Earl Scruggs at the Monroe Centennial

Pete Wernick, the estimable¬†Dr. Banjo, has sent along a three-part report compiled during his attendance at last week’s Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration in Owensboro, KY. They were adapted from comments he posted to the internal IBMA email discussion list. This third part are Pete’s reflections upon seeing Earl Scruggs perform.

What follows is reported here with some reluctance, and a measure of grief.

The eagerly-awaited performance of Earl Scruggs, Family and Friends, went off as scheduled at the Riverpark Center in Owensboro, the night of Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday. The band, including Randy and Gary Scruggs, Rob Ickes, Hoot Hester, Jon Randall, and John Gardner couldn’t have been more elite and expert.

The great Earl Scruggs sat in a chair, center stage in front of the band, his full head of white hair resplendent in contrast to his lighter-than-usual blue suit. The signature sound of his banjo was unmistakeable. His musical instincts were clearly there, even more amazing in view of his 87 years. When the audience (cued by Gary Scruggs) let out a big “Happy Birthday Earl!” acknowledging his birthday last January, Earl’s voice was surprising high and lively as he said “Thank you very much!”

On In the Pines and other songs, Earl was part of the harmony. His break on In the Pines got some nice applause for its musicality and agility.

But dear friends, the sad news is that despite these highlights, the hands of the man who gave us so much just couldn’t deliver the smooth rolls that we’ve always associated with him. On some of the slower songs there was a flow, but the demands of Earl’s Breakdown, Foggy Mountain Rock, and even the eternal classic Foggy Mountain Breakdown were too much. In contrast to just a few short years ago, the flow and clarity just wasn’t there. As many as half the notes, or more, were missed.

My first experience seeing Earl live was a month before my 15th birthday. It changed my life, that’s no overstatement. Now I’m 65, and his music has enriched me as I can’t describe. It will always enrich me, as long as I live.

There’s no way to know if this might have been Earl’s last performance, but if it is, it would not strike me as too soon. Maybe he was having a bad day. Both before and after the show on his bus, he was pleasant though less interested than usual in conversation.

As mentioned, this is news I’m reluctant to share, as it saddens me and I’m sure will sadden many of you who read it. But I know for certain that regardless of what I do, the word will travel about what folks saw and heard last Tuesday, and in reporting this great centennial event, this striking situation can’t and shouldn’t be omitted from any report. I share it with you with deep respect, and sympathy for my musical idol and his family.

I hope Earl has many more happy and musical years. He’s done so much for all of us.

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About the Author

Pete Wernick

Pete Wernick, aka Dr. Banjo, is a noted performer, instructor, songwriter and author of instructional materials. He is a past President of the IBMA who remains very active in the organization.

  • Reid Toth

    I have seen Earl perform a few times and feel that I am a better person for it. I don’t think anyone attending his recent performances woud expect an 87 year old to be tearing it up like he did back in 1948. As long as it still makes him happy to perform, I’m happy to be in the audience to listen. Earl on his worst day is still a far better picker than I’ll ever be on my best. I respect him for that and am grateful for all that he has given to bluegrass music. If I get the chance to watch him perform live again, I will focus on what he has done over the long term and ignore what inevitable imperfections the aging process has brought. Thank you Earl!

  • Jim Robarts

    Pete Wernick is only reporting about Earl Scruggs what many have observed for some time. That he did it with restraint, admiration, and real affection, is to be commended. Live music and live performance can be a cruel mistress, pitting a performer against recordings of himself. In this case the superb performances go back, in some instances, over 60 years. I think it is always somewhat saddening to see many performers at the end of their careers. I remember with poignancy seeing Monroe in his last years. The first time I saw Ralph Stanley after he had given up playing bluegrass banjo due to problems with his hands was also sad. We should always remember what these performers could do and how seminal they all were to bluegrass. However live music is always in the present moment. It’s not what you did for me in the past—it’s what you can do for me today.

  • Andy Muenich

    I believe that musician bashing is reprehensible, especially re Earl!

  • Dennis Jones

    Mr. Scruggs is the last of those five men who stood in that studio in 1946 and created the reason we are here, to paraphrase Sammy Shelor. I’ve seen him and interviewed him many times through the years. The past 5 or 6, everytime I’ve seen him on stage all I see and hear is the young, gap toothed smiling NC boy having the time of his life playing his banjo his way. Our families grew up together in the same community, workerd in cotton/corn fields together and my Grandfather later was a Watchman at The Duke Power Steam Station in Cliffside NC and worked with Junie there for many years. I still remember the “Homecoming” shows at The #1 Township School House as a 6/7 year old kid, appearences at The Ryman with F&S&TFMB. The Review shows as a teen still some great memories. If Mr. Scruggs did nothing other than sit on stage now and smile, I’d be happy. He’s the last;he’s the first. God Bless Earl Scruggs.

  • mj hutnik

    What is the value in writing such a review? The man has nothing to prove to anyone. At 87, I think there are volumes most people can write about a legend still performing instead of “as many as half the notes,or more were missed” Let’s see what ole Dr Banjo picks like at 87!

  • Randy Escobedo

    I have been a fan of Earl Scruggs since a boy. It was he and his Revue who inspired me to pick the banjo. I am glad Earl is still willing to get out there to play for fans. Yes he is getting older, but so am I. Everytime I see him play I learn and hear something new. He is a inspiration to countless musicians, banjo players and non banjo players. To me negativie comments are 5 string blasphemy. God Bless him. He is a friend and will always be my biggest inspiration. Thank you Earl!

  • Stewart Evans

    I agree with Andy Muenich about musician bashing. Fortunately, Pete Wernick did no such thing! I can only assume anyone who thinks Wernick would “bash” Scruggs hasn’t even bothered to read his previous post about giving Earl his due.

  • Josh

    I would say that the estimable Pete Wernick’s comments are better described as a lament than a critique. I had the blessing in 2010 of finally attending a Doc Watson performance at ROMP. While I would never trade the experience, it was with a sense of awe and melancholy to see what mortality had wrought on this legendary figure, especially in light of the numerous live and studio recordings I have of Doc that embalm a time earlier when time had not enfeebled his hands. I saw Harry Belafonte in his latter days. Gone was the clear calypso tones in his voice, replaced by an unmistakeable rasp. The great George Jones performed at Renfro Valley two weeks ago and my parents enjoyed the show, but tempered their comments with an understanding that his trademark voice is now only a preserved artifact on a CD recording.