I will probably remember where I was when I heard of Earl Scruggs’ death as much as where I was on 9/11 or the shuttle Challenger disaster.
I was in the kitchen lifting the cutting board out of the drainer. My partner, Janet Beazley, was on her computer and I heard her say, “Ohh. . . .” I knew from the way she said it that something was wrong. I could sense the air going out of her. Then she told me.
It came as a shock for most of us. And it probably surprised a lot of us just how much the ground moved when we heard it, how much a part of our lives he was. It’s hard to imagine a world without Earl. And it’s hard to imagine what our lives would have been like if there had been no Earl Scruggs.
There are, and will be, better eulogies than mine. I never knew him, never met him except to shake his hand after standing in a long line in Louisville years ago, one among hundreds. It was worth it for me, but I wondered at how anyone could withstand that much idolizing.
He certainly never craved or even wanted the attention—certainly never needed it. Beyond the musicality, beyond the picking, there was a quietness about Earl that attracted us. When he rested his head on his guitar and closed his eyes while playing Jimmie Brown the Newsboy, you felt like you were watching the face of a saint—the still center of all that music swirling around him.
Of course, he was not a saint, and now his family and close friends will mourn him as a man, a father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. We, the fans, are not part of that, nor should we be. But still a lot of us just need to say:
I can only think of one other musician who had as big an influence on 20th century American instrumental music and that is Louis Armstrong. Like Armstrong, Earl came from humble beginnings and created a style that was so widely imitated that it seemed not to come from one person but to bubble up from the ground . . . well, like black gold, Texas tea.
We are lucky that the 20th century was the Golden Age of recording and we can still listen to him throughout his long career with Monroe, Lester Flatt, and the Revue. But it also reminds us that no one will ever sound like Earl.
He was unique, innovative, always pushing the boundaries of what the banjo could do and how it was seen. He was a traditionalist in the sense that his playing set the tradition, but he felt uncomfortable with ever letting that tradition petrify.
In the argument about what is bluegrass, he was the great unifier. The one man and one sound that both sides of the debate could rally around. He was the tall pole holding up the big tent.
But he did that without making a clamour, without taking positions, without losing sight of the fact that the music itself speaks loudest and best.
And he never seemed to be too far from that small boy in Flint Hill who smoothed out Reuben’s Train with a three-finger roll and who listened to his mother when she told him she wanted to hear the melody.
Earl’s mother was born Georgia Lula Ruppe in 1892 in North Carolina, and sometime later married George Elam Scruggs, a farmer and bookkeeper. She had six children—3 boys and 3 girls—and adopted one other girl. Earl Eugene Scruggs was the last of the children born to her, on January 6, 1924. Her husband died when Earl was four. She passed away in 1955.
We talk about Earl’s influence on our lives and our playing, but he often said it was her influence that was greatest to him and it comes down to that simple yet complex statement, “I want to hear the melody.”
So, I may remember where I was when I heard of Earl’s passing, but I will remember more the sound of his banjo and the serenity of his presence. And I’ll think about a small boy picking out Reuben’s Train and listening to his mother.
P.S. Earl’s obituary in the New York Times ends by saying that his survivors include five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Five.