Steve, Earl and the New Yorker

newyorkerSteve Martin continues to take the banjo and bluegrass music to places it would likely not otherwise be found.

On The New Yorker’s Culture Desk blog on Tuesday, Martin used his position in the arts community to pay homage to Earl Scruggs. His piece starts with a nice recap of Earl’s illustrious career, noting that he was just 21 years of age when he debuted with Monroe, followed by an analysis of Scruggs-style banjo that appreciates the sheer artistry involved.

The banjo lends itself to showing off: it’s often played fast and thrillingly, fingers flying up and down the neck, the right hand connecting to the left with seemingly impossible accuracy. But Earl always remembered his mother’s advice when he was a boy: “Play something that has a tune to it.” His first and last priority was to make music, which keeps his sound melodic and accessible. Yet, even professional players today say, “How did he do that?” It is not easy to make the melody note land in the right place when rolling three fingers over five strings, but Earl could syncopate, “bend” a string—which caused one note to move unbroken into another—and he could audibly retune the banjo in the middle of a song, leading to the invention of a mechanical device called “Scruggs’ pegs.” Earl knew when and how to surprise the heck out of the listener.

Steve’s article closes with a look at Scruggs today…

Earl is now eighty-eight, and it’s been seventy-eight years since he first shouted, “I’ve got it!” and reinvigorated the banjo. Picking with Earl at his home in Nashville is a holy anointment, and playing Earl’s banjo, the one he recorded “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on in 1949, well, that’s like holding the Grail. Sometimes on these special evenings, everyone will sit around playing their instruments, and the tunes will glide easily from one to another, like it has on the porches and living rooms of America for hundreds of years. But then Earl will settle in, playing backup or taking the lead, and you hear the sound, the one you heard when you first fell in love with the banjo, and you can’t help but have a slight intake of breath. Unmistakable. That’s Earl Scruggs. The five-string banjo could not have had a better genius.

Martin has enjoyed a reputation for his prose, as well as his comedy, music and drama writing. Read the full article at The New Yorker for a reminder of why that is.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.