Ron Stewart and Earl Scruggs

This remembrance of Earl Scruggs comes from Ron Stewart, fiddler and banjo player with The Boxcars, who is widely-regarded as one of today’s leading practitioners of  Scruggs-style banjo.

My son McKinley and I had just return from getting some food, when my wife, Sherri, took a call from her father with the news of Earl’s passing. It saddened me greatly to learn this, most especially for Earl’s family and many dear friends. I want to extend my sincere condolences to all of them.

I remember first hearing Earl play the banjo on an LP when I was 3 years old, and the way he played behind the fiddle and Lester’s vocal made me want to learn to do it too. The LP was Live At Carnegie Hall. The next recording I remember was on a 45 rpm, one side was My Cabin In Caroline and the other side was Farewell Blues. I still have both of those, and MANY more that my parents bought back when, and they all are really worn out!

The space between his notes, the TONE, the MELODY, and backing up ANYTHING, hasn’t, and never will be matched. While he may not have been the first three finger picker, he damn well perfected it, and made it a world wide phenomenon that will last until the last note of bluegrass, three finger, Scrugg-style banjo is ever played.

My story isn’t different, more special, or more unique than any of the thousands of banjo pickers who when they first heard Earl play; they HAD to try to pick the banjo like him. Think back to The Blue Grass Boys before Earl Scruggs, things were taking shape, but when Earl came on board, it changed bluegrass music forever!

I know there will be hundreds of stories told, and mine is just one, but I will share my first meeting with Earl. It was in 1993, and I had worked with Curly Seckler and the Nashville Grass, which included Larry Perkins on banjo. On a trip to Nashville, I had stopped by Larry’s house, and he said “Come go with me, I have to see a friend of mine.”

So, I hopped in Larry’s station wagon and we proceeded to drive, all the while I was talking and not paying much attention. He had told me to bring my fiddle, as he was afraid for me to leave it at his house. Never thought much about it at the time. Well, lo and behold, we were actually going to a very small jam at Earl’s house.

Here’s the reason this is significant, and it isn’t to brag! Larry knew how much I loved Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, I LIVED, ATE, BREATHED and SLEPT their music. He knew I had gotten to pick with Lester, and of course Curly Seckler and Josh Graves. But I had never gotten to pick with Earl, and Larry knew how badly I wanted to. So we ended up at Earl’s house, and a dream came true that night. Words cannot say what that meant to me.

Earl and Louise couldn’t have been nicer to me, and Earl was wearing the banjo out, as he always did! Being a fiddle player as well, it was like something out of a dream to have him backing me up on fiddle, as I had heard him do, and I, myself, had dreamed of all of those years! A lot of folks ask why I play fiddle and banjo, as it is a somewhat odd combination. Well, Earl has so much to do with that. I loved fiddle and banjo together, and no one, and I mean no one, has ever backed a fiddle like Earl Scruggs!

One of the last times I saw him was in a dressing room while we were warming up, and one of the guys wanted to do Down The Road. Again, I felt like a fool trying to play that with Earl there. When we were done, he and I were talking, and I told him he sure made it hard on a guy, trying to play banjo on that tune in front of him. His response was, “You were tearing it up!” That, my friends, is how that man was, always complimentary of others, and always gracious and kind, even though he didn’t have to be. There is a lesson to be learned there for sure, and I respect Earl more than words can say for being the gentleman he was, and the respect and time he took for others.

I will miss him dearly, as will his family and all of the music world. I can’t even put into words the effect his playing has had on me, and will continue until I lay my instruments down. For that, Earl, I cannot thank you enough.

From his amazing lead guitar work, baritone singing, and that banjo playing we all hear and would give anything to be able to do just once on one tune, he was a Master Musician.

Rest in Peace friend.

  • Mark Byrum

    I never got physically closer to Earl than sitting at a festival watching him on stage in the late early 1970’s as a teenager. I was a budding mandolin player at the time, but when I heard him play Foggy Mountain Breakdown, that was it: I had to learn to play like Earl!
    I bought his book and went from there – oddly enough, I was not a big student of Earl’s playing once I learned FMB – but rather leaned towards studying Don Reno, Sonny Osborne, Eddie Adcock, Bill Emerson, Allen Mills and the like – all great players. I began to play some things I thought were innovative and make up some “hot licks.” Then I listened to the Foggy Mountain Banjo album! All my so-called innovations were already there – Earl had done them, perfected them, and moved on! THEN I began to fully appreciate the man and what he did for the 5-string banjo. THEN I became his student – albeit from afar.
    Thanks for your remembrances, Ron. We’ll keep on attempting to play like Earl! Keep at it Ron!