Earl Scruggs turns 87 today and I thought it might be a good time to present a slightly different perspective on his legacy. Note: This article originally appeared in No Depression.
I used to teach a big class on American Popular Music at the University of Washington, back when I was in the ethnomusicology program. Which is funny, because I know absolutely nothing about popular music. This was proven to me early on when I was found unable to recognize or whistle the song "I've Got You Babe' by Sonny and Cher. Periodically, this issue comes up again in my life, like when I get all excited about this amazing new song I've found by a little-known group called the Jackson Five. But I know folk music. I know bluegrass and old-time and Irish and Inuit throat singing; you name it, I'm into it. So while every one of my 200 students was looking forward to learning about the Beatles or Jay-Z, I was looking forward to teaching about minstrelsy and Appalachian ballads. I wasn't the most popular teacher the class has ever seen.
But my favorite part of teaching that class was introducing Earl Scruggs. See, his music is so omnipresent that we take for granted just how amazing he is and was. There are a number of seminal artists in our history whose music was so explosive, so controversial, so intense that it instantly changed everything. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) are an early example of this. A bunch of nerdy white kids that discovered that they could tear the roof off a dancehall by just racing hell-for-leather through black jass tunes. Bob Dylan's another example. A young punk who figured out that adopting Woody Guthrie's "Fuck the Man" attitude could earn him a helluva lot more followers than Pete Seeger's "Love Everyone" philosophy. In Cajun music, Iry Lejeune sparked a bonfire renaissance of the old roots music by playing his accordion so hard that he nearly destroyed his own recordings. On his early cuts, he plays with a full band, but all you hear is his accordion, racing back and forth like a prison shank. Johnny Cash blew the lid off country music when he sang about killing a man in Reno. Hell, the list goes on, but Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe hold special places in my heart as cold-blooded purveyors of country punk.
Iry Lejeune tears up a Cajun waltz
While hillbillys all over the South were dressing up as hayseeds and spitting out corny one-liners and wacky skits, Bill Monroe and his bluegrass boys dressed in their Sunday best and brought a cool, bordering on cold, level of respect to the music. Like Wu-Tang, they were nothing to fuck with. They took old-timey roots music (Monroe played many square dances in his youth) and sped it way up, taking the blazing rhythms of Southern dance music and adding fresh ideas like solos (jazz), complex harmonies (Black and White gospel), and all kinds of blue notes and early funk (country blues). Just like punk, they stripped away all the bullshit that was drowning the music, keeping only the hardest elements to put together a new style based on what made the music great in the first place. They built an entire industry from scratch, just because they wanted to do it their own way. And though Monroe gets most of the credit for these changes, Scruggs was the flash point that changed everything.
It's hard to imagine the impact Scruggs' first recordings must have had on Southern musicians. His banjo picking is like a sucker-punch, coming completely by surprise. By adapting a regional style of playing known as three-finger picking (now known as Scruggs-style) and adapting it to his utterly raw sensibilities, he tore apart everyone's conception of his instrument. Imagine Jimi Hendrix if he stood stock still on stage with an eerie smile and just proceeded to tear the hell out of his guitar without any theatrics. If you listen to his Mercury recordings with Lester Flatt, he plays so hard that he distorts the instrument's sound, literally pounding the notes into the grooves of the shellac. And while many players can cop to a rawness and intensity in their music, it's rare that this is coupled with pure virtuosity. In Scruggs early recordings, he completely redefined what the banjo was capable of and took it from its hillbilly hokum roots to a new era of punk attitude and folk virtuosity.
Flatt & Scruggs: Pike County Breakdown (imagine hearing this for the first time)
Scruggs brought balls to bluegrass. Witness this tune 60 years later:
You can read plenty of info elsewhere about Scruggs' later career, and at 60+ years, it is staggering. But I'll share one more anecdote before signing off. I got to see Scruggs play live (first-time) a few years ago at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. It was a special show, as he played with Bela Fleck for their first time together on stage (Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet opened the show). Scruggs was probably 85 at the time and had put together an ace group of bluegrass superstars, including family members and another banjo player. He sat on a chair for most of the concert just cooly staring into space. Then he'd suddenly stand up, walk to the mic, and rip out a blazing solo before sitting back down. Didn't say much, didn't interact with the band much, just kicked ass and sat back down. The father of country punk or outlaw bluegrass, bringing much-needed attitude to one of America's most maligned instrument, the banjo.
Happy Birthday, Earl Scruggs!
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT EARL SCRUGGS AND HIS LEGACY:
Interview with David Johnston (Yonder Mountain String Band) about Scruggs' influence
YOU MUST BUY Flatt & Scruggs: The Complete Mercury Sessions