Earl Scruggs, Marty Stuart Concert Celebrates Historic Country Art

This appeared on Sonicnet.com's website - May 17, 2000

Master musician Earl Scruggs, together with country artist and historian Marty Stuart, will play a concert at the Ryman Auditorium here Wednesday (May 17) to benefit an art institute and to inaugurate an exhibit of historic country music paintings.

Scruggs is the renowned banjo player who was present at the birth of bluegrass music when he joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in 1945. He went on to become one half of the legendary country duo Flatt & Scruggs.

Nashville perennial Stuart, who recently earned a Grammy nomination with Scruggs in the Best Country Instrumental category for their collaboration on "Mr. John Henry, Steel Driving Man", is the man responsible for rediscovering, gathering and curating the exhibit going up in the Ryman Auditorium galleries for the next six months.

"Bob Dylan was really responsible for everything that's happened [with me and Earl]," said Stuart, who went on the road as a musician when he was 13 years old with Scruggs' longtime partner Lester Flatt, after the dissolution of Flatt & Scruggs in 1969.

"Bob was in town," Stuart said, "and he asked me if Lester and Earl ever spoke any more. And I had to say no. They had become estranged after they broke up. My hands were shaking, when I went to a pay phone to put in a call to Earl's house. I said, 'Lester is dying, can I talk to Earl?' "

Portraits Of A Legend

Before Flatt's death in 1979, Stuart said, there were two camps that led to the Flatt-Scruggs split: one coalescing around Flatt's insistence on traditional music, the other championing Scruggs' embrace of Dylan's material and other progressive music.

Scruggs' forward-thinking approach may have led indirectly to the current art exhibit. His wife, Louise, who booked and managed Flatt & Scruggs, saw an illustration by the artist Thomas B. Allen of the duo in Esquire magazine, and she decided that it should be an album cover.

"Louise was looking at jazz album covers, like Dave Brubeck's Time Out," Stuart said, "and she said, 'Why shouldn't country artists be using modern art as album covers, too?' She was right. The images really set [Flatt & Scruggs] apart, as the music did. They were the only country music artists using art as their album covers."

Flatt & Scruggs went on to use 17 Thomas Allen paintings of the group as album covers, and now they're being exhibited in the Ryman. Stuart ran across them in unusual ways.

"When I lived at Lester's house," he said, "Lester's side of the Carter Family album cover lived out there. I had to wade through the weeds to find Lester's side of the cover. Then, the first time I went over to Earl's house, my God, there was the Earl side of the Carter Family cover, and the Carnegie Hall album cover. For me, to see the Carnegie Hall album cover, was like a kid seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time."

MCA Nashville president Tony Brown told Stuart about a Madonna-related executive who was looking for any Hank Williams memorabilia. He had, by way of trade, a "country western" painting he had fished out of the garbage at Columbia Records in New York, when he worked there, of a country act, Flatt & Scruggs, that had now survived two California earthquakes." Stuart said he was on that in a flash.

Visualizing The Music

"The thing I love about them," said Stuart, "is that these paintings make you feel the music. You look at them, and you see and hear the music."

According to the artist, the Flatt & Scruggs paintings came about in an unusual fashion. "Robert Benton was the art director of Esquire magazine," Allen said. "And he asked me to go out as a journalist illustrator, like a photojournalist would at the time."

Benton, who would later direct "Bonnie and Clyde" and use Flatt & Scruggs' "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" prominently in that movie, wanted Allen to capture country music. "I at first was going to do honky-tonk music," Allen said, "but I was drawn to bluegrass. Louise Scruggs called me after she saw the first one."

Besides Scruggs and Stuart, the Ryman show features Joe and Jeanette Carter of the Carter Family clan, LeRoy Troy, Hillary Allen and The Minister Evelyn Hubbard of the Commerce Baptist Church in Robinsonville, Mississippi. The concert benefits the Watkins Institute of Art.

By Chet Flippo

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