn.

David: When did you first meet Earl?

Pete: Other than getting his autograph, I first actually met him through John Hartford, in the late 70s. Then after the Hot Rize band played on the Grand Ole Opry in 1981, my friend Wendy interviewed him and happened to ask if he’d heard of Hot Rize — and he said something about liking how we sounded on the Opry. That gave me the nerve to call him at home and see if he’d invite me over, as I’d heard sometimes happened. He did! I was nervous, but he was so pleasant and welcoming, I relaxed. After that, I’d visit him and Louise about any time I was in Nashville, and we’d have long visits, talking about all kinds of things, and getting to play together sometimes, one-on-one, something I never would have dared to dream. It was hard to put out of my mind that my absolute musical hero and I were taking turns chopping chords for each other. One time it was after midnight and he and Louise and I were still yakking away, and they invited me to stay over. That was cool!

David: How would you describe Earl’s playing: His drive, timing, and touch?

Pete: Describing Earl’s playing makes me wish I were a silver-tongued orator who could also be concise! I still often think about his musicianship, pretty much every time I practice. I admire so much about his playing, not just the drive, timing, and touch, but also his economy and clarity, the sense of life in it, the dependability, and just the fantastic pure tone… even though his tone evolved a lot over the years, despite always playing the same banjo.

Earl played so much in his prime years that he seemed easily able to do anything he wanted to hear… always focused on the melody, but ready to improvise and syncopate, even be playful, or somehow mysterious or sad at times. His moods and textures covered a lot of ground, and it floors me how many great ideas and moves he came up with. He created a giant vocabulary. I delight in all his little nuances… the bent notes, the surprising spaces he’d leave, or the way he’d start a break sometimes, ripping into top speed with no pickup notes, zero to 100 in no time flat.

And his backup… so tasty, always in service to the song.

David: What do you consider Earl’s top three tunes? Which ones do you like most?

Pete: Foggy Mt. Breakdown – an immaculate, powerful cut, recorded when he was just 25. No one can deliver like that.
Foggy Mt. Special – A whole bunch of his bluesy licks, played with authority and sterling finesse, just flawless. A classic recording in every way.
Shuckin the Corn – My sentimental favorite, since it was the first Earl I ever heard, when I was a kid. Plus it’s an insanely challenging and perfectly-played piece. I love the explosive start, the bizarre right hand rolls, and his last ride has some really hard parts in it — so I’m awed by his having the guts to go for it full-bore when a mistake would have meant scrapping the take.

David: Do you think the Scruggs/Keith turners are becoming less popular? (It appears, to me, that fewer people are using them).

Pete: Yes. Few use them for anything but a few tunes, just like Earl did. Keith tuners can be pretty versatile but tend to be high-maintenance, and the various types of D-tuners have limited possibilities. In the early 80s, a guy in Minnesota named Vincent Sadovsky wrote a whole album’s worth of “tuner tunes” which were quite good, but it had little effect, and Earl’s handful of tuner tunes are still pretty much the only ones people play. There are a few good exceptions, but that’s been the reality for over 60 years.

David: In your opinion, has anyone come close to his style? I.E. who sounds (or sounded) the most like Earl?

Pete: Yes, there are quite a few who can fool me for a while at least:
Kenny Ingram
Herb Pedersen
Bill Keith “way back when”
Bill Emerson, J.D. Crowe, Charlie Cushman, Porter Church, Larry Perkins, Curtis McPeake, Donnie Bryant

David: Do you have any stories you can share about Earl? Any advice he may have given you, etc.?

Pete: I knew him for a period of over 30 years, so there are many magic moments for me, but most are not that amazing, just special to me because I was there with him, and he was my idol and hero.

I liked his country expressions, like describing someone as “one knife short of a full set”, or someone who “would light up a room”, or in praising something, “that’ll curl your toes”. I liked when he talked about aviation, which was a major hobby of his for a long time, and how he’d deliver emergency blood to remote places. That was a whole other life for him, pretty separate from the music world, and he loved it. And he had lots of stories about Flatt & Scruggs and his family life in Flint Hill.

Advice was not something he often gave, but when I played him recordings of my Flexigrass band (which includes clarinet and vibes), and mentioned that not all the bluegrass people approved of the combination, he said emphatically, “Don’t let anyone tell you what you can play.”

Once in talking banjo philosophy he said it’s good to save some of your best stuff so “you don’t shoot your wad all at once”.

Once we were talking about thumb picks slipping and he asked for my thumb pick, and within seconds had pulled out a pocket knife and put notches on the inside of the pick.

He and Louise would regularly advocate against using the word “bluegrass” since it was so limiting, and they felt separating “bluegrass” out of country was not a good step for the business end of the music. Monroe’s possessiveness about the word “bluegrass” did not sit well with them, and they felt, rightfully, that Earl was a co-creator of bluegrass.

Not exactly a “story”, but maybe of interest: When I was working on the Masters of the Five String book, he declined to be interviewed for it, but when I asked him if he was OK with me writing a large, detailed chapter about him and his music, and would he check it for accuracy, he agreed to that. I inferred from a number of indications that he didn’t feel adequate to verbalize what he was doing on a technical level, and could describe about it in only the broadest of ways. Like quite a few rural-raised people, he didn’t consider himself articulate. We talked quite a bit over a few years about doing a video together, with me as “explainer”, but despite Homespun Tapes offering him the best deal they’d ever offered anyone, Earl finally declined to do a video.

For the Masters book chapter he wanted just two changes, both of which I made to his satisfaction: One was to add something about how Louise played a crucial role in his music by taking care of business and making his career possible, with great press and so many good gigs. The other request was a small touch-up of something Don Reno had said about their 1948 banjo trade. Don’s quote was: “Earl had the hots for my banjo.” Earl wanted it known, “I did not have the hots for his banjo.” He did talk about what bad shape it was in when he acquired it. I was thrilled when he and Louise approved the chapter, and it remains a special accomplishment to me to have done right by him.

Probably my favorite Earl story…
Once, sitting in his living room, I asked him if he still had his first banjo. He got up from his chair, left the room and a minute later came back with this very old banjo and laid it on my lap. I was speechless. This was the banjo on which Scruggs style was invented! It was autographed by all of his siblings, and in the old style of handwriting on the head it said “Our father’s banjo”. Earl’s dad had died when Earl was four. I felt I had a sacred ancient treasure in my hands. A lifetime moment for me.

Another story that stands out in memory … Visiting him once in his later years, he was wailing away on a tune I’d never heard before. I asked what it was and he just said offhandedly, “Obelisk Flour”. It was really catchy, up-the-neck and unmistakeably “Earl” but unlike anything I’d heard him play. I asked where it came from and he ended up singing this little jingle about Obelisk Flour, and let me record it, singing and all… “It’s songs and music for a quarter of an hour, a few kind words about Obelisk Flour…” I learned it from my recording, and after that when I’d visit, he’d ask how I was coming on Obelisk Flour. I’d play it and he’d say I didn’t quite have it, and would show me again, but my recordings show he kept changing it slightly. I know my version is pretty close, and I love playing it and thinking about him.

At one point I googled Obelisk Flour to get some background, and was a bit shocked to learn that the company, which was based in Louisville, had shut down in 1940! So Earl must have heard the song on the radio in the 1930s as a teenager, and here he was past 80, making a banjo tune out of it.

I don’t know of anyone else playing the tune, so I have a special feeling about having learned this little gem from him.

David: Some people have expressed concerns that Scruggs’ style is being jettisoned by a growing number of new banjo players/students in this generation (the Millennials). Similar concerns were voiced about melodic style banjo as New Grass began to emerge, yet Scruggs style remained strong. Despite the devoted Scruggs disciples in the current generation, do you see a move away from Scruggs’ influence? (i.e., Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, etc.).

Pete: That’s a complex question. A lot of people still work very hard to learn and deliver true Scruggs style, so I don’t worry that it will be “lost” or jettisoned. It’s just too good to not be carried on. As long as there’s bluegrass there’ll be Scruggs style, and Scruggs style will continue to find musical home outside of bluegrass as well.

Not every banjo player has the time or inclination to learn Scruggs style. It’s a difficult endeavor that takes a lot of practice hours to learn compared to other banjo styles, and to make it sound anything like Earl is harder yet. I don’t look down on the rock-star types who haven’t put in the time. Their using the banjo helps the overall cause, but I do think it’s too bad that players with that much exposure never have seemed to make the effort. It would be cool to hear high-level Scruggs style featured on contemporary pop records. I still wonder why it’s used only occasionally by non-bluegrass bands or record producers.

But it’s OK. Earl’s recordings are easily accessed, and at any bluegrass festival or on any bluegrass radio show you’ll hear a lot of great players whose debt to Earl is completely obvious. There are little kid players now who can nail Scruggs style, which is a trip to hear. If anyone “jettisons” Scruggs style, it’s their loss, but it doesn’t mean the style will be lost. Too many people love it, and a lot of us have worked hard to keep it going. I think it will outlive everyone.

David: How do you think Earl influenced the music world? Do you see his influence beyond the genres of bluegrass and country?

Pete: One thing I take delight in, that I don’t see mentioned anywhere, is that Scruggs style, which is the predominant banjo style used in bluegrass, is to my knowledge the only style of playing an instrument where one person’s name is *synonymous* with the way that instrument is played in a style of music. Swing or Dixieland clarinet is often played a la Benny Goodman but you don’t hear people calling that type of clarinet playing “Goodman-style clarinet”. You don’t hear “Armstrong-style” or “Davis-style” as a synonym for “jazz trumpet”, or “Segovia-style” as a synonym for “classical guitar”. But bluegrass banjo is generally and typically called “Scruggs-style banjo”. (Monroe, the ornery cuss, is the one exception, calling it “Snuffy Jenkins style”. Jeez!) As far as I know, this level of terminology is only true of Scruggs-style banjo.

This didn’t happen because of any machinations by Earl or his p.r. team, but for entirely natural and appropriate reasons. He would say he’s honored that people want to learn his style, and leave it at that. His music was so appealing, its influence was dominant, and his musicianship brought a completely new life to the five-string and to bluegrass music. By far the majority of people wanting to play banjo over the last 50 years have wanted to sound like Earl.

For all that, I can’t honestly say I see much influence of Earl on the music world outside the genres he operated in. He did create a nice bridge between hillbilly music and some of the rock/pop musicians he interacted with. He was an important catalyst behind the Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken album that did a lot for bluegrass and country music in the larger pop world, just through exposing it more widely. The Beverly Hillbillies theme hit literally billions of ears, some of his best picking. McCartney, Clapton, Elton John, Chet Atkins, etc. I’m sure love Earl’s music, but Earl’s style is very much a banjo style, relying a lot on the banjo’s tuning with the drone 5th and 1st strings, and its timing doesn’t fit readily with most non-bluegrass styles. So it has a great home in bluegrass, and once in a while shows up in non-bluegrass recordings as a welcome but sort-of-alien visitor. I think if Scruggs style were going to catch on as part of a non-bluegrass musical style, that would have happened by now. But who knows the future? Not I! It ain’t over till it’s over.

I do think Scruggs-style banjo is one of the big reasons that bluegrass music will live as long as there are human beings.

I count as one of the most significant accomplishments of my life that I have helped many people learn to play Scruggs-style banjo, worldwide. I’m amazed and happy that I been able to play it myself for over 50 years and counting. I feel grateful to Earl every day for that, and it gives me satisfaction that he knew how I felt about it. I told him I’d never be able to repay my debt to him, no matter how I tried, and I have tried.

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