Irene, Bryan, Anna Catherine, and Leonard Causby with Earl Scruggs, circa 1984
Banjoist Roger Hester, 81, of Sanford, NC, is a walking, breathing encyclopedia of bluegrass history. Recently, he shared a bit of his musical heritage that included the famous banjo icon, Earl Scruggs.
Scruggs was born in 1924 in the small Flint Hill community of Cleveland County, NC, near Shelby. According to Hester, Scruggs started picking the banjo around age four.
“Earl perfected the three-finger style at the age of 10. All of a sudden, he had all three fingers going. He discovered it by accident,” Hester recalled. “He picked with my wife, Janice’s, father, Leonard, and his brother, Brian Causby, in a band called the Causby Brothers. They were ahead of their time, developing the bluegrass sound. They played together until 1942 when they (the Causbys) went into the service.”
“Bill Monroe needed a banjoist. He tried to hire Don Reno then, but he was drafted. Jim Shumate, who was from western North Carolina, was playing (fiddle) with Monroe, and knew Earl. He knew he was different and told Monroe about him. Monroe said, ‘I’d like to hear that boy from North Carolina.'”
Shumate contacted the then 21-year-old Scruggs about auditioning with Monroe.
Hester recalled, “Earl was interested. Music was his passion. He was working in Lily Cotton Mill in Shelby. My in-laws, Leonard and Anna Catherine Causby, drove Earl to Nashville and put him up in a motel. The next day they took him and he played for Bill Monroe. Monroe hired him right there on the spot.”
Hester stressed the significance of that occasion and the influence of Scruggs’ style of banjo-picking.
“That changed the sound of bluegrass forever.”
Earl performed with Monroe until the band’s guitarist, Lester Flatt, and he left in 1948 and formed their famous duo, Flatt & Scruggs.
Hester said Scruggs would occasionally return to Cleveland County. “Earl would come down to visit and pick with his brothers, Junie and Horace. In 1982, Janice’s daddy, Leonard, called and said Earl’s coming to visit. He wanted some musicians to jam.”
Roger Hester took part of his band, the High Country Men (who have been performing for over 50 years and still continue to play), to pick with Scruggs.
“Earl sat on the couch. He had hurt his back. Louise was there,” Hester recalled.
“Earl was as common (friendly) as I am, and never outgrew it. The fame never went to his head. He was that way ’til he died.”
Hester praised his father-in-law. “Leonard spawned a lot of bands. I don’t think he ever realized his impact. Some went on to form their own bands. He taught me guitar lessons. I would have never played music if it hadn’t been for Leonard Causby, and Earl might never have played with Monroe.”