02 April 2012


by Andy Weddington
Monday, 02 April 2012

"I don't think you'll ever get enough picking." Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs died last Wednesday--28 March 2012. He was 88.

Maybe you'd not heard of Earl Scruggs until glimpsing a brief article about his death or maybe seeing the short piece CBS did on their 'Sunday Morning' program yesterday. Maybe his name still does not sound familiar. If not, read on and learn a little something about an American icon.

But surely some of his music will strike a chord--'The Ballad of Jed Clampett'--theme song from the TV show 'Beverly Hillbillies'; his signature up-tempo, toe-tappin' Grammy winner 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' from the movie 'Bonnie and Clyde'; or maybe his wonderful, cleverly played happy tune 'Flint Hill Special' written for and named after a place near and dear to him in his youth.

Earl's death is a big deal. It's a big deal to the world of bluegrass music and, for that matter, music. It's a big deal to me. And it's a big deal to a lot of folks I know. 

Earl was born and raised on a farm near Shelby (Cleveland County), North Carolina--part of an area known as the Piedmont and not far from where my parents were raised and a lot of kin still live.

As a boy, Earl learned to play the 5-string banjo. The instrument eventually brought him fame and fortune.

Fact is, as a boy, Earl invented a style of (bluegrass) picking using his right hand--index and middle fingers and thumb to pick (and clutch) the steel strings--while his left hand fretted, pushed, pulled, hammered, bent, stretched, barred, capo(ed), and did whatever else necessary to the strings to get the sounds he wanted. Earl's fluid style based on simple rolls--that became known as "Scruggs-Style"--has been copied by banjo players world-wide. Some of the more famous mimickers include Roy Clark; J. D. Crowe; Doug Dillard; Roy Lewis; Sonny Osborne; Steve Martin; and Bela Fleck. And who knows how many of the not-so-famous but equally talented pickers. Lots. And lots.

Earl's fingers now rest and his banjo silent but it just so happens I know a Scruggs-Style banjo picker. He, too, was raised in North Carolina; a few or so decades later and about three hours east of where Earl grew up. He's been playing the banjo for about 40 years. And has a lot of playing yet to do.

As a youth Kenny, who matured to Ken and was later tagged with "Duke," learned on an inexpensive banjo (some called it an ax) that was challenging to play--all a quality banjo is (geared pegs; ebony fingerboard; mother-of-pearl inlay; brass tone ring; etc.) this one was not; it had none of those components. But it was a banjo and the necessary step to see if his interest in learning to play was genuine.

A Scruggs-Style picker taught him the basics. And then he absorbed Earl's book on the 5-string banjo; listened to Earl's (and Lester Flatt) records and records of other banjo players over and over and over; played with other musicians and in a band; made it to a festival or two; and spent thousands and thousands of hours practicing and inventing.

His interest was serious. Then a generous gift a year or so later--a beautiful quality Fender banjo--from his parents took his playing to new levels.

Today Duke's not as famous as Earl but he does enjoy some just due notoriety for his banjo playing and songwriting. For instance, eight or nine years ago he, like Earl, wrote and recorded a tune that he named after a place near and dear to him during his youth. That song, titled 'Alamance' (after Alamance County, NC), was recognized by the State of New Mexico's Music Industry for best instrumental. Other tunes have made (and continue to make) radio shows around the globe.

Duke now fronts the band 'Higher Ground' based in Albuquerque, NM. That band of talented musicians has garnered quite a reputation as among the best bands, that plays blue and a brand of new grass, in the region. They've recorded three CDs; superb and most of the music original scores. Earl Scruggs probably never heard their music but he'd most likely have liked it; especially the banjo picking.

I've no doubt Duke, when learning of Earl's death, paused and reflected on what Earl Scruggs meant to him. How could he not? And though Earl did not know it, he'd mentored a fellow Tar Heel--a new generation of banjo picker carrying on the distinctive Scruggs-Style.

Earl's gone but his music lives through the fingers of his proteges--one of them is Duke. For a taste of the music: www.highergroundbluegrass.com

Rest in peace, Earl Scruggs (1924-2012).

Carry on, Duke. And 'Higher Ground.'

Post Script

Earl leads and finishes 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown'--and in between a group of pickers who copied his style each take a break: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJOIqmlI65Y&feature=related

Earl's influence not only crossed generations but genres of music. The 'Stray Cats,' led by front man Brian Setzer, play 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown': http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-DNihpqkl8&feature=related


Author's Endnote

Duke is a U. S. Marine and Sailor who flew jets--Harriers, Corsairs, and Hornets. He's the finest 5-string Scruggs-Style picker I've ever heard--and that includes the style's inventor. And, he happens to be my brother.

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