The passing of Earl Scruggs has given me much pause for sadness at his loss and also cause for an ever greater reflection on his incredible musical legacy, a legacy which I am currently mining deeply. Let me explain. As a child the radio was often my best friend. As my good buddy Derek Miller sings “Music is the medicine for my soul,” and in Brooklyn, New York, where I spent my teen years, this was urban, rock, pop, R&B. But back home, at my grandparents’ place in Black Mountain, Kentucky, the musical medicine was bluegrass, country and gospel radio, and The Grand Ole Opry on TV. My heroes were Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, and Lester Flatts and of course, banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs — as a kid I watched these greats on TV, with my grandpa in his recliner puffing on Pall Malls and Grandma working on her star quilt. I can still remember having a Foggy Mountain Breakdown of my own over this music.
One pluck of a banjo string makes me feel happy. One simple pluck of a tightly wound piece of steel over that round body and I smile. It’s high pitched, cutting and loud — if it was a person, it’d be obnoxious — but at the very same time the banjo is gentle, beautiful and very, very soulful. Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass and the man who hired Earl Scruggs and brought him to prominence describes the bluegrass as “the high lonesome sound,” and anyone who’s spent time in the mountains and hollers of Appalachia, Black Mountain, Clinch and the Great Smokies knows that sound. The sound of a what we call a loud quiet, you can hear the wind whistle through the leaves of trees, birds chirping, the soft ringing of the creek water as it rushes along the rocks swooshing downstream, bats fluttering up high, lurking bobcats. Barking dogs as a car comes past anyone’s house in the back alley, quiet small talk among neighbors, the loud quiet tinkling of neighbors’ dishes being put away after supper. As I mature I seem to be drawn home ever more, and about a year ago I felt the calling and bought myself a Deering Goodtime banjo.
Yeah baby, I’m going to get my pickin’ together!
I’m enjoying playing it, though — much as I wanted to — I couldn’t master it in a week. I am very lucky though, to have met and recorded my new album with banjo virtuoso John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and I get to hear inspiration every time this man plays his instrument, showing his love for it like a first wife. On Friday night, at Live at Studio 201 in New York City, I joined McEuen and his sons Jonathan, Nathan and pal Jon Mark Fletcher; we had all learned of the death of this music hero only a couple days before. The spirit of Earl Scruggs was alive and well, and when we sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to close the show, we could feel Earl’s presence in the room.
John told us how it came to be that Earl played on the Dirt Band’s Circle album. John shared his stories and conversations he had with Mr. Scruggs over the 46 years he played with the Dirt Band. Fun, silly stuff like backstage banter, telling us that Earl got the giggles when he saw John step into his banjo strap and pulled it up on his shoulders from the floor to get into it. Earl told him “I like that when you do that ‘stepping in’ thing, that’s funny!” The McEuen clan flew out Saturday morning to Nashville to join and give comfort to the Scruggs family who are close friends, to play, sing and celebrate the life of Earl Scruggs at the Ryman Auditorium along with some of Nashville’s finest, and on Sunday they will lay to rest a man who was a kind, generous musician who was open to meeting and playing with anyone. He defined a style of banjo picking that has inspired generations of children and adults, and will continue to do so for generations to come.
Earl Scruggs is even more than this. His musical style is now and forever an imprint on American music. I never had the chance to meet him and my family couldn’t afford luxuries like going to concerts and festivals — we were simple coalmining folk. But in my childhood I watched him, and he was part of the rich world of music that was my reality, and became my life’s passion. For me, that TV screen was a stage, and I had the best seats in the house — front row center.
Martha Redbone (Choctaw/Shawnee/Cherokee) is a multi-award winning singer/songwriter. Her new album The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake will be released in June 2012. For more info please visit www.martharedboneroots.com.