Rhonda Vincent contributed this touching tribute to Earl Scruggs.
The name Earl Scruggs is one I’ve known for as long as I can remember. As a little girl, he was just the man in the hat who played the banjo, with that guy who played guitar with the deep voice. And I saw them sometimes on a funny show called the Beverly Hillbillies.
At that time, I didn’t know he was also the man whom my father listened to so intently on the Grand Ole Opry, who inspired my father so much, that he ordered a brand new Gibson banjo from our local music store close to Greentop, Missouri. Soon after placing the order, my father was in a car wreck, which broke his neck, and left him paralyzed. Through many months in the hospital, he regained the feeling through most of his body, but his life would change forever, and he would have to find a new way to walk with a cane.
That banjo he ordered was sold to someone else, and learning to walk became my father’s focus. But soon after his recovery, he ordered another banjo, a 1965/66 Gibson Mastertone RB250 arch top. With banjo in hand, Dad played along with Earl Scruggs, as he listened to WSM Radio and the Grand Ole Opry.
With only his ears to guide him, my father, Johnny Vincent, taught himself to play the banjo, listening to Earl Scruggs; tuning his banjo to the key of “A” (unaware of a device called a capo), and adapting his fluent guitar skills to the banjo; creating a unique style that I learned to sing to. I was learning valuable information, as I lived through a very special time in bluegrass history.
As a child, listening to bluegrass music on vinyl albums, gazing at the hatted men on each cover, and studying the names of the musicians, my ears definitely deciphered distinct changes in the music as Flatt & Scruggs formed their own group.
This was the sweetest of innocence; just enjoying the music, be it Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Jim & Jesse, or The Osborne Brothers. The vinyl records were stacked high on the turntable, and I listened for hours at my home, with my family, just listening and playing bluegrass music. It was totally about the music.
And even though I didn’t realize why, I knew there were distinct differences in the newer music of Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe. Amazed that “who” was playing the banjo made such a difference in the overall sound. How could that one instrument guide the entire personality of a band? I was little. I didn’t know the answer, but my ears knew the difference, even as a tiny tot.
I realize now, that question was in my brain even as a little girl. I had no understanding of the real world circumstances, where the temperament of two bold innovators came together to create the greatest sounds bluegrass had ever known. And later departing to make a name for themselves, for whatever the reason. For me, it was just this wonderful music, with the banjo as the nucleus of that music – and those famous bluegrass musicians were the untouchables, stars of the Grand Ole Opry. We were The Vincent Family in Greentop, Missouri, living in a humble home full of music and love.
It wasn’t until my journey to Nashville, coupled by the kind and gentle spirit of John Hartford, that I felt magically transformed, and brought face to face into a new reality. I was no longer listening by the turntable, or through the static of the AM radio. John invited us to accompany him to the home of Earl and Louise Scruggs. Now I’d met the biggest stars in country and bluegrass music before. But that was backstage. A quick hello, a photo, and they were gone. I never ever thought beyond that moment.
And never in my wildest imagination, did I ever expect to be in the home of one of the most famous men in bluegrass music, who inspired my Dad to play the banjo, and who we had heard on the Grand Ole Opry. But here I was, standing in the most magnificent home I’d ever laid eyes on, with the longest white leather couch I’d ever seen.
Why I’d never seen a leather couch before. And white? My brothers would have destroyed that with their dirty shoes. Beautiful gold lamps and fixtures accented the room. Only in the Bible when heaven was described, had I envisioned such a sight in my mind. It was an evening I will never forget.
We had a nice visit, like normal people. Then Earl pulled out his banjo, and we were invited to join in. I must have shook my head in disbelief, thinking my ears were deceiving me. Earl Scruggs just asked us to jam in his living room? I must be dreaming!
This was my first correlation that perhaps someday I could be that person someone was listening to on the Grand Ole Opry. It was like a graduation of sorts, a new confidence. After all, I had now jammed with the greatest innovator of the banjo — Earl Scruggs.
In the years to come, I would even share the stage with Earl Scruggs on a number of occasions. And one time I noticed a familiar silhouette sitting in a car at a Nashville shopping mall. It was Earl sitting in his car, waiting for Louise to finish shopping. I was so excited, I ran up to his open window, not realizing how much I would startle him. And he jumped in fear when I popped my head in the car to say hello.
Earl may have inspired many to play the banjo, but he unknowingly taught me that people are just people. No matter what we do in life, no matter our status or income. It was this great man that I was given the privilege of seeing on stage, sitting in his car at the mall, or jamming in his golden living room. And by the simplest of gestures, you can make a difference in someone’s life; with a display of kindness and sharing what you have with others. And when you make that generosity part of who you are, it shines through in everything you do. This is what Earl Scruggs was to me.
I cherish the times we performed at the same venue. The most recent in 2009 with Steve Martin at the Ryman and in Lampe, MO, filming RFD’s Country Family Reunion in 2010. The last time I saw Earl was in February of 2011, when he graciously joined me for my first radio show on WSM, one of his last interviews.
Earl Scruggs – a dear, sweet human being who inspired most every man that ever picked up a banjo!
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