Thomas Goldsmith talks Foggy Mountain Breakdown and his new book

The classic banjo tune, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, has enchanted banjo players and bluegrass music audiences since it was first performed by its composer, the incomparable Earl Scruggs, about 70 years ago. 

The breakneck banjo tune that has become a song for the ages – aided in no small measure by its inclusion in a very well-known action film – is now the subject of a forthcoming book, Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown: The Making of an American Classic, by Thomas Goldsmith.  

When Bluegrass Today spoke to the author, Goldsmith, who professes to only being a closet banjo picker, he revealed some of the background to the book …….  

“I heard Foggy Mountain Breakdown for the first time in about 1965, when I started listening to Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and the Stanley Brothers in earnest. 

Along with the rest of America, I became captivated by its energy and drive in the context of the 1967 movie Bonnie & Clyde. 

The spark for writing this book came when Jim Mills told me that the 1949 recording of Foggy Mountain Breakdown kicked off his own interest in the banjo as a child, and that he still stops wherever he is to listen through when that track comes on, even through an eight-inch speaker in the ceiling of a late-night truck stop. 

Originally, I planned to write about Foggy Mountain Breakdown as one of about 14 great songs in bluegrass, tunes that had become so popular that fans and pickers may have lost sight of what strong numbers they are.

When I interviewed Earl Scruggs on the tune in 2007, he said such interesting things that I realized that there was a whole book in the story of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. 

With that interview as the true starting point of this book, it’s taken me more than 12 years to complete the project, while involved in many other professional and personal matters.

I had the assistance of Mills, Bela Fleck, Sonny Osborne, Steve Martin, and several other top-flight banjo players in discussing the achievement of Earl Scruggs. 

In addition to detailed discussions of Foggy Mountain Breakdown and the evolution of Earl’s style, I’ve included information on the early years of bluegrass, on Earl’s interaction with Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt, on how Flatt and Scruggs’s career continued to thrive during hard years for bluegrass, on their involvement with The Beverly Hillbillies and Bonnie & Clyde, on the cult of the Mastertone banjo, and on Earl’s career after the breakup.”

As well as interviews with Scruggs himself and others mentioned above, Goldsmith also spoke to Scruggs’ wife Louise, and sidemen like Curly Seckler, Mac Wiseman, and Jerry Douglas.

Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown: The Making of an American Classic is scheduled for publication by the University of Illinois Press, on September 30, 2019. 

In support of the book Goldsmith will be at various events in the coming weeks and months. Those known to date are …..

  • August 29, 6:30 p.m. North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh, North Carolina, with Piedmont Laureate David Menconi, Justin Robinson, Marshall Wyatt, Wayne Martin. Music by Violet Bell, Evelyn Shaw, and Gerry Overton. 
  • September 23, 7:00 p.m. Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh, North Carolina, with David Menconi (and others to be confirmed). 

About the book ..

Paperback: 184 pages
Publisher: University of Illinois Press (30 Sept. 2019)
ISBN-10: 0252084780
ISBN-13: 978-0252084782
Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 22.9 cm (6 x 9 inches)

Publication of this book has been supported in part by a grant from the Judith McCulloh Endowment for American Music. 

Thomas Goldsmith is a journalist who plays guitar and mandolin. For more than 30 years, he has worked both in daily newspapers in North Carolina and Tennessee; and as a freelance writer. He is the editor of The Bluegrass Reader and winner of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s print media award.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.