Thanks for everything, Earl

The day we all knew was inevitable has come, but knowing it’s coming doesn’t make it any easier when it does. It doesn’t seem possible, but this man I only met for a few brief minutes probably had more impact on the direction my life took as an adult than any human being, other than my parents.

As a boy, I was in many ways like Earl Scruggs (or at least how he seemed to me); a little quiet and shy, and drawn to music at a young age. I loved to sing, and was selected in auditions to perform in my elementary school choir, followed by experimentations with a cornet (borrowed from a cousin when I wanted a saxophone), a chord organ, and a guitar. Like many of my generation, my greatest exposure to the banjo was the Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw television shows, and I was fascinated by the bright, rapid-fire sound.

I got my first banjo at the age of 13, for Christmas; a Harmony (plastic rim and resonator). In selling my parents the banjo, the music store promised a teacher, but I received instruction from a guitar player who didn’t even own a banjo, let alone know how to play one. We became friends years later and I thanked him for being such a bad teacher that even a beginner could recognize it and quit in search of the right path. However after months of struggling, I was nowhere closer to learning how to make the sounds I was hearing on television, until I found Earl’s book.

Suddenly, all of the mysteries of the magic Earl created were accessible (not easy, but possible). With the accompanying vinyl LP, I began spending hours each day, driving my family nearly crazy (the most common phrases I heard: “go to your room” and “close your door”). Over the next several years, I joined my first group, became respected and sought after in local music circles – which were predominately comprised of adults, giving me a certain level of confidence and maturity most sixteen year olds don’t possess.

Although I appreciated everything my family did for me, my family was not well-to-do, and the income I earned playing and teaching as a teenager made a college education and a better life financially possible. I joined the musicians union at sixteen and routinely earned more on a weekly basis performing on the weekend than I could have by working full-time for minimum wage (which was less than four dollars an hour in the late 1970’s, a painful fact I learned during a few months working at a discount store during a brief period between bands).

I met my wife of 30 years, Valerie, through mutual musician friends, while we were attending different high schools. I often joke on stage that I held auditions for a wife and she was the best guitar player-vocalist. I was finanically independent upon graduating high school and worked my way through college and law school, along with the help of Valerie, largely on the strength of teaching and performing our music. I am the only one of three children in my family to graduate from college, let alone going on to a professional degree, all made possible by the ability I gained from the instruction and inspiration I received from Earl.

I can’t imagine what my life would have been like had I not found Earl’s book and learned to play the banjo. It gave me joy, pride, confidence, the ability to earn a living, friends, my wife, a fulfilling pursuit that keeps my wife and I close during a time in life when some marriages drift apart, a way to bring joy to others and help out worthy causes in our community — need I go on?

One of the great moments in my life was the coincidence (I think it was no coincidence) of deciding to visit the Grand Ole Opry one night and being able to get backstage only to find out that Earl Scruggs was making a rare visit (he wasn’t listed on the bill and did not perform). While it was only a few minutes, I had the chance to talk to him and express how much his inspiration and assistance meant to me and what a difference it had made in my life.

While I am envious of those who had the privilege of knowing Earl well on a personal level, I don’t know how he could have had any bigger impact on any life. It is literally like he handed me the keys to a vehicle that transported me down a certain path in life. At the same time, I know my story is not unique and that there are probably thousands of others that have been similarly affected. What greater tribute could be offered to anyone than to say they made the world a better place and positively influenced such a large part of humanity in a way that will endure, possibly for the remainder of whatever time this world may exist.

As a closing thought, I’d like to think that maybe Flatt & Scruggs have finally reunited and that I’ll get to see them perform together in person someday.

Thanks for everything, Earl.

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About the Author

James Gabehart

Jim has been playing the banjo, and other string instruments for nearly 40 years. Since joining the musicians union and becoming a performing musician at the age of 15, he won five West Virginia State Banjo Championships, as well as dozens of other competitions, and has taught hundreds of students. Jim was elected as Prosecuting Attorney for Lincoln County, WV in November 2012, and is an active touring performer with his wife and musical partner, Valerie. Learn more about their music at