From Instant to Constant Star

Blue Grass Boy original Earl Scruggs returns to the studio with a few friends

This appeared in The Oxford American - July/August 2001

When a twenty-one-year-old Earl Scruggs from North Carolina walked into Bill Monroe's dressing room at the Grand Ole Opry on the evening of December 1, 1945 and lifted his banjo out of the case, he took care of several matters at once: With his innovative three-finger style, he defined the sound that had been lacking in Monroe's Blue Grass Boys ensemble; he immediately elevated the status of the banjo from a minstrel instrument or comedic prop to a place of prominence in American popular music; he got the job he'd come for; and he became an instant star and an instant threat. The Blue Grass Boys' newly hired guitarist, Lester Flatt, told Monroe before he heard Scruggs play. "As far as I'm concerned, he can leave it in the case." But after he'd heard him, he said to Monroe, "If there's any way you can afford him, you'd better hire him." Veteran Opry humorist and banjo kingpin Uncle Dave Macon, after witnessing Scrugg's performance, was quoted as saying, "He might be pretty good in a band, but I'll bet he's not a damn bit funny."

That audition marked the downbeat of a distinguished career that is now entering its sixth decade. Scruggs, along with Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise, and bassist Howard Watts, remained with Monroe long enough to establish the blueprint for what we now know as bluegrass music. Flatt and Scruggs left the Blue Grass Boys in 1948 to form their own band, the Foggy Mountain Boys and, in the two decades of their partnership, they left a trail of timeless music from one-room country schoolhouses to Carnegie Hall. After their partnership dissolved in 1969, Scruggs formed the Earl Scruggs Review with his three sons and became a popular college campus attraction.

And now, after a quiet decade-and-a-half, Scruggs is back working select concerts. He has also signed a new recording contract with MCA, and the result is a new album to be released in August titled Earl Scruggs and Friends. Some of the guests paying tribute to Scruggs include Elton John, Dwight Yoakam, Don Henley, Travis Tritt, Melissa Etheridge, Sting, and Billy Bob Thornton. But Earl Scruggs's true legacy can be heard anytime you hear the sound of a banjo. Sooner or later, every banjo player has to admit that it's truly Earl's world.....and the rest of us are just pickin' it in.

By Marty Stuart

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