One of my favorite pictures of Earl Scruggs shows him, just north of being a gangling teenager, standing next to his friend Lester Flatt on a tile floor, perhaps at a bus stop somewhere. He’s already off on his musical adventures with a gleam in his eye.
His time with Bill Monroe as a Blue Grass Boy and later with Lester Flatt as “Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys” was by far the most productive period, producing jaw-opening instrumentals on banjo and wonderful guitar leads, especially on gospel material with Flatt. Fewer people know about his subtle baritone singing. I was always struck by his rock-solid sense of time, so essential in any fine music.
As with many musicians, Earl was one of my musical heroes, so I was excited when, during a 1991 visit with Nat Winston in a Nashville suburb, Nat suggested driving over to his friend Earl’s house for a little visit.
We got there in mid-morning. Nat introduced me to Earl and his wife Louise, who I’d actually spoken with on the phone years before, vainly trying to get Earl to appear in a documentary film, “That’s Bluegrass”, made in 1978 for distribution on a TV network. (Well, that’s another story) The conversation tended towards the formal side at first, but Earl soon found we had several musician friends in common, and he laughed at some of my musical adventures. At one point, he jokingly asked “Well Pete, who’s your favorite banjo player?” “Easy!” I said, “Uncle Dave Macon!”. Earl laughed and got up, saying, “Wait a minute”. He went down the hall and quickly came back, holding an old Gibson open-back banjo. “This belonged to Uncle Dave . . . here, play me a tune!”
I could have dropped a whole handful of mashed potatoes and gravy at that point, but I did manage to hold onto the banjo (which was in perfect tune) and, like someone diving off a high cliff into a deep mountain pool, rattled off one of Uncle Dave’s classics “Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy.” Earl laughed and again said “Wait a minute!” went down the hall and came back with one of *his* banjos. Soon, we were both picking banjos, me using what some call “clawhammer style” and Earl, well, playing in . . . “Scruggs-style”!
Well, we wound up playing double banjos for almost an hour, at which point Earl got up and fetched his guitar and we sang some Carter Family songs. I told him that the first album of his that I’d heard was Flatt & Scruggs Sing Songs Of The Carter Family, a Columbia LP from 1962, which they recorded with Maybelle Carter playing autoharp. I noticed that, over the mantle in his living room, Earl had the original of the painting of him from the album cover.
During my visit, I asked Earl about Uncle Dave Macon and the supposed “feud” he’d had with him at the Opry. Earl said that the story was mainly made up, and that he and Uncle Dave became good friends from the times that Uncle Dave opened for Bill Monroe during the WSM-sponsored tent shows in the 1940’s. Can you imagine getting to see a show like that? Uncle Dave Macon, followed by Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys with Chubby Wise, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and Cedric Rainwater? Man, I would pay cash money to see that, even if the ticket price *was* 50 cents (which is what they were charging)!