This remembrance of Earl Scruggs comes from Kristin Scott Benson, banjo player with The Grascals, and a multiple winner of the IBMA Banjo Player of the Year award.
Like everyone else that loves bluegrass music and the banjo, I was saddened to hear the news of Earl Scruggs’ passing. Terry Smith, bass player with The Grascals, called me at my parents’ house in South Carolina to give me the news. Though I didn’t know him well, I immediately felt a void because his life has had so much impact on mine. In fact, anyone that plays traditional 3-finger, bluegrass banjo (which is almost every banjo player in the world) owes their craft to Earl Scruggs. Even the players that unfortunately haven’t listened to him first-hand, should understand that their primary influence is still Earl Scruggs.
Bluegrass banjo playing is odd. The goal, in many ways, is to replicate the past. For many listeners and players alike, your worth as a bluegrass banjo player is gauged by how closely you can emulate what Earl did back in the late 1940s, 50s, and 60s. I’m not aware of any other instrument, in any other genre of music, that places such a strong emphasis on recreating the past. Perhaps it is because Earl set the standard so high, that it is quite simply impossible to reach or surpass. This is what sets the rest of us on a lifelong pursuit with the beloved instrument that Earl Scruggs introduced to the masses.
The banjo is amazing, capable of doing whatever the player can imagine. Earl understood this, as well as anyone. While there is debate over whether he was the very first person to use the 3-finger style, he is certainly the man that brought it to the forefront, in his intricately, refined way. Listen to players like Béla Fleck or Noam Pikelny, and you will get a glimpse of what the banjo can do, in any arena.
I am sure that Earl celebrated the banjo’s journey into every musical environment because he, too, was an innovator that loved the instrument itself, not just its role within a bluegrass band. The banjo is bigger than that. Within the bluegrass world, however, the truth is that banjo playing hasn’t changed that much. It has evolved, for sure, but many people regard that evolution as “watered-down” Scruggs style.
I celebrate all things banjo, but the older I get, the more I understand their sentiment. You learn these cool, new things and you are enthralled with awesome players of recent years, yet when you go back and listen to Earl, the purity and perfection of his playing still stands taller than the rest, all these years later. I would encourage players that haven’t spent time with his music to go back and do the work to understand why his mark is so indelible.
Music is art; art is subjective, and creativity is the lifeblood of it all, but there are “right” and “wrong” ways to play bluegrass banjo. You just can’t get around it, even if you disagree or wish it wasn’t that way. And the “right” way, most would agree, is Earl’s way. Eventually, we all figure out we will never be able to sound like him, so we create and settle for our own niche, but Earl is the foundation that supports us all.
Finally, I am very thankful for a couple of personal moments with Earl Scruggs. The first was having my grandfather, who was a professional musician and friend of Earl’s, introduce me to him, at a show at Gardner Webb University in NC. I was very young and had never considered playing the banjo yet, but I clearly remember it. I realized it was a special opportunity, even then.
I treasure the second encounter, even more. Sonny Osborne used to host parties at his house. He would have a bass and guitar player, and the rest of the musicians all played the banjo! The special guest was usually Earl Scruggs and Sonny was kind enough to invite me to one of the gatherings. For once in my life, I was bold! I took the seat next to Earl, on Sonny’s living room sofa, realizing it was literally the chance of a lifetime. For hours, I mustered up the courage to play alongside the greatest banjo player that ever lived. I will forever be indebted to Sonny Osborne for that experience and I will forever be indebted to Earl Scruggs for creating what we all enjoy as Bluegrass Banjo Playing. It has defined my life.