This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Banjo Newsletter, and is also available as an easy-to-print PDF.
Everyone has a story about the first time they heard him. When I was 12 or so I was at my friend Jake’s apartment in the Bronx and Jake said, you like banjo, listen to this, and he put on Shuckin’ the Corn from the “Foggy Mt. Jamboree”album.
I said, “That’s one guy?” It seemed impossible, too good to be true—by far.
Years later I calculated I was hearing 10 notes/second. Shuckin’ remains my favorite recorded example of any music— partly for sentimental reasons as “my first Earl”, but also—it’s so GOOD! From the brilliant tone and excitement of the opening 3-string “grab” to right hand adventures I’ve heard on no other recording, and the thrilling and daring no-pickup-notes top- speed start of the last break, followed by that impossibly-syncopated C7 roll that comes out just perfect…. It’s a masterpiece easily, and just maybe a miracle.
At 14, I had started Seeger-style banjo, and two months later, in January 1961 I got to see The Man in person. A few things still stick out in memory:
- He’d always kick in with a few clean pick-up notes, that I could actually discern and knew how to play… Then came the barrage of rolls that spun my head around and filled me with glee and wonder. I came to appreciate this facet of Earl’s genius as a performer: By starting with something easy to follow, he’d hook the listener, then do his magic. Had he gone straight to note- barrage, he might have lost us… as hyper- technical players do sometimes.
- He seemed so quietly confident and pleased to be entertaining us. That satisfied look under the cool western hat of the Miraculous Magician made him that much more awesome.
- I heard him speak! He was by the stage autographing (I got mine on the back of the concert poster), and a fan was telling him how he was a much better banjo player than Pete Seeger. Earl said, “Aw, Pete’s a good guy.” I not only appreciated the sentiment, but this New York kid just loved the way he said “guy”, like “gaah”. He talks!!
- Flatt announced that their souvenir book included a page on “how to play Earl’s style”. Wow! But… Curses! The page was mostly chord photos and gave his tuning (G tuning!) but it had only a small part about the right hand. I eagerly read that thumb is 1, index is 2, middle is 3, and “1, 2, 3 might be a good starting point… and other ideas will come to you.” And that was all! In time I learned that Earl was out of his comfort zone trying to describe the mechanics of his style. It was not something he could access verbally. He could only do it, not describe it.
How then to learn the style? Not a shred of Earl tab to go from in 1961, a record player that couldn’t slow anything down, but an adolescent’s fixation on the impossible dream of picking like Earl. Catching on to the chord progressions of Shuckin’, Earl’s Breakdown, and Flint Hill Special got me some of the notes, and then it was trial-and-error, messed-up rhythm and many, many replays of the record, and finally it started coming…
By the time Bill Keith became the first to tab a lot of Earl’s solos, I’d already cracked a good part of the code. But every page of Bill’s tab had details that left me wondering how Earl’s right hand could be so darned clever… and I still wonder about that.
It was about 30 years ago that I mustered the courage to call my idol and ask if I could pay a visit. John Hartford had given me his number and encouraged me. I’d heard that Earl was open to such things, and a journalist who’d interviewed him said he’d heard Hot Rize on the Opry and liked us,.. so I deduced he had to think I was acceptable as a visitor.
At the time, Earl was suffering from severe back problems that kept him mostly in the house, and he seemed to welcome the company. I was in Nashville regularly with Hot Rize, and made a point to visit whenever I was around. I’d call ahead and Louise would say to call when I got to town. Then when I’d call, she’d say “Come on over.” I’d usually arrive in the afternoon intending to stay an hour or two, and we’d sit and chat. Often they’d feed me and I’d still be there on into the evening, and once they even invited me to stay over (pinch me, I’m dreaming). As I was leaving, Louise would say, “Come back.” Those times seemed like heaven to me, welcomed in the home of the man whose music had changed my life.
As a member of a bluegrass band that was traveling the country, doing TV shows, and dealing with the pressures of the road, I was avidly curious about the Flatt & Scruggs way of doing things. Earl would oblige, and I’d hear stories of this or that difficult bandmember (“one knife short of a full set” was one description), revered musician, or questionable promoter, as well as his and Louise’s opinions about the music industry, the challenges involved in presenting bluegrass, and a veteran’s-eye view of the business I was learning.
Once I asked him if he still had the banjo he learned to play on. He got up from his chair and came back and handed me…a modest, very old and worn open-back on whose skin head was carefully inscribed “Our Father’s Banjo” with the signatures of Earl and his four siblings. This was surreal… I was holding the instrument on which Scruggs style had been created! A quiet awestruck moment for me.
Sometimes we’d take out banjos and play, and that was surreal in a different way…picking Scruggs tunes…with The Man himself. On one hand it was as natural as could be, with such familiar tunes. But once in a while I’d notice I was thinking about telling someone about it, and would snap to and quickly redirect into the actual music. Earl complimented me once on my back-up, which of course stuck with me. What had I been doing? Just playing a clean, full chop under him, and staying right with the timing.
Sometimes after we picked one, I’d ask him about a lick he just played. His standard reaction was to shrug and try to play it again, but it would come out different. Once he said, “I have no idea how someone could play a tune twice in a row exactly the same way.” I told him that, partly thanks to his book, there were now thousands of people who could only play each tune one way—note for note, from the tab. I know he found that baffling.
In the mid-80s I started work with Tony Trischka on “Masters of the Five String Banjo.” Naturally I hoped for a chance to interview Earl, but he declined. I let him know there was no way we could do the book without a major section about him and his playing, and that I would be handling that section. He was okay with that, and agreed to read through the chapter for corrections.
He only asked for two changes. One was a pretty minor change of a phrase. The other was his wish to highlight the role Louise had played in making his career possible. As the person originally responsible for booking Flatt & Scruggs, he knew how essential it was to have a diligent and formidable person in that role, and he wanted it known and appreciated that Louise was a key factor in the success of his music.
A topic we discussed quite a bit over an extended period was Earl doing an instruction video. He and Louise gave it a lot of thought, and we would discuss its contents. I was thrilled when Earl said, “If I ever do a video, I’d want you to be the one to help me do it.” I was on “scout’s honor” (Louise’s phrase) not to discuss it, and never have until now… But though they got as far as meetings with a leading video company, it never happened. My best guess is that he was just not comfortable in the role of “instructor.” When the early 60s Flatt & Scruggs TV shows came out on Shanachie, I realized that they would do very well as his video legacy: good footage taken in his prime allows anyone to see what he was doing (think: “many replays, with stop-frame”). Then “The Three Pickers” came out, featuring excellent picking and fun conversation with Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs. And around that time he told me he had decided not to make a teaching video. Sigh.
Partially inspired by Earl’s example (and remembering him saying he always wanted to play with Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain), I formed an experimental band with a clarinet, vibraphone, and drums. I played him a recording of Flexigrass doing Foggy Mt. Special, and he seemed to like it. I mentioned that not everyone in the bluegrass world appreciated this music, and he said emphatically: “Don’t let anyone tell you what you should be playing.” Flexigrass got to open for him at the 2004 Johnny Keenan Festival in Ireland, and a year or two later, he welcomed members of the band into his house for a nice jam.
Right down to the last times I visited Earl, there’d always be a small banjo in the big room where he spent most of his time. It had a short scale and no resonator, but he’d get a very nice and quiet sound on it, always playing without picks. Someone had given it to him during a hospital stay when a regular banjo was too heavy to hold. It reminded me of the section in his book about early 3-finger picker Smith Hammett, whom he’d known as a boy:
“I was not only fascinated by Smith’s banjo playing, but also by a little banjo he owned.” It had “approximately a nine inch head and the neck was about half the length of a standard banjo. It gave me a thrill to pick this banjo because I could hold it in my lap and be able to reach the chord positions.”
Now on a typical visit, there he’d be on a big couch, his small banjo never too far away. Now and again he’d reach for it and pick something, usually quite fast. Typical tunes were Browns Ferry Blues, John Henry (in G, after the way he played it with Monroe), I’ll Fly Away, and one in C called Crazy Love. He’d get stuck on a tune and play it over and over. Then just as abruptly, he’d put it down again. It seemed almost like a pet to him, a companion. The big Granada was away somewhere, though he’d take it out for jamming.
I feel so fortunate to have had Earl in my life, and I tried to be a positive part of his. I told him many a time that if there was ever something I could do for him, I was eager to do it, in appreciation for how he had changed my life. I did get a few chances to be helpful to him and Louise, and I only wished I could do more.
In his quiet way, Earl seemed comfortable with and grateful for the respect and appreciation he received from so many. But he never seemed stuck on himself. He knew his limits as a musician, and whenever asked if he played melodic style or clawhammer style, would just say that he liked to hear them, but “I just play my own style.”… And did he ever!
For excerpts from Pete’s extensive in-depth chapter on Earl from Masters of the Five String Banjo, visit DrBanjo.com and click to Pete’s tribute to Earl. The book can be ordered from the web site.
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