Earl Scruggs celebrated at The Ryman for his 100th birthday

The Earls of Leicester at The Ryman Auditorium (1/6/24) – photo © Bryce LaFoon

Earl Scruggs, surely the most influential and imitated banjo picker to date, was celebrated and remembered at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Saturday night on what would have been his 100th birthday. Jerry Douglas served as the musical director for a cast of some of the best and brightest in today’s bluegrass community. The three and one-half hour event included ten banjoists (three ladies and seven men).

The evening began with comments from the Scruggs family. First, JT Scruggs, one of Earl’s nephews, welcomed attendees.

“You are in for a special treat tonight. Randy’s daughter (Lindsey), Gary’s sons (Jesse and Jaime), and Earl’s grandchildren are here.”

He then reminded attendees that the event was a fundraiser for the Earl Scruggs Center, located near Scruggs’ birthplace in Shelby, NC. 

Douglas also expressed his gratitude to the filled auditorium.

“Thanks for showing up Nashville and North Carolina. I think the whole state is here!”

Then he paid homage to the master of the five string.

“None one of these musicians on this stage would be here if it wasn’t for Earl Scruggs!

When my manager booked it, I went weak in the knees and here I was. This was our chance to take back January 6 and remind the world that this is Earl Scruggs’ birthday.”

Next, another family member, Randy’s daughter and Earl’s granddaughter, Lindsey Scruggs, explained that her grandparents met 77 years ago in the alley behind the mother church. She not only praised her grandfather, but also the groundbreaking role her grandmother, Louise Scruggs, played in music business.

“In 1955, she took on the role of booking agent, the first woman to fill these shoes.”

Lindsey shared about Earl’s involvement with the music for the movie, Bonnie and Clyde.

“Warren Beatty called and wanted to talk to Earl. (Louise said), ‘Well, you can talk to him, but you’ll have to deal with me.'”

The evening of banjo music launched with Abigail Washburn, who clawhammered and sang a medley that included Nobody’s Fault, But Mine and Little Birdie.

Tommy Goldsmith, author of Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown: The Making of An American Classic, served as narrator/commentator for the festivities.

“In 1935, Earl came up with the three-finger style,” he began. The audience promptly erupted in applause.

Goldsmith continued, “He was a family man: a husband to Louise and a loving dad to his three sons: Gary, Randy, and Steve.”

Two North Carolina musicians, Jim Mills and Bryan Sutton, took the stage to play a rousing version on Scruggs’ iconic D tune, Reuben. They were then joined by Del McCoury, Sam Bush, and Stuart Duncan to perform Will You Be Loving Another Man

Goldsmith shared a little history.

“At 21, Earl auditioned with Bill Monroe. On December 8, 1945, he joined Bill Monroe with Lester Flatt.”

“Earl Scruggs got me when I was 11 years old,” Del noted, and praised Earl’s impact on the Bluegrass Boys.

Throughout the evening other banjoists took turns paying tributes to Earl: Rob McCoury, Gena Britt, Tony Trischka, Béla Fleck, Pete Wernick, Justin Moses, Charlie Cushman, and Alison Brown, who sported a classic Flatt & Scruggs bowtie from the headstock of her banjo.

There was a succession of banjo/fiddle duos featuring various pairings of the musicians, all seeming to truly love being involved in the mission of sharing Scruggs’ musical magic. Other performers included Ronnie McCoury, Jason Carter, Alan Bartram, Shawn Camp, Jeff White, Sierra Hull, Michael Cleveland, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, Todd Phillips, Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Jerry Pentecost, and Harry Stinson.

Following intermission, the Earls of Leicester took the stage, performing iconic Flatt & Scruggs tunes. Johnny Warren sawed the fiddle and sang quartet numbers as black and white photos of the Foggy Mountain Boys loomed behind them, showing his father, the late Paul Warren on fiddle.

As the evening progressed, musical styles ranged from traditional tunes such as Roll on Buddy to progressive with Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart’s Boulder Dash, and tributes to the Earl Scruggs Revue.

Things began to wrap up.

Jerry announced, “We have a cake! I’m told it will feed about 80.”

Then to close the evening, Charlie Cushman kicked off Foggy Mountain Breakdown and the entire cast joined in. Following a standing ovation, the stage of celebrities encored with a jam on The Ballad of Jed Clampett.

Reflecting on the show today, Jerry Douglas shared…

“Last Saturday night we celebrated Earl Scruggs 100th birthday. It was a magical night, and for me, brought to the surface how much love and respect there was and still is, for the creator of the modern five string banjo. So many versions of Earl were on stage that night and I hope it pleased Earl, who was watching us from a lofty position we all hope for. His fans brought the house down many times that night as we, his musical family, celebrated his legacy.”

Several other performers weighed in.

Gena Britt expressed…

“Saturday night was a surreal moment in time for me. There are so many aspects of the night that make me so emotional. The mere fact that Jerry Douglas included me in this event was beyond my wildest dreams. Then, the collaborations were just incredible. Performing with and alongside my heroes is something I will never forget.

Everyone had so much fun. The smiles and encouragement backstage were endless. It was really heartwarming to see.

It was an honor to play in the mother church celebrating Earl Scruggs on what would have been his 100th birthday. The camaraderie and friendships cultivated through this experience are life-changing for me, and I’m forever grateful for the opportunity.”

Justin Moses said…

“It was one of those nights I’ll always remember and look back on fondly. So many great friends and such great music! I truly enjoyed just getting to be there, let alone be a part of it.”

Charlie Cushman summed it up in one sentence.

“The Genius of Earl Scruggs lives on!”

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.