Earl Scruggs died Wednesday at the age of 88. I interviewed the legendary musician back in 2003. When I heard about his death, the first thing I thought about was our conversation of nine years ago and what a charming, gracious and witty man he was. He was a true innovator on his instrument and is a towering influence on anyone who has picked up the instrument. Here’s the short piece I wrote in advance of his show at the Tabernacle on March 21, 2003.
Everybody knows the tune: “Come and listen to my story ’bout a man named Jed. . . . ” What some might not know is that Earl Scruggs, the man playing the banjo on the 1962 tune, had pioneered that three-finger picking style nearly 20 years earlier — and that he’d go on to expand the boundaries of bluegrass as the 1960s turned into the 1970s.
Scruggs, born near Shelby, N.C., in 1924, debuted at the Grand Ole Opry in 1945 as one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Nearly 60 years later, he’s still recording and performing, including a rare Atlanta stop at the Tabernacle tonight. Along the way, he’s racked up three Grammy Awards, a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame and, just last month, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
After his groundbreaking stint with Monroe, he and fellow Blue Grass Boy Lester Flatt left the band and formed Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. The pair would go on to record the theme song for the popular ’60s television comedy “The Beverly Hillbillies” (aka “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”), as well as making appearances on several episodes of the show.
The duo split as the ’60s came to a close — Flatt going a more traditional route, Scruggs wanting to expand into new territory. The banjo maestro and his sons Gary, Randy and Steve formed the Earl Scruggs Revue, a group that helped launch the New Grass movement in the ’70s by introducing drums and other rock elements into what had previously been a firmly traditional form.
After a 17-year break from recording, Scruggs returned to the studio in the first months of 2000 to lay down tracks for the album “Earl Scruggs and Friends.” The friends of the title are high-profile: Elton John, Melissa Etheridge, Sting, Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Don Henley and comedian and fellow banjo picker Steve Martin among them.
The first track recorded for the album was John’s “Country Comfort, ” which was done in Norcross. After that, the album took Scruggs all over the country. “We had to do quite a bit of traveling, but I enjoyed that, ” he says. “It gave me a chance to see other parts of the country.”
That’s something he doesn’t do as often as he used to. But then again, at 79 most folks are kicking back in retirement. “I don’t like that word, ” Scruggs insists when the R-word comes up. “I’ve cut back. I used to go 52 weeks a year, but now I’m just playing special places like Atlanta. I like it that way. I don’t stay on the road long enough to burn myself out, so it’s exciting when I do it now.”
When he takes the stage at the Tabernacle, he’ll be bringing along a band of talented musicians, including young Dobro sensation Jennifer Kennedy and leading session guitarist Bryan Sutton, a fellow North Carolina native who has recorded with Dolly Parton and the Dixie Chicks. “You’re not much better than your sorriest musician, ” Scruggs says. “You’ll do better work if you’ve got good musicians. They’ll make you do things you didn’t know you could do.”
Country hit maker and stellar picker Marty Stuart, who got his start playing with Flatt’s band after the break with Scruggs, offered the perfect summation of Scruggs’ contribution in an article he wrote for the Oxford American in 2001: “Earl Scruggs’ 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’ in it.”