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.
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.