A Hundred Years of Earl Scruggs

In this centennial year of the North Carolina banjo legend’s birth, bluegrass wizard Tony Trischka extols his Earlness with a masterful tribute.

Bluegrass is dyed in the wool Southern music, a direct descendent of old-timey string bands and Appalachian white Protestant gospel. But a lion’s share of the best bluegrass artists over the past fifty years hail from well north (or west) of the south. David Grisman, Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck, Dan Tyminski, Chris Thile? Carpetbagging Yankees, every last one.

Count Tony Trischka (Syracuse, New York) among those carpetbaggers who have kept this Southern music alive and vital while pushing it into ever greater complexity and virtuosity. For over fifty years, Trischka has been at the forefront of the so-called “newgrass” current, recording dozens of albums as a leader or sideman and winning pretty much every award you can imagine. He performed the music for the original off-Broadway production of Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Driving Miss Daisy. Through his workshops and library’s worth of instructional books and videos, Trischka is one of the prime influences on the current crop of bluegrass heavy hitters like Billy Strings (Lansing, Michigan) and Molly Tuttle (Palo Alto, California), not to mention all those bluegrass-adjacent indie rockers sporting beards and banjos.

Trischka is also a music historian whose newest recording, Earl Jam, pays tribute to the friend and mentor he has studied for sixty years, the man who defined bluegrass banjo: Earl Scruggs.

Who, if you need ask, is Earl Scruggs? Easy: he’s the guy playing banjo on The Beverly Hillbillies theme song, the most widely heard bluegrass tune ever. Beyond that simple answer lies a monumental history.

Despite the centuries-old roots of the music, bluegrass seemed to spring fully formed from the head of its Zeus, Kentucky’s Bill Monroe, right around eighty years ago. The titular Father of Bluegrass, Monroe began wowing audiences at the Grand Ole Opry around 1940. But the big bang in this origin story came when he recruited Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs to his Bluegrass Boys band in 1945.

Flatt’s punchy guitar style brought a touch of swagger and swing to the music, a twist that marked a distinct break with the more straightforward timing of old-time music. But it was Scruggs’ innovations to the traditional Carolina three-finger picking style that cemented the band’s iconic stature. Feeling underpaid and overworked, Lester and Earl moved on to form the epochal band, Flatt & Scruggs. (An aggrieved Monroe did not speak to either man for twenty years, says the myth.)

Banjo master Tony Trischka
Banjo master Tony Trischka

By the late ’60s, as Scruggs grew more liberal-minded, both politically and musically, Flatt and Scruggs went their separate ways; they did not speak for a decade until Flatt was on his deathbed. (Bluegrass feuds have legs, reckon.) Scruggs continued a rich career that was marked by an embrace of the emerging popular music of the day and an ongoing commitment to bringing along a new cohort of musicians and fans to keep the traditional music alive.

One critical example of Earl’s embrace of the new: Scruggs was key to recruiting Nashville royalty for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s monumental 1972 album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. He earned a new generation of fans by touring as the opening act for the likes of the Byrds, Steppenwolf, and James Taylor. He eventually collaborated with artists as diverse as King Curtis, Sting, and Elton John.

But Scruggs was always essentially himself: a musical iconoclast with feet planted solidly in the tradition that nurtured his innovation.

Earl Jam is the product of Trischka’s painstaking analysis, transcription, and recreations of 200 informal recordings of Scruggs jamming with his friend John Hartford during the 1980s and ’90s. Despite his immersion in Scruggs’ legacy, these tapes gave Trischka new insight into the vast ocean of Scruggs’ musical knowledge.

The music here is superb, with an all-star lineup spanning two-and-a-half generations of bluegrass’s best. Bela Fleck, Trischka’s one-time student and the man who can play literally anything on the banjo, turns in a distinctly non-Scruggs solo on “Brown’s Ferry Blues.” This opening gambit, with Billy Strings on guitar and vocal and Sam Bush on mandolin, sets the tone for an album that is reverent towards its roots while firmly set in the current day. Which is exactly what the best bluegrass music has done since Monroe went all high and lonesome in the first place.

The highlights, too many to list here, include guest stints from Daryl Anger, Del McCoury, and Vince Gill. Rising star Sierra Ferrell shows up several times, delivering a spirited “San Antonio Rose” alongside fiddle legend Daryl Anger. Then there are her two versions of “Amazing Grace.” One, with her band in tow, features Trischka’s loving recreation of Scruggs’ original solo, itself as fine a demonstration of why Tony Trischka matters as you could ask for. The other is an a cappella version that might just make you forget all 10,000 other variations you’ve heard of this timeless tune.

Back-to-back Grammy winner Molly Tuttle takes her turn at the mic on the Dillards’ classic “Dooley,” though I must warn you that you’ll have a hard time shaking this catchy number; it’s been popping into my head day and night since I first heard it.

But my favorite track is the most stripped down of the set. On “My Horses Ain’t Hungry,” Trischka sits down with fiddler Bruce Molsky for a song that was first recorded nearly 100 years ago. But while the setting is spare, there is sophistication here that rebuts every smart-ass who dismissed this music and the people who created it as simple-minded or ignorant.

When Scruggs’ died in 2012, his obituary in The New York Times quoted Porter Wagoner: “Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.” Scruggs is enshrined in all the halls of fame and has a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame. Not bad for a farm boy from Flint Hill, North Carolina.

“Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball.”

—Porter Wagoner

But that’s just window dressing. As always, the proof is in the music. Earl Jam is both a fresh set of crisp performances by a murderer’s row of bluegrass hotshots and a fitting archival monument for the centennial of Scruggs’ birth. Maybe sixty years from now, someone will take a deep dive into Tony Trishka’s legacy. That’s how creative musics like bluegrass thrive through the decades, one foot securely in the soil and the other poised to climb another rung higher.

Go. Listen.

Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt in the 1950s
Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt in the 1950s

About the author

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Chattanooga-based writer/musician Rob Rushin-Knopf, Salvation South’s longtime culture warrior, blogs about culture at Immune to Boredom and appears regularly as one-half of the near-jazz duo RoboCromp.

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