photo by Dan Schram
The Earl Scruggs Family Band
I never got to see bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs
perform before he passed away almost two years ago. There's no one person or thing to blame—it was mostly just bad luck—but it's still something that, from time to time, needles me deep down. The sensation of regret was acute when I attended the grand opening of the Earl Scruggs Center
in Shelby last weekend.
The Center honoring the banjo pioneer was in the works for a few years before he died, so the grand opening without the focal point himself was bittersweet. Scruggs was many things to many people: father, pal, musical mentor. It seemed like everyone who attended—family, friends, musicians, scholars and admirers alike—had some deeply personal connection to Scruggs.
The Center is a fantastic monument to Scruggs. Though it isn't very big—you could probably read every letter on every board and be out in under two hours—it's clear that everything was thoughtfully researched. The Center could have simply documented Scruggs’ legacy, but instead, the exhibits give a broader context. Visitors can learn about the history of the banjo, the importance of radio to the music industry, the mills where Scruggs worked as a young man and his activities outside of bluegrass, including his sometimes-controversial forays into nontraditional styles of music.
One triumph of the Center is its integration of multimedia technology. A row of video screens demonstrates the precise differences between clawhammer, two-finger and three-finger (Scruggs’ specialty) picking styles. Through earbuds, visitors listen to audio integrated with the exhibits. Perhaps the most impressive technological feature is a large tabletop touchscreen where visitors can “play” different instruments by tapping the surface, joining other visitors in a “pickin’ party.”
As it happened, Governor Pat McCrory was taking a look around the Center, having spoken briefly at the dedication ceremony earlier. He seemed most interested in the tabletop pickin’ party, with his aides rounding out his “band.” Shortly before leaving, he took a couple questions from the gathered reporters, and I asked him for his opinion on the importance of public funding for the arts.
“Arts accomplishes two goals, and that’s recognizing our past and creating new jobs for the future,” he replied. He didn’t offer clarification when asked how that could happen. He was quickly shuffled away by his aides.
An evening concert in Shelby High School’s auditorium, titled “Remembering Earl: Music & Stories,” complemented the daytime festivities. Eddie Stubbs, a broadcaster on Nashville radio station WSM and a friend of Scruggs, emceed. Country music stars Travis Tritt and Vince Gill joined Scruggs’ sons, bassist Gary and guitarist Randy. “Newgrass” star Sam Bush played mandolin and a bit of fiddle, while Rob Ickes took on dobro duties and John Gardner played drums. The Scruggs family chose North Carolina banjoist Jim Mills to fill Scruggs’ enormous shoes, and he rose to the occasion beautifully.
Each of the musicians had, at some point, participated in the pickin’ parties held at Scruggs’ Nashville home. Indeed, the whole atmosphere of the show suggested one of those parties. The musicians’ chairs sat on rugs that looked like they could belong in any old house. Lamps rested on a couple of end tables. There were even a few small potted trees onstage, making the high school digs feel like a really big living room.
Though the concert was meant to honor Earl Scruggs, his wife, Louise, was actually the subject of several of the musicians’ stories. She was an important country music figure in her own right. A pioneering manager and booking agent, she's known as the woman who made bluegrass commercially viable. Tritt and Gill both recalled instances where, at a pickin’ party, “Miss Louise” looked over the top of her glasses, down her nose, and firmly requested that they play “her song.” Tritt’s nod to Louise Scruggs was a saccharine rendition of Johnny Cash's “I Walk The Line,” which ran as slow as molasses rather than barreling like a freight train. The band also played some of Earl Scruggs’ own songs and his old favorites, including “Foggy Mountain Chimes,” even getting a little goofy with “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.”
The musicians’ sincerity was evident even from the back of the auditorium. There were a few tears shed and laughs shared; jokes and stories were passed around with the same bittersweet fondness that prevailed over the opening festivities. The concert ended with three crucial tunes from the Scruggs catalog: “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” closed out the set, and encore “Lonesome Reuben” is known as the song where the 10-year-old Scruggs developed the picking style that would one day launch his ongoing legacy. It’s impossible to say where his contributions to music end, but the Scruggs Center—and this launch—manage to get in a little bit of everything about him. You couldn't really ask for more than that.
Watch more videos:
Jim Mills & The Scruggs Family Band - "Foggy Mountain Chimes"
Randy Scruggs & The Scruggs Family Band - "Both Sides Now"
Travis Tritt & The Scruggs Family Band - "Worried Man Blues"